Regular commenter Ali raised a couple of interesting questions in the comments section to my last post. As my reply got longer and longer, I realized this should be a post of its own. I've said most of it before, but since none of the world's great powers seems to have heeded my advice, I'll have to repeat it again.
Ali writes -- Let go back to our main issue: WS. Don't you think that "autonomy" is not a good alternative to say 'war'.
Well, if you put it that way. But that's not really the issue: the way autonomy is being shoved down the throat of Polisario, Algeria and the Sahrawi people in general, could very well become a trigger of war, rather than an alternative to it. And I've outlined a number of times the potentially disastrous consequences of breaking down the hitherto agreed-upon decolonization framework for the conflict (eg. like the US and Morocco propose, by ramming an ethnically based autonomy through w/o proper procedure while simultaneously tearing down the colonial border status). In many ways, this could be not about autonomy or war, but about two kinds of war. And that is without taking the moral or legal questions into account: from a purely practical perspective, I don't think this supposedly 'realist' approach is very realistic at all, long-term.
That said, I have no problem with autonomy of some kind as an end result of the conflict, if that is what the parties and, importantly, the people of Western Sahara can agree on. The problem is the way it is being delivered -- the US (and Morocco, but who can blame them) is going for a short-sighted quick fix approach, which has a serious risk of really bad blowback later.
I have the same attitude to independence, by the way. And I wouldn't mind full integration into Morocco either, under the same procedural conditions, though I think it would be much harder to make that work as a solution.
Ali again -- I believe WS could play an important role in the democratization of Morocco which in turn would grant it more independence, ie,the autonomous communities of Spain (Cataluña, Valencia, ...)?
Ending the conflict would be a great boost to Moroccan democracy, whichever way it ended. There is no question about that: finally, the Moroccan government could get to work on real issues; set up a foreign policy and cooperation strategy that doesn't exclusively revolve around tricking foreign dignitaries into visiting El Aaiún; and spending some of the state budget on the 34,500,000 or so citizens who don't live in the Sahara. Also, the military elite could be chastised, as it loses its Saharan fiefdom. And, as an added bonus, the Moroccan political class could turn its energy to fixing their system of government instead of compulsively ranting about Evil Algeria amongst themselves.
But no, autonomy per se I don't think will be beneficial to democracy. Autonomous provinces in third world non-democracies has (correct me if I'm wrong) almost without exception ended up as crony-run, corrupt and hideously costly to the central government. Also, they often turn out considerably less democratic than the central state -- run by local strongmen -- and an obstacle to its own reform, because of the vested interests they have and attract, and the political weight they exert within the system.
This I expect will become the case of the so far outlined autonomous Western Sahara, which is essentially set up in the Moroccan proposal & policy to become a subsidized playground of various tribal cliques and and businessmen. But is it better than war? Certainly, if they can make that solution stick.
That, however, is why I am so skeptical. My concern is that such an autonomy will soon enough revert to being ruled de facto by Rabat, if only because the Khellihenna crowd will have proved to be useless for both Sahrawis and the Rabat government (or worse, a Khellihenna-Abdelaziz combo; imagine that). This is to say that the autonomous province will eventually become neither autonomous nor very nice to live in. Opposition follows, but now tribal & Islamic, instead of nationalist, à la the rest of the Arab world & Sahara.
Then, if you didn't get closure for the self-determination issue before starting the autonomy (i.e. by a legit referendum & Polisario's and Algeria's honest recognition of loss), this is where you could enter step two of the conflict. Resurgent autonomy-boosted nationalism merges with tribal-Islamic opposition, and rebel memories return, but without the clear-cut decolonization case of before; now it is completely ethnic and tribal, with the implications this has for both Sahrawis, Morocco and, in particular, Mauritania. Plus, you have a couple of ten thousand disillusioned, jobless ex-Polisario stalwarts with military training and more than a few axes to grind, scattered between all of these territories. And this is where some serious shit starts hitting the fan.
I'm not saying that a return of conflict along these lines is the only way a fudged self determination process could play out, far from it. It could also surprise us and move along so smoothly the question is forgotten in years; but this sort of cockup, or something very similar to it, is certainly a very serious risk -- which everybody involved keeps pretending doesn't exist. But it does. And it should, no, must be seriously debated. So, by all means: debate.