Sand War

Not to be confused with war sand.
Sand War
DateSeptember 25, 1963[1] – February 20, 1964[2] (4 months, 3 weeks and 5 days)
LocationThe former French Algeria's département of Saoura (present-day Tindouf and Béchar Provinces, Algeria)

Military stalemate [3]

  • The closing of the border south of Figuig, Morocco/Béni Ounif, Algeria.
  • Morocco abandoned its intentions to control Bechar and Tindouf after OUA mediation.
  • No territorial changes were made.
  • DMZ established
 Morocco  Algeria
Commanders and leaders
Morocco King Hassan II
Morocco Gen. Driss Alami
Algeria Pres. Ahmed Ben Bella
Cuba Efigenio Ameijeiras
Casualties and losses
39 dead, 57 captured[5]
or 200 dead[6]
60 dead, 250 wounded[7]
or 300 dead,[6] 379 captured[5]

The Sand War or Sands War (Arabic: حرب الرمال ḥarb ar-rimāl) occurred along the AlgerianMoroccan border in October 1963, and was a Moroccan attempt to claim the Tindouf and the Béchar areas that France had annexed to French Algeria a few decades earlier. The brief conflict ended with the border staying the same and tensions between Algeria and Morocco which remain to this day.


The Maghreb in the second half of the 19th century

Three factors contributed to the outbreak of this conflict: the absence of a precise delineation of the border between Algeria and Morocco, the discovery of important mineral resources in the disputed area, and the Moroccan irredentism fueled by the Greater Morocco[8] ideology of the Istiqlal Party and Allal al-Fassi.[9]

Before French colonization of the region in the nineteenth century, part of south and west Algeria were under Moroccan influence and no border was defined.[10] In the Treaty of Lalla Maghnia (March 18, 1845), which set the border between French Algeria and Morocco, it is stipulated that "a territory without water is uninhabitable and its boundaries are superfluous" [11] the border is delineated over only 165 km.[12] Beyond that there is only one border area, without limit, punctuated by tribal territories attached to Morocco or Algeria.

In the 1890s, the French administration and military called for the annexation of the Touat, the Gourara and the Tidikelt,[13] a complex that had been part of the Moroccan Empire for many centuries prior to the arrival of the French in Algeria.[14]

An armed conflict opposed French 19th Corps Oran and Algiers divisions to the Aït Khabbash, a fraction of the Aït Ounbgui khams of the Aït Atta confederation. The conflict ended by the annexation of the Touat-Gourara-Tidikelt complex by France in 1901.[15]

After Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, the French administration set borders between the two territories, but these tracks were often misidentified (Varnier line in 1912, Trinquet line in 1938), and varied from one map to another,[16] since for the French administration these were not international borders and the area was virtually uninhabited.[17] The discovery of large deposits of oil and minerals (iron, manganese) in the region led France to define more precisely the territories, and in 1952 the French decided to integrate Tindouf and Colomb-Bechar to the French departments of Algeria.[18]

The last bloody years of the FLN's rebellion had been fought essentially to prevent France from splitting the Sahara regions from the emerging Algerian state, and thus neither Ben Bella nor the rest of the wartime FLN were inclined to give them up to Morocco when independence was achieved. The Algerians therefore did not recognize Morocco's historical or political claims of Greater Morocco[8] that includes Bechar and Tindouf Province. Instead, they demanded to apply the principle of uti possidetis to colonial borders and perceived the Moroccan demands as an attempt to infringe the country's hard-won independence and pressure it when it was at its weakest. Algeria was still reeling from the enormous damage caused by the Algerian War, and the government scarcely held control over its entire territory: significantly, a Berber anti-FLN rebellion under the leadership of Hocine Aït Ahmed had recently flared up in the Kabyle mountains. Tension escalated as neither side wanted to back down.


1963 American news footage from the conflict

Weeks of skirmishes along the border eventually escalated into a full-blown confrontation on September 25, 1963, with intense fighting around the oasis towns of Tindouf and Figuig.[1] The Royal Moroccan Army soon crossed into Algeria in force and succeeded in taking two border posts near both settlements.[1]

The Algerian military, recently formed from the guerrilla ranks of the FLN's Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) was still oriented towards asymmetric warfare, and had little heavy weapons.[19] Its logistics was also complicated by its vast array of largely obsolete weapons from a number of diverse sources, including France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the United States.[20] The Algerian army had ordered a large number of AMX-13 light tanks from France in 1962,[21] but at the time of the fighting only twelve were in service.[20] Ironically at least four AMX-13s had been also been donated by Morocco a year earlier.[21] The Soviet Union supplied Algeria with ten T-34 tanks, but these were equipped for clearing minefields and were delivered without turrets or armament.[21][20]

Morocco's armed forces were smaller, but comparatively well-equipped and frequently took advantage of their superior firepower on the battlefield.[10][22] They possessed forty T-54 main battle tanks, twelve SU-100 tank destroyers, seventeen AMX-13s, and a fleet of gun-armed Panhard EBR armored cars.[21] Morocco also possessed modern strike aircraft, while Algeria did not.[21]

Despite internal discontent with the Algerian government, most of the country supported the war effort, which Algerians generally perceived as an act of Moroccan aggression. Even in regions where Ben Bella's regime remained deeply unpopular, such as Kabylie, the population offered to take up arms against the Moroccan invaders.[2] Morocco's invasion proved to be a diplomatic blunder, as the other Arab and African states refused to recognize its border claims. Egypt even began sending troops and defense hardware to bolster the Algerian military.[2]

On October 13, 1963, Moroccan ground units launched a major offensive on Tindouf. It stalled due to unexpectedly stubborn resistance from the town's Algerian and Egyptian garrison.[23]

