Yet another strategic emergency may be brewing in North Africa. At the mouth of the Mediterranean, the nation of Morocco is extending itself south into the former Spanish Sahara, a small, barren slice of desert with a population of less than 1 million inhabitants. In doing so, Morocco is endangering its own stability and that of an entire region.

A small band of Islamic nationalists, the Polisario, is building a national identity and has developed one of the best organized and most determined liberation movements of our time. When the Spanish withdrew from their Western Sahara colony in 1975, they divided the territory between Morocco and Maritania rather than recognize the movement for self-determination by the indigenous population. That meant war.

The war has continued, but Mauritania relinquished all claim in 1979 and vowed to live in peace with the emerging nation. Morocco continues to view the Western Sahara as part of an expanded Maghreb kingdom that King Hassan II seems compelled to attempt to restore.

Morocco is spending more than a million dollars a day in funds that would much better be used to improve the life of Moroccan citizens. The army is forced to resort to the same tactics of isolation and containment that failed with the French in Vietnam and Algeria and proved to be fruitless most recently in Zimbabwe. Indeed, the emerging possibility is not the defeat of the Polisario, which has enjoyed both support and sanctuary in neighboring Algeria, but a threat to the reign of King Hassan himself. The Moroccan army has achieved a reputation as one of Africa's toughest fighting forces, but it seemingly has no heart for a war of occupation.

This month in camps just west of Tindouf, I saw and spoke with Moroccan soldiers taken prisoner in recent Saharan fighting. Three hundred prisoners sat defjected in the desert sand, wondering if they would ever see their families again. Hundreds of captured weapons and armored vehicles (supplied by the United States, France, Egypt and South Africa) and three Belgian tanks in working order indicate an army of questionable discipline and morale. The remains of French Mirage jets and U.S. F5 jets provide the alloy for the beautiful handicrafted jewelry that the older craftsmen hammer out in well-maintained refugee villages.

Polisario Deputy Secretary-General Bashir Mustafa Sayed articulately describes the military and political situation. He applauds the recent political victory in the U.N. General Assembly, which approved a resolution, 86 to 6, with 4 abstentions, calling on Morocco to withdraw and to begin negotiation with the Polisario for a peaceful settlement in the territory. He also points to the recent testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Polisario is not under any foreign ideological influence. Sayed said that an independent Western Sahara trading with Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania would contribute to the stability and development of the entire region.

His claim that only the socialists and communists in Morocco are actively supporting the war is questionable, because a group of military officers led by a counselor to Hassan and calling itself the Mohammed V Group is actively encouraging the war. But there can be no doubt that the socialists' and communists' interest is primarily in the destabilization of King Hassan II and that a peaceful resolution of the conflict with international support would bring new stability to Hassan's government and the strategic North African region.

This is likely to be viewed as visionary idealism by the foreign policy advisers of Ronald Reagan, who may be inclined to expand the Carter administration's mistake of sending more arms to Morocco. The rationale is to strengthen the king's hand in negotiations. But in actuality this is leading him down the path well worn by those who would repress legitimate aspirations for independence and self-determination. There is little logic to a situation in which the United States, a pioneer in ideas of self-determination more than 200 years ago, is allied in an effort to expand the reign of King Hassan beyond the borders of the present nation of Morocco.

But the United States does need a stable, strong ally at the mouth of the Mediterranean, and Hassan has proven to be such. It would be tragic if efforts at a peaceful settlement were dissipated and the war were expanded. For the Polisario, a political settlement is certainly preferable to protracted military strength.

Authoritarian governments don't decline gradually -- they collapse suddenly. It would be unfortunate for such a collapse to occur, for Morocco may not possess the recuperative resources of a Portugal or a Spain.

The world -- certainly this region -- is already burdened by more turmoil than can be endured. Peace in North Africa is in everybody's interest, but it won't happen with a continued U.S. policy of arming King Hassan to strengthen his hand in negotiations. The king needs and deserves U.S. support, but that support must be directed toward bringing the war to an end.