Morocco: Why the African Lion may leave the kingdom

By Jeanne Le Bihan
Posted on Monday, 15 August 2022 10:47

General Stephen Townsend (l.), commander of AFRICOM, and General Belkhir El Farouk, Inspector General of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR), in Tan-Tan, 30 June 2022. © FADEL SENNA/AFP

The US is considering another location for the annual African Lion military exercise, which has been held for the past 18 years partly on Moroccan soil.

“We are looking for other places to hold some or all of the next African Lion military exercises,” General Townsend said on 26 July.

Upon reaching the end of his mandate, the commander of US military activities in Africa (AFRICOM) announced that the African Lion military exercise would no longer be conducted in Morocco.

Since their creation in 2004, these manoeuvres have been held in cooperation with the Cherifian kingdom. But the Western Sahara issue has sown discord within the US legislative power. Congress has made the continuation of the African Lion in Morocco conditional on the conflict’s evolution.

The multilateral military exercise, whose 18th edition took place in June, is the largest organised by AFRICOM on the continent. Led by the US Department of Defence, it brings together African and non-African countries and international organisations.

The 2022 edition of the African Lion not only brought together Morocco, Tunisia and the US but also NATO and Brazil. For the first time, Israel was one of the observer countries. Most of the exercises took place on Moroccan territory, with some manoeuvres in Tunisia, Senegal and Ghana.

The reason for this measure, mentioned by General Townsend, is the 2022 US Budget Act, which has been pushing the Department of Defence to “consider diversifying the exercise, and by diversifying the exercise, consider moving the exercise or elements of the exercise to other parts of the continent.” The Department of Defence did not provide us with any further details as to where the next African Lion will take place.

Congressional initiative

The 2022 US Budget Act includes a section reserved for “limiting support to the Kingdom of Morocco’s military forces for multilateral exercises” in the foreign affairs section.

The document states that funds earmarked for such exercises may not be used “unless the Secretary of Defence determines, after consultation with the Secretary of State, that the Kingdom of Morocco is working toward a mutually acceptable political solution in Western Sahara.”

The memorandum attached to the budget bill, published by the House of Representatives, provides details of this decision, which refers to a bill that Congress introduced in September 2021.

The Senate – the upper house – makes the release of the planned funds conditional on developments on the ground. “We believe that peace in Western Sahara is in the national interest,” the statement says, but it refrains from revisiting the US’ decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

The decision to relocate the African Lion is therefore in response to a request from the US legislative branch. The AFRICOM spokesperson talked to us about the origin of this measure: “In the US, our elected civilian representatives control our military and we are exploring alternatives for multilateral exercise locations, including the African Lion.”

Like General Townsend earlier, AFRICOM stressed that military cooperation between the two countries would continue. “Morocco remains an important partner of the US military and we look forward to working with them in the future, on African Lion and the various other events we participate in together.” There is therefore no question of definitive withdrawal from Morocco.

Moving on

However, the appropriations act states that the Secretary of Defence may authorise the African Lion to take place in Morocco if the exercise is “important to the US’ national security interests.” This would allow the executive branch to override the Senate.

“Although members of Congress have oversight over the conduct of US foreign policy, their power is limited when it comes to its implementation,” says Samir Bennis, a political analyst and consultant in Washington. “The president has certain waivers to override congressional decisions.”

A few days earlier, Republican Senator James Inhofe had intervened in Washington to oppose the holding of the next edition in Morocco.

“The Moroccan authorities have done nothing to repair the damage done to the Saharawi population after all these years, nor have they shown any seriousness in resolving this crisis,” the Oklahoma senator said on 21 July.

The US senator is known for his opposition to the US position on the Sahara and for his close relationship with Algeria. He claims to have supported the US Department of Defence’s decision to relocate the African Lion.

Bennis does not believe that a complete relocation is possible, at least not for the next edition. The analyst refuses to say that this has anything to do with the cooling of relations between the two countries: “Joe Biden has treated the Sahara conflict with great caution. The administration has not reversed Donald Trump’s decision, even though Joe Biden has made sure not to take any further steps that might alienate the Democratic party’s progressive wing.” General Michael Langley will soon succeed General Stephen Townsend in Stuttgart (Germany) as head of AFRICOM.

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