Major General Zia Ur Rehman pens down his experience as the Force Commander (March 2019-March 2022) of MINURSO, a UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara.
Historical Perspective. Western Sahara was one of the links between Sub-Sahara and North African regions from the eleventh to nineteenth century. Following the outcome of the Congress of Berlin to divide Africa among colonial powers, Western Sahara was ceded to Spain in 1884. In 1956, after Morocco gained independence, it claimed Western Sahara. Sequel to this, there was an uprising among the Saharawis against Spanish control over the Sahara. Moreover, in 1960, Mauritania achieved independence, left the French community, and also claimed the territory in Western Sahara. In 1960, the United Nations passed Resolution 1514 which stated that “all people must have rights to self-determination”.
Genesis of the Conflict. When the Saharawis noticed Spain’s unwillingness to decolonize the territory and grant them autonomy, a revolutionary movement known as the Frente Polisario was formed in May 1973. The Acronym POLISARIO was coined from the Spanish word, (Frente Popular de Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro), which translates in English as the Popular Liberation Front for Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro. In 1974, Spain conducted a census of the Saharawis as a precursor to a referendum for either integration into Spain or independence for the people. That same year, Morocco and Mauritania laid claims to the territory and this prompted United Nations (UN) to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for its opinion on the claims. In its verdict, the ICJ ruled against Moroccan and Mauritanian claims over Spanish Sahara and it renamed the territory Western Sahara. Morocco advanced its troops from the northeast of Western Sahara clashing with the Frente Polisario. Furthermore, Morocco organized a daring march of 350,000 unarmed Moroccans from its border to about 10-15 kms into Western Sahara. This march is famously known in history as the Green March.
Formation of SADR and the Start of Active Conflict. Spain finally left the territory on February 26, 1976, and the Polisario movement proclaimed Western Sahara as Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Thereafter, the conflict erupted between the Polisario and the Moroccan forces in the North and the Mauritanian forces in the South. After 3 years of fighting, Mauritania renounced its claim over Western Sahara in 1979. At this stage, Morocco moved in to occupy the area vacated by Mauritania. The conflict thereafter continued between the Polisario and Morocco.
The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established by Security Council Resolution 690.
Establishment of MINURSO. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established by Security Council Resolution 690 on April 29, 1991 in accordance with the “Settlement Proposals” as accepted on August 30, 1988 by Morocco and the Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y de Rio de Oro (Frente POLISARIO). MINURSO’s Area of Operational Responsibility (AOR) covers the entire territory of Western Sahara. The territory covers a total landmark of about 266,000 sq kms and it is divided by a defensive sand wall referred to as the Berm. The Berm runs over 1,600 kms through the territory from North-East to South-West where it reaches the Atlantic Coast bordering Mauritania. It has a height of about 2 metres and width of 6 metres. The Royal Moroccan Army (RMA) controls the West Side of the Berm while the Frente POLISARIO (FPMF) controls the east side of the Berm. There are total nine Team Sites; four on the west side of the Berm and five on the east side of the Berm, with two liasion offices each in Tindouf and Dakhmar.
The Status of Mandate Implementation. Since September 1991, ceasefire between Royal Moroccan Army (RMA) and Frente POLISARIO (FPMF) has settled into an uneasy asymmetrical stand-off with usual political outbursts and ceasefire violations (post-Guerguerat event) on either side of the 1600 kms Berm (sand wall).
Military Component. The military component of MINURSO is headed by the Force Commander (FC) and is organized into Force Headquarters (FHQ), Team Sites (TS) and Military Liaison Officers (MLO) at Tindouf Liaison Office (TDF LO).
