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Stalemate in Western Sahara negotiations

Standoff as both Morocco and Polisario claim resource-rich desert territory.

The camps have slowly transformed themselves into semi-functioning communities, autonomous and sustained by low-level economic activity and remittances from abroad, he said. Meanwhile, Morocco has become increasingly more entrenched on its side of the border.

More than 100,000 Moroccan troops are now stationed in the territory behind a 1,600 mile-long sandy berm seeded with landmines. According to reports published in Moroccan press in May, supplying these troops, maintaining infrastructure and paying subsidies to attract Moroccans to the region absorbs about 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Despite the obscurity and apparent intractability of the conflict, regional experts say the United States would do well to pay heed. From a counterterrorism perspective, a left-leaning nationalist group like the Polisario is preferable to one controlled by radical Islamists, said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political scientist at Duke University. Maghraoui said the Saharawis may day one lose faith in the Polisario — a group that has found allies in countries like Cuba, which has educated many Saharawi refugees in its universities. “That ideology is not going to sustain itself forever if it is not successful,” Maghraoui said. “We have seen in other parts of the Arab world where nationalism failed, it is likely to be replaced with political Islam.”

Impoverished Muslims living in vast, ungoverned spaces have proven dangerous to America before, he pointed out. “Ideological shifts can happen if they stay there long enough to become desperate,” Maghraoui said. “Today they send their kids to Cuba but, maybe next time, they start sending them to Pakistan.”