US African Lion military exercise expands to Ghana, Senegal, and Israel

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 29 June 2022 09:36, updated on Friday, 29 July 2022 13:11

U.S. Army Unveil Their Pictures Of The Year 2021
Soldiers observe fired artillery rounds in an M109A6 Paladin howitzer at the Tan Tan Training Area, Morocco, June 13, 2021, during African Lion, U.S. Africa Command's largest joint, annual exercise. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom)

This week, the US military wraps up its flagship annual military cooperation drill in Africa whose 2022 iteration was marked by its expansion beyond North Africa and the inclusion of Israel as an observer.

Now in its 18th year, the African Lion exercise added operations inside Ghana and Senegal, for the first time, on top of its usual presence in Morocco and Tunisia. The enlargement comes as the two West African countries are under threat from militants in the Sahel and pirates in the Gulf of Guinea.

Major General Andrew Rohling, the commander of US Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, described the combined land, air and sea exercise, the largest in Africa Command’s history, as a “strategic commitment to African regional stability by the United States and our partners” in a 28 June video briefing from Morocco.

Close to 8,000 partner forces from seven countries – the US, Brazil, Chad, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – participated, in addition to troops from the four host nations as well as outside observers.

“Ghana and Senegal are two great partners of the United States and we’ve been doing a series of activities with them bilaterally,” Rohling told The Africa Report during a press briefing at the tail end of the exercise, which runs from 6 June to 30 June.

“Over the course of the last year, as we designed the exercise, we realised, as did Ghana and Senegal individually, that the exercise ‘African Lion’ best fit their security needs and the training objectives they wished to accomplish for their country; and that they intertwined well with our interoperability objectives that we were hoping to get at in African Lion,” Rohling said. “[…] over the course of the last year, we were able to put together a training program that benefited us both.”

Countering Russia

The exercise’s goal, he said, was to help partner countries deal with the “kind of tactical problems [and] strategic problems that many countries are seeing across the globe today”, while offering a “realistic, dynamic, collaborative readiness training in an austere environment along the intersection of two continents and multiple international boundaries and maritime trading routes”.

Rather than retreating from Africa, Rohling said the exercise was proof that the US remains heavily invested in the continent’s security. Just last month, the Department of Defense announced that President Joe Biden was sending around 500 troops back to Somalia to help combat resurgent Al-Shabaab militants.

“We are more engaged now in the African continent than we’ve been in quite some time, and African Lion is a great example of that,” he said.

Although the exercise is aimed at defeating an unnamed enemy, countering growing Russian military influence on the continent is clearly one of its objectives.

Rohling said African Lion “aims to build capacity as well as the trusted, long-term relationships to address future challenges”. He contrasted the US with Russian support for coup plotters in places like Mali, where the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group has been accused of atrocities.

We are more engaged now in the African continent than we’ve been in quite some time, and African Lion is a great example of that.

“We invest where our allies and partner countries’ values align,” Rohling said. “We approach activities in Africa quite differently than Russia does. We prioritise human rights. We strive to uphold the law of armed conflict and we believe in civilian control of the military.”

Despite those assurances, this year the US still allowed the participation of Chad, where Army Gen. Mahamat Déby took power last year following the death of his father Idriss Déby. The State Department has called for Chad to transition to a democratically elected and civilian-led government by the end of 2022, but declined to label the younger Déby’s rise to power a coup.

Onboarding Israel

Another notable participant this year is Israel, which joined African Lion for the first time as an observer after establishing diplomatic relations with Morocco at the end of 2020.

The development comes as champions of Israel have been calling for the US to leverage existing security frameworks to enhance bilateral cooperation between Israel and Morocco.

“The United States should help promote deeper security and strategic cooperation between Israel and Morocco,” former US envoy for the Sahel J. Peter Pham and Samuel Millner of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a pro-Israel Washington think tank, said in an April piece for The National Interest. “While regional US-led maritime drills like Cutlass Express have nominally included Israel and Morocco together, the United States must make a concerted effort to promote direct Israel-Morocco naval and air defense cooperation via multilateral exercises.”

In a 27 June tweet, Millner applauded the presence of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a “crucial step in the budding Israel-Morocco security partnership, which will advance stability + economic prosperity throughout the Maghreb + W. Africa”.

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