Taking Over as Force Commander. After assuming the command of MINURSO (military component) as FC, on March 22, 2019, the initial time was spent in receiving briefings, visits to all Team Sites, meetings with RMA leadership, study of UN/MINURSO SOPs followed by formulation of my vision/objectives and issuance of necessary directives for effective implementation of the mandate, with special emphasis on the revision of all SOPs and an analysis of the changing environment in milieu. Another approach was added to assist Mission Support for improved logistics and conditioning of infrastructure on Teams Sites by creating and constantly monitoring the special team, "Evaluation and Inspection Team” (E&lT). Close contacts were maintained through correspondence, emails, calls and regular meetings with the concerned leadership of two parties apart from advising Head of Mission (HoM) on military matters and contributed to the work of the mission leadership through an integrated approach aiming at the implementation of MINURSO’s mandate in the mission area.
Complementarity of Assets. In the year 2019, there was a significant increase in MINURSO’s ability to effectively monitor military installations of both parties against their compliance with ceasefire agreement. Thus, MINURSO’s military component revisited its modus operandi for the implementation of the mandate by carrying out monitoring based on the concept of “complementarity of assets,” i.e., ground patrols, helicopter recces and satellite capability, further complementing the ground and heli reporting/observations.
The effects of these prolonged overstays on the UNMOs and their beloved families cannot be overstated. A good number of medical evacuations were undertaken, with at least two of the patients being repatriated to their home countries at their requests.
Challenges Amid COVID-19 Pandemic and Abrogation of Ceasefire. In the year 2020, MINURSO witnessed unprecedented changes since its establishment and implementation of the mandate under new conditions remained extremely challenging. At the start of the year 2020, COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected life across the globe and MINURSO was no exception to it. The pandemic posed numerous serious operational, administrative and logistical challenges for MINURSO military component. While COVID was in full swing in MINURSO AOR, crisis surfaced when Polisario staged protests all along the Berm in general and Guerguerat (GGT) in particular in mid-October, 2020, and all types of trade was halted. Despite immense efforts by MINURSO, Polisario protestors could not be persuaded to leave GGT crossing and on November 13, 2020, RMA launched an offensive operation and took over the GGT area by forcing the Polisario protestors to leave the area. Though, normal trade was resumed on November 15, 2020, but the conflict spread to the entire Berm. Exchange of fire of various calibers, drone movement and infiltration attempts remained routine affairs on a daily basis between both parties. Resultantly, the level of cooperation with MINURSO from both parties changed considerably. Moreover, strict health emergency was declared by both parties and this was followed by the imposition of certain restrictions on routine operational activities of MINURSO. Consequently, ground and air operations had to be severely curtailed. Besides routine operational activities, COVID restrictions adversely affected the provision of logistic supplies to Team Sites, interaction with parties, relief/rotation and management of leave of UNMOs. Thus, combined effect of COVID-19 and crisis at Berm drastically altered the working environment of MINURSO. Implementation of the mandate remained a challenge too hard to reckon with for MINURSO’s military component and warranted colossal efforts.
The Impact of Travel Restrictions. As a fallout from the international travel restrictions and to mitigate rapid global spread, the UNHQ suspended rotations. Consequently, many UNMOs had an extended tour of duty, some of which spanned a period of two years under extremely traumatic conditions presented by the pandemic. The effects of these prolonged overstays on the UNMOs and their beloved families cannot be overstated. A good number of medical evacuations were undertaken, with at least two of the patients being repatriated to their home countries at their requests.
Pragmatic Measures. The mission instituted some pragmatic measures to safeguard the personnel while ensuring the discharge of essential tasks. The proactiveness of mission leadership at tackling the pandemic prevented an outbreak within the mission. It therefore came as no surprise when MINURSO was recognized as about the only mission to have not recorded any cases among its staff during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic. The GGT situation adversely affected the working of MINURSO, and thus, warranted the adoption of effective countermeasures with more reliance on the use of air arm for the movement of UNMOs and provision of logistics, constant engagement between mission leadership and authorities of the parties to the conflict, and deployment of liaison officers by the parties to the respective Team Sites to facilitate efficient coordination of MINURSO’s operational activities with units and headquarters in the field.
