“The largest US military exercise ever conducted on this continent.” This is how US Major General Andrew Rohling described the 2021 edition of the African Lion military exercise, which will be conducted in conjunction with Morocco on its territory between 7 and 18 June, during the launch ceremony in Agadir.
After entering the military base, one then has to walk along yellow-tinted barracks, an airstrip and through a corridor bedecked with the flags of the 10 partner countries, which frame the entrance to the U-shaped green tents.
Two generals, one Moroccan and one American, discussed the challenges of this 17th edition, in front of the portrait of King Mohammed VI. “This exercise has undoubtedly reached a degree of maturity that attests to the strength of cooperative relations between our respective armies,” said General Belkhir El Farouk, commander of the Southern Zone.
Taking place in Polisario-controlled areas?
Referring to the “evolution of world geopolitics”, the officer of the Royal Armed Forces (RAF) insists on the need for “more multinational” military action to face “hybrid threats using multifaceted modes of action.” An air training exercise involving Moroccan and US “bombers, fighters and aerial refuelling aircraft” will take place, as well as naval manoeuvres, including a joint “naval firing exercise” between the two countries’ navies, according to Africom (US Africa Command).
But beyond these tactical considerations, the aim of the exercise this year is open to various interpretations, especially given the fact that the US officially recognised Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara just a few months previously. Therefore, there is the lingering question of whether these exercises will take place in Polisario-controlled areas of Morocco.
For two weeks, more than 7,000 soldiers from the participating countries will gather to carry out joint exercises in “Agadir, Tifnit, Tan-Tan, Mahbès, Tafraoute, Ben Guerir and Kenitra,” US Colonel Ryan Dillon told us. Mahbès is the only place mentioned in this list that is located on the former Spanish colony’s territory.
The US officer did not specify whether he was talking about the region or the city itself. However, US command has stipulated that it is referring to the town of Zag, which is opposite Mahbes on the other side of the former border, a few miles from the Guerir Labouhi base.
“This base was selected as a training location for the African Lion 2020, which was cancelled, but we still planned to use it for this exercise,” said the US colonel. The base is located about 6km from the border with former Western Sahara and 100km from Tindouf in Algeria, where the Polisario Front has set up camp.
“US and Moroccan planners considered a wide range of locations and worked closely together to determine the best ones to ensure the success of African Lion 21,” Africom told us.
This decision was made in the summer of 2020, according to the same source. Therefore, there is no link between Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara and the choice of locations, according to the US military.
Major General Rohling, Southern European Task Force Commander and Africa Commander, added that “the exercise’s combined ‘joint’ task force headquarters in Agadir, Morocco, will command and control all air, land and maritime component commands spread across the three host nations and the waters of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. From Thiès, Senegal through Morocco – and Bizerte, Tunisia, our exercise footprint spans an area that is nearly twice the length of the continental US.”
Tunisia, Senegal, Canada, Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK are also involved in the operations. Because according to Farouk, “the concept of linguistic, strategic and procedural interoperability” is central to the exercise.
In the tent, the participants were riveted by a world map that was covered by a military camouflage net. It had been built to human scale for the occasion and had small flags scattered all over it. A military officer waved his stick over different areas with fake names, illustrating a scenario that some of the joint forces would face, while others were tasked with playing the role of enemy troops.
A “message” to hostile forces?
While the two generals’ stated objective is to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation, there are also various regional geopolitical issues at stake. We have been informed that Egypt and Libya are two of the 21 countries participating in these exercises. It remains to be seen whether the two countries will actually be represented or simply be present via videoconference.
Egypt and Morocco are the only two North African countries that maintain official relations with Israel, one of the US’ main allies in the MENA region. As for the Libyan crisis, Rabat is trying to play a mediating role, notably through the various meetings that have taken place in recent months in Bouznika under the auspices of Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita.
For its part, the US views the presence of Russian mercenaries from the private military company Wagner in the country with hostility. The Sahel, which has been the scene of terrorism and political problems for nearly a decade, is represented by Burkina Faso and Chad. Is the aim of this exercise simply for Washington to send “messages” to forces or countries that are hostile to their allies in the region? “As we say in the army infantry, you always have to improve your foxhole – a strategic defensive position,” Colonel Dillon told us.
The former spokesman for Task Force Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria concludes by saying that “the biggest challenge has been working in a deteriorated environment – which is why African Lion 20 did not happen. As soldiers, we must always be ready to execute our mission.”
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