operation simulations

African Lion military exercise opens in Morocco against backdrop of regional tensions

By Soufiane Khabbachi

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Posted on June 12, 2023 10:46

jad20230606-mmo-maroc-african-lion-01-1256×628-1686052787 © Generals Mohamed Berrid (left) and Brian Cashman at the African Lion launch ceremony in Agadir on 5 June 2023. Royal Moroccan Armed Forces
Generals Mohamed Berrid (left) and Brian Cashman at the African Lion launch ceremony in Agadir on 5 June 2023. Royal Moroccan Armed Forces

Africa’s largest military exercise brings together 18 participating countries and 20 observers this year, launched against a tense regional backdrop with Israel taking part in the manoeuvres.

Standing with arms at their sides and fists clenched on 5 June, soldiers of all nationalities welcomed Mohammed Berrid (the inspector general of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces – RMAF – and commander of the Southern Zone), who was accompanied by Brigadier General Brian Cashman (the deputy commander general of the US Army’s Southern European Task Force Africa).

The two high-ranking officers came to Agadir to kick off African Lion 2023.

This year, 18 countries are taking part in the military manoeuvres, while 20 are present as observers. From 5 to 16 June, some 8,000 participants are taking part in joint military exercises at seven different locations in the kingdom: Agadir, Tan-Tan, Al Mahbès, Tiznit, Kénitra, Benguérir, and Tifnit.

The US, co-organisers of the event, had considered moving the military exercise out of the Kingdom. In his opening speech, Cashman stated that the level of participation in this year’s event was a “testament to the value of this exercise” and the “growing strength of our partnerships”.

Created in 2004, the African Lion was, until 2012, a joint bilateral exercise between the US and Morocco, before becoming multilateral. While exercises, including last year, have also been held in Tunisia, Senegal, and Ghana, most of the manoeuvres remain confined to Morocco.

The huge change in this configuration is the Israeli state’s presence, which, after having been an observer at the previous edition, is taking part in the military exercises this year. According to the Jerusalem Post, a 12-strong delegation will be taking part in urban warfare and underground operations simulations.

Tensions between Morocco and Algeria

The stated aim of the exercise is to consolidate and harmonise military cooperation between the armies through exchanges of expertise and experience, based on simulated situations covering a wide range of areas: land, sea, medical assistance, and many others.

“It is, above all, a purely operational exercise,” says an on-site Moroccan soldier. While the African Lion is a far cry from the ostentatious manoeuvres and displays of force that usually characterise this type of event, it does not escape the reality of the current regional context, marked by a degree of instability and a resurgence of tensions between Morocco and Algeria.

In his introduction, Berrid referred to “planned training sessions coinciding with a tense geopolitical and geostrategic context”. The two Maghrebi neighbours have had no diplomatic relations since 24 August 2021, while the ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front fell apart on 13 November 2020.

The Polisario Front is the government of the Western Sahara, a contested region south of Morocco that Algeria supports and Morocco claims for its own.

Rabat and Algiers increased their defence budgets for 2023 when they passed their Finance Acts in October and November 2022, respectively. While Morocco has made a very slight increase of $37m, from $10.53 to $10.9bn, Algeria has opted for a record increase, from $9.3bn in 2022 to $23.02bn, more than double the resources allocated the previous year.

Security meeting in Algiers

Coincidentally, or not, on Thursday, 1 June, Algiers announced that a meeting of the High Security Council would be held in a closed-door session. The official press release issued by the Algerian authorities gives no details of the content of the discussions, simply stating that the meeting was “devoted to examining the general situation in the country and at border level”.

This 2023 edition of the Africa Lion is also the first major event for the new second-in-command in the Moroccan army (behind King Mohammed VI), appointed on 22 April to replace General Belkhir El Farouk, who resigned for health reasons.

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