On October 22, hundreds of Cuban troops disembarked at Oran, including a T-34 tank company and a battery of 122mm field guns with the crews to operate them.[24] They were commanded by Efigenio Ameijeiras.[1] Although they were initially described as an advisory contingent to train the Algerian army, Fidel Castro also authorized their deployment in combat actions to safeguard Algeria's territorial integrity.[24] The Cubans offloaded their equipment and transported it to the southwestern front by rail. While Castro had hoped to keep Cuba's intervention covert, and a number of the Cuban personnel wore Algerian uniforms, they were observed by French military and diplomatic staff in Oran and word of their presence soon leaked to the Western press.[24] Algeria and Cuba planned a major counteroffensive, Operation Dignidad, aimed at driving the Moroccan forces back across the border and capturing Berguent. The attack was suspended pending peace talks on October 29.[25]

On October 30, a truce was declared, leading to the cessation of all hostilities.[25] The Organization of African Unity (OAU) mediated a formal peace treaty on February 20, 1964.[26] Terms of this agreement included a reaffirmation of the previously established borders in Algeria's favor and restoration of the status quo.[2] A demilitarized zone was established in the meantime, monitored by the OAU's first multinational peacekeeping force.[23]


French sources reported Algerian casualties to be 60 dead and 250 wounded,[7] with later works giving a number of 300 Algerian dead.[6] Morocco officially reported to have suffered 39 dead.[5] Moroccan losses were probably lower than the Algerians' but unconfirmed,[7] with later sources reporting 200 Moroccan dead.[6] About 57 Moroccans and 379 Algerians were taken prisoner.[5]


The Sand War laid the foundations for a lasting and often intensely hostile rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, exacerbated by the differences in political outlook between the conservative Moroccan monarchy and the revolutionary, Arab nationalist Algerian military government.[10][27] Conclusive border demarcation in the Tindouf area was not achieved until 1972, when Morocco finally abandoned all claims to Algerian territory.[23]

The governments of both Morocco and Algeria used the war to describe opposition movements as unpatriotic. The Moroccan UNFP and the Algerian-Berber FFS of Aït Ahmed both suffered as a result of this. In the case of UNFP, its leader, Mehdi Ben Barka, sided with Algeria, and was sentenced to death in absentia as a result. In Algeria, the armed rebellion of the FFS in Kabylie fizzled out, as commanders defected to join the national forces against Morocco.

The rivalry between Morocco and Algeria exemplified in the Sand war also influenced Algeria's policy regarding the conflict in Western Sahara, with Algeria backing an independence-minded Sahrawi guerrilla organization, the Polisario Front, partly to curb Moroccan expansionism in the wake of the attempt to annex Tindouf.[28]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Gleijeses 2002, p. 44.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Gleijeses 2002, p. 47.
  3. "Within weeks the war ended in stalemate." Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1 edited by Alexander Mikaberidze Read here.
  4. Ottaway 1970, p. 166.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Hughes 2001, page 137
  6. 1 2 3 4 Clodfelter, Micheal (2008). Warfare and Armed Conflicts (3rd ed.). McFarland. ISBN 9780786433193.
  7. 1 2 3 Mikaberidze, Alexander, ed. (2011). Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia. 1. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598843361.
  8. 1 2 Touval 1967, p. 106.
  9. Biography of Allal al-Fassi
  10. 1 2 3 Security Problems with Neighboring States –
  11. Article 6 du traité, cité par Zartman, page 163
  12. Reyner 1963, p. 316.
  13. Frank E. Trout, Morocco's Boundary in the Guir-Zousfana River Basin, in: African Historical Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1970), pp. 37–56, Publ. Boston University African Studies Center: « The Algerian-Moroccan conflict can be said to have begun in 1890s when the administration and military in Algeria called for annexation of the Touat-Gourara-Tidikelt, a sizable expanse of Saharan oases that was nominally a part of the Moroccan Empire (...) The Touat-Gourara-Tidikelt oases had been an appendage of the Moroccan Empire, jutting southeast for about 750 kilometers into the Saharan desert »
  14. Frank E. Trout, Morocco's Saharan Frontiers, Droz (1969), p.24 (ISBN 9782600044950) : « The Gourara-Touat-Tidikelt complex had been under Moroccan domination for many centuries prior to the arrival of the French in Algeria »
  15. Claude Lefébure, Ayt Khebbach, impasse sud-est. L'involution d'une tribu marocaine exclue du Sahara, in: Revue de l'Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée, N°41–42, 1986. Désert et montagne au Maghreb. pp. 136–157: « les Divisions d'Oran et d'Alger du 19e Corps d'armée n'ont pu conquérir le Touat et le Gourara qu'au prix de durs combats menés contre les semi-nomades d'obédience marocaine qui, depuis plus d'un siècle, imposaient leur protection aux oasiens »
  16. Reyner 1963, p. 317.
  17. Heggoy 1970.
  18. Farsoun & Paul 1976, p. 13.
  19. How Cuba aided revolutionary Algeria in 1963 –
  20. 1 2 3 Gleijeses 2002, p. 41.
  21. 1 2 3 4 5 "Trade Registers". Retrieved 2013-06-20.
  22. Armed Conflict Events Data –
  23. 1 2 3 Goldstein 1992, p. 174.
  24. 1 2 3 Gleijeses 2002, p. 45.
  25. 1 2 Gleijeses 2002, p. 46.
  26. The 1963 border war and the 1972 treaty –
  27. Algiers and Rabat, still miles apart – Le Monde Diplomatique
  28. Mundy, Jacob; Zunes, Stephen (2014). "Western Sahara: Nonviolent resistance as a last resort". In Dudouet, Véronique. Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation: Transitions from Armed to Nonviolent Struggle. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 9781317697787.


Further reading

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