On Friday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper concluded a fruitful trip to north Africa where he renewed U.S.’s bilateral military cooperation with Morocco and Tunisia.
The renewed arrangements with the two north African countries will run through 2030. The American support will help protect them from the lawlessness in Libya and the Sahel. Libya borders Tunisia to the southeast and the Sahel borders Morocco to the south.
The U.S. and Tunisia have maintained close relations. The American military has provided Tunisian military members with training and helped it in securing its border with Libya. A joint U.S.-German venture in Tunisia has implemented an electronic surveillance program to help secure the border.
Since the beginning of the 2011 Libyan civil war, violence has spilled over into Tunisian territory. In particular, two attacks in November 2015 killed over 60 tourists. Later that year a bomb targeting a bus of presidential security guards killed 12.
Tunisia has been a supporter of the U.S. in the war on terrorism. It has been a target of Islamic terrorists since it supports democracy and is one of the more moderate Islamic countries.
Secretary Esper, Tunisian President Kaïs Saied, and Tunisian Defense Minister Brahim Bartagi also met to honor the 6,500 WWII dead in the American military cemetery in Carthage.
In the case of Morocco, it has always been a friend of Washington’s and a traditional non-NATO ally. It was among the first countries to recognize the United States in 1777 during the Revolutionary War.
Morocco has also been a major supporter of the G5 Sahel nations. It borders Mauritania, a member of the group, with whom it seeks improved relations. Mauritania would be a key vote in allowing Morocco into the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), something Rabat has wanted for some time.
Morocco has warned leaders of the G5 and the U.N. about the growing influence of violent extremists of the Islamic State (ISIS). Last month it took down a Morocco-based group who was plotting terrorist activities in the Sahel.
The country’s strategic location makes it a gateway to Africa. The U.S. had a major airbase in Kenitra for years monitoring Soviet naval activity in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean during the 1960s and 1970s. The base was transferred back to