Organizational Reforms Amid Challanges. To enhance the operational productivity of MINURSO owing to a number of challenges, certain organizational reforms were introduced based on the principles of synergy of efforts, confidence building, economy of resources and the use of technology.
Interfacing between Military and Civil Components. For better coordination and sustenance, interface between military, political and logistics components was ensured as under:
MINURSO carried out following activities during the tenure:
Liaison and Coordination with the Parties and TCCs. As the Force Commander, I maintained regular contact and liaison with military leadership of both parties to achieve better coordination and effective implementation of mandate. I also tried to maintain personal repute with the leadership of both the parties and regularly visited and held meetings with the RMA Southern Zone Commanders, in addition to the local commanders during visits. We used to discuss the security situation in the region, violations of the military agreement, drones’ movement, freedom of movement for the Military Observers and security of the Team Sites. At the team site level, I encouraged the Team Site Commanders to regularly meet with the FPMF Military Region Commanders and the RMA Sub-Sector Commanders/Deputy Commanders to resolve minor issues. These meetings contributed a lot in maintaining good relationship with the parties and to clarify misunderstandings in a timely manner, if any. Under the prevalent conditions, besides interactions with parties at the tactical and operational level, I also visited embassies of Troops Contributing Countries (TCCs) in Rabat to have brief interactions and coordination at regular intervals.
Interaction with the Under Command. Being FC, I maintained regular interaction with the under command to resolve their issues at priority, clarify doubts and to convey the policies, procedures and directives. Team Site Commanders Conferences were held in FHQ (Pre-COVID situation) and on Microsoft teams (Post-COVID situation) for giving TS commanders an opportunity to share their inputs, concerns, experiences and force pulse, direly needed to review policies for operational worthiness. Moreover, frequent visits of team sites were carried out in order to personally interact with UNMOs and gain first-hand knowledge.
Diversity in the Mission. MINUSRSO’s military component comprises over 200 UNMOs from 40 countries. Commanding these officers with a varied degree of training, military experience and language skills was a challenge in itself. Generally, the FHQ and each team site has an average of 40 nationalities, and intrinsically it has a significant diversity of language, religion, culture and military tradition. The main challenges were to create mutual respect, cohesion, gel them as a team and establish efficient MHQ, capable of exercising command and control. Though already in practice, we achieved the desired outcome by conducting six-week Patrol Leader Qualification Training (PLQT), with revised and improved syllabus for all new UNMOs on arrival. The objectives were achieved by appointing the right person to the right position and restoration/revival of military culture and traditions amongst UNMOs, which had diminished over a period of time. Reporting channels were streamlined, and strict military discipline was ensured.
Capacity Enhancement Measures. Highlights of capacity enhancement measures, among other things, includes the following:
▪ Formulation of vision/objectives and issued necessary directives for effective implementation of MINURSO’s mandate.
▪ Revision of all SOPs and analysis of changing environment in milieu.
▪ Most significant issue of military deployment in Guerguerat (GGT) area by both parties (RMA and FPMF) was at its peak and efforts to prevent escalation in the territory post November 14, 2020.
MINURSO’s military component comprises over 200 UNMOs from 40 countries. Commanding these officers with a varied degree of training, military experience and language skills was a challenge in itself.
▪ Permanent establishment of Guerguerat Office (including all allied facilities and internet) for monitoring the area continuously.
▪ Efforts were made to strengthen the civil-military components’ cohesion in mission, especially under COVID-19 environment.
▪ Continuous engagement of both parties for better coordination of implementation of the mission’s mandate with special emphasis on performing the operational tasks in a befitting manner.
▪ Addressed and curtailed the continuous violations by continuous engagement, meeting and visits to RMA Headquarters and remote engagement with Polisario; thus, preventing the escalation post GGT event.
▪ MINURSO’s Area of Responsibility (AOR), was distributed into three sectors for better control and management, i.e., North, Centre, and South Sectors for effective implementation of the mandate.
▪ Mapping of the Berm was carried out for clear physical layout of Berm and to prevent any errors and oversight.
