Exercise African Lion 2021, U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) joint annual exercise, began for the 17th time on June 7. The annual exercise, which was canceled last year due to COVID-19, will run until June 18.

With more than 7,800 troops participating, including 5,000 from the United States and nine other nations and NATO, African Lion is AFRICOM’s largest exercise. The training is focused on enhancing readiness for U.S. and partner nation forces.

Major General Andrew M. Rohling, the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa commander, and the U.S. Army Europe and Africa deputy commanding general said during the launch ceremony at Agadir that African Lion 2021 is “the largest U.S. military exercise ever conducted on this continent.”

Exercise African Lion 2021
Exercise African Lion 2021 map shows where the major exercises are taking place. (DVIDS)

“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 Moroccan Army’s Southern Zone.

However, Spain, which is traditionally one of the exercise’s major participants, has withdrawn its support this year.

Spain and Morocco’s Tense Relationship

Madrid has officially cited “budgetary constraints” as its reason for withdrawing from the 2021 African Lion, the Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote. Nevertheless, the actual reason was the Spanish government’s disagreement about Rabat legitimizing “the occupation of Western Sahara.” Spain has decided that “sending soldiers to these exercises would legitimize the Moroccan occupation,” El Pais wrote.

Adding to the rift with Spain was the inclusion of the town of Mahbes in the exercise (although U.S. AFRICOM did not mention the town as part of the exercise). The town is the location of a 1985 battle over Western Sahara. Mahbes is about 100km away from the town of Tindouf in Algeria where the headquarters of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front military forces are. The Polisario Front is the resistance group that wants to split Western Sahara from Morocco. 

The issue of Western Sahara is just the latest in the confrontational relationship between Madrid and Rabat. Morocco has grown to view Spain as no longer a viable strategic partner. Just recently, Morocco allowed several thousand people to cross over to Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta, over which Morocco claims sovereignty.

The exercise carries on despite the Spanish absence. 

“African Lion Is an Example of the US’s Long-term Commitment to Africa”

“African Lion 2021 is U.S. Africa Command’s premier, joint and multi-national annual exercise. African Lion is an excellent example of the United States’ long-term commitment to Africa and recognition of Africa’s strategic importance to the United States,” said U.S. AFRICOM’s commander, U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend.

U.S. Army Green Berets from the 19th SFG train Moroccan troops on the techniques of fast-roping during African Lion 2021
U.S. Army Green Berets from the 19th SFG train Moroccan troops on the techniques of fast-roping during African Lion 2021. (DVIDS)

“This exercise is all about readiness. Readiness of our partners, and readiness of our forces. It brings together various ideas, experiences, and capabilities — ultimately making us stronger partners and a more capable multi-national force,” added Townsend.

COVID-19 has not changed our focus on engaging with our Africa partners. Due to last year’s cancellation of African Lion, we had a head start in planning this year’s exercise,” said Townsend. “We understand how important this training is to our forces and our partners and how to better operate in a degraded COVID environment. We will ensure successful training while taking necessary COVID-19 precautionary measures in order to do so.”

The exercise takes place in several locations in Morocco, including Agadir, Tifnit, Tan Tan, Mahbes, Tafraout, Ben Guerir, and Kenitra, as well as in Senegal, Tunisia, and Germany. U.S. and Royal Moroccan Forces (FAR), have been joined by the armed forces of Brazil, Canada, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Senegal, and Tunisia. In addition, military observers from 30 countries are present.