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US: Post-Trump vision for the Maghreb

By Arianna Poletti
Posted on Monday, 9 November 2020 15:55

US tunisia
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper delivers his speech in Carthage, Tunisia on September 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Pentagon chief, Mark Esper, completed a surprise visit to the Maghreb, one month prior to the US presidential election, aimed at strengthening security and cooperation in the region. 

It was with eyes set on Libya that Esper, the US Secretary of Defense, went on a tour of the capitals of three central Maghreb countries from 30 September to 2 October 2020.

In Tunisia – “Washington’s major ally” – the head of the Pentagon signed a 10-year military cooperation agreement in line with a long-standing security partnership between the two countries. According to figures published by the US Department of Defense, the United States has allocated about $1bn to the Tunisian army since 2011.

In Morocco, Esper also signed a 10-year security cooperation agreement that reinforces another very close partnership that has existed for decades.

‘Strengthening Cooperation’

Between these two countries, with which the US already has long established historical ties, Esper also went to Algeria, which no Pentagon chief had visited since 2006, when Donald Rumsfeld visited under the George W. Bush administration.

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“The Algerians want certain things and we could help them,” the enigmatic former Secretary of Defense said, advocating for a closer partnership with Algiers, historically close to Russia and, along with Egypt, the Russian military industry’s main African client.

After symbolically laying a wreath at the Memorial of Martyrs who died for independence, the head of the Pentagon said his visit would help “strengthen cooperation” with Algiers, without providing further details.

“While Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune certainly appreciated the interest shown by the Americans, we must not forget that the candidacy of Algerian diplomat Ramtane Lamamra for the post of UN special envoy to Libya was blocked by US veto,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.

US Defense Secretary Esper with Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed on 30 September  2020, in Tunis.

In Tunis, as in Algiers and Rabat, the “fight against terrorism” and “military cooperation” were at the heart of Esper’s talks with his hosts. The timing of this first tour of the Maghreb conducted by the Pentagon chief, only a few weeks before the end of what we now know was Donald Trump’s first and final term of office, is interesting and intriguing.

Esper and Trump Diverge

“It took place precisely for this reason: because we are at the end of Trump’s term of office. The Secretary of Defense is less visible in the media and can free himself from the politics of the Oval Office,” Harchaoui explains. The differences between Esper and Trump are significant. Only three months ago, the US president nearly fired Esper, who was opposed to deploying the federal army against the demonstrations provoked by the death of George Floyd.

For Harchaoui, Esper: “took note of the concerns of the Pentagon which, since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, has watched with concern as the region draws closer to Russia and other foreign powers without the White House seeking to intervene.”

This is especially the case in Libya, where the presence of Russian and Syrian mercenaries has only increased in recent months. “The Russians have gained influence in Fezzan and the Oil Crescent,” Harchaoui continues. “The Pentagon knows this, but the White House is doing nothing to counter the advance of the major powers in the region. The Pentagon’s frustration is obvious.”

During his first speech in Tunisia, the head of the Pentagon did not hesitate to point the finger at “China and Russia” – Washington’s “strategic competitors” – who are increasingly rooted in the African continent. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), between 2014 and 2019, Moscow became the main supplier of arms to Africa (49% of total sales), followed by Washington (14%) and Beijing (13%).

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“The American position could change in the region if the situation continues to deteriorate and the influence of jihadist groups continues to grow, particularly in the Sahel. This tour in the Maghreb gives credence to this possibility,” explains Serge Stroobants, a specialist in international security in Brussels.

Disengagement

Nonetheless, US North African policy remains closely tied to the outcome of the presidential election. With Joe Biden wining, the United States may return to its classic anti-Russian strategy and to major international issues, according to Harchaoui.

Will Western Sahara be part of it? A question that is a great source of tension between Algeria and Morocco, and one that caught the attention of the Trump administration, which seemed inclined to lean in favour of Morocco.

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“Donald Trump will not support a plan to create a new African nation,” the Wall Street Journal said in August 2019. But this position has fizzled out and Washington does not seem to want to get more involved in this issue that has plagued relations between Rabat and Algiers for decades.

Libya and Mali also remain at the heart of the rivalry between Moroccan and Algerian diplomats who are vying for the role of mediator. The cautious Esper was content to cite these burning issues without really taking sides.

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American policy for now seems to be one of disengagement. And not just in the Middle East. “In the Sahel, the French feel alone and they are right. Even though the Americans are physically there, one doesn’t feel like there is a plan or strategy coming from the White House,” explains Harchaoui.

Withdrawal of troops from the Sahel?

The Trump administration has previously mentioned the “far too high” cost of military operations in the Sahel, where about 1,300 American troops are currently deployed.

Former US Ambassador to the Central African Republic, Jeffrey Hawkins has stated that: “the Trump administration does not consider the jihadists in the Sahel to be a direct threat to US security.” Ahead of Biden taking on as the new president, France is worried about the possibility of the US withdrawing some of its troops from the Sahel.

Stroobants mentions that all US operations in Africa are still planned and conducted from a headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. Mark Esper however wants to move this HQ.

Since Trump’s arrival to the White House, relations between the Berlin headquarters and Washington have deteriorated: “Efforts to move this headquarters to North Africa have been ineffective. But an increase in risks and threats on the African continent could lead the Americans to move the AFRICOM headquarters to one of the safest and most stable countries in North Africa,” believes Stroobants.

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