In a bid to counter Chinese influence and Russian and Turkish adventurism in the region, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is on a surprise tour of North Africa. He is expanding defense cooperation ties to several vital allies in the region, including Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.
“Today, our strategic competitors China and Russia continue to intimidate and coerce their neighbors while expanding their authoritarian influence worldwide, including on this continent,” Esper said, according to CNN.
This the first time a U.S. Pentagon chief has visited some of these countries, such as Algeria which also has defense ties to Beijing and Moscow, in over 14 years. The U.S. hopes to turn strong existing counter terrorism (CT) cooperation with Algeria, which is hesitant to work with the 5,100 French CT forces deployed in the Sahel, into broader defense ties.
“Algeria is a committed counterterrorism partner,” General Stephen Townsend, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said on a recent visit to Algiers, reported al Jazeera. The country is also trying to mediate two long-running conflicts in neighboring Libya and Mali.
On the other end of the spectrum, CNN notes, Tunisia “has been touted as the sole democratic success story to come out of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring,’ was designated ‘a major-non NATO ally of the United States’ in 2015 and has partnered with the US on counterterrorism efforts aimed at ISIS-linked groups.”
While there, Esper and his Tunisian defense counterpart signed a “ten-year Roadmap of Defense Cooperation,” reported CNN, which quoted Esper as saying: “We look forward to expanding this relationship to help Tunisia protect its maritime ports and land borders, deter terrorism, and keep the corrosive efforts of autocratic regimes out of your country.”
The U.S. recently deployed 40 American military advisers to the country, part of the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigade, to back Tunisia’s fight against terrorist groups which have carried out major deadly attacks in recent years. The Trump Administration also recently approved the $325.8 million sale of four AT-6C Wolverine light attack aircraft to Tunisia, reported CNN.
Esper also reaffirmed the close defense ties between the U.S. and Morocco, signing another defense cooperation “road map” in the capital of Rabat. The road map, Defense.gov notes, “charts cooperation between the two nations through 2030.”
Morocco is one of America’s oldest friends, recognizing the U.S. when it was still fighting for independence in 1777. It is also a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). The country’s strategic location makes it a “gateway to Africa.”
Defense.gov noted that the road map will help to “improve defense cooperation, partnerships, and interoperability.” As part of this, Esper mentioned the importance of Exercise African Lion, which draws participants from across the continent.
“It is a key training and exercise event for many, many years, not just between the United States and Morocco,” Esper said.
Moving into the eastern Mediterranean, Esper also visited the island republic of Malta, the first U.S. defense chief to visit since 1970. The small island nation sits in a strategic location off the coast of North Africa. Its significant port previously housed a major UK Royal Navy base.
According to CNN “Esper planned to discuss maritime security with Maltese officials, a major issue given the country’s proximity to shipping and smuggling lanes connecting Europe to North Africa.”
Of course, Turkish and Russian sea and air movements in and out of Syria and Libya, were likely also on the agenda.