▪ A helicopter was placed in each sector to have better flexibility, enhanced monitoring and to lessen the reaction time in case of emergencies.
▪ After deliberate efforts, TCCs were requested to increase the number of female UNMOs which reached 30%. Also, representation was given to female UNMOs as Team Site commanders as well as gender balance was maintained in MHQ.
▪ Frequent interaction and imparting awareness about political and strategic importance of the mission down to TS UNMOs for better understanding and performing the ground operations accordingly.
▪ Induction training imparted with an aim to prepare UNMOs to perform all operational tasks including ground patrols and helicopter recces (HRs) keeping in mind the military agreements. Amidst COVID-19 situation, conduct of online training to UNMOs remained a focused point.
▪ SOPs for CASEVEC/MEDEVEC were updated to reduce the lengthy procedures involved and to ensure timely evacuation and provision of required medical aid.
▪ Security situation was reviewed in the AOR after facing new challenges, thus, enhanced security parameters were incorporated including the reduction of patrolling, increase in HRs, suspension of night observation patrol and night ground patrols. Performing ground patrols while keeping a safe distance from the Berm post-November 2020 guerguerat event.
▪ Efforts were made to establish strong perimeter security around Team Sites by constructing a wire fence and HESCO bag walls to avoid any breach by armed groups, keeping in mind the volatile situation in the region.
▪ Construction of safe bunkers, especially in EoB remained a special focus to cater for any contingency of a terrorist attack.
▪ Revisiting evacuation plans of FHQ and all TS both by road and by air.
▪ Maximum use of satellite imageries for terrain analysis, monitoring of installations, movement of parties, confirmation of reports received from ground/air patrols. Also 150 new GPS inducted to facilitate ground patrols.
▪ Creation of COVID Task Force to deal with pandemic development and implementation of COVID protocols as well as other SOPs. Moreover, categorization of MINURSO staff in critical, semi critical and less critical staff during working hours to minimize the risk.
▪ Devising of new in-processing/out-processing, CTO and leave mechanisms to cater for the challenges of COVID.
▪ Coordination for relief/rotation of UNMOs with NYHQ and the relevant countries.
▪ Efforts were carried out for logistics sustenance of TS for 4-6 weeks, keeping 12 weeks of supplies at HQ especially post GGT event.
▪ Enhanced Movement Coordination Mechanism amidst drone strikes with both parties in the territory.
▪ Efforts were carried out for the resumption of flights EoB and Tindouf post-November 2020 Guerguerat event.
▪ Resumption of United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) activities EoB.
▪ There has been intense drone strikes engagement in the territory since November 2021, during which there was engagement in the communication zone twice. However, after repeated interaction, RMA was cautioned of the consequences for indiscriminate engagement, especially deep inside the territory. It not only brought decline in the drone strikes but their activities were also restricted to 25-30 kms most of the time from Berm instead of deeper engagement.
▪ Due to the ban on international flights, rotation of UNMOs was affected since November 2021. Thus, efforts were made to continue the rotation process through special UN flights via Las Palmas, Spain.
▪ Due to extended delay in the transportation of logistics items (since November 2020) and closure of ground routes, planned the transportation of heavy equipment and logistic goods on EoB through ‘sling operations using heli’. Assurance from both parties was sought. Fronted the inclusion of gender perspective education as a part of the scheduled induction and in-mission training programmes for UNMOs, refresher and annual training.
▪ Oversaw the introduction of telemedicine for Team Sites which hitherto had no medical staff deployed at their locations. The practice facilitated smooth medical consultation through media platforms for the staff.
MINURSO is a long-drawn low profile mission for monitoring the ceasefire agreement between the parties. The changed security and political environment has brought the mission in the limelight. Military component, despite having various challenges, is trying its best to perform the mandated task and has successfully implemented ceasefire agreement between the parties so far. Though, the situation remains unpredictable due to instability in the region, however, political and diplomatic engagement with both parties is obligatory for the resolution of issues for peace as per the UN’s mandate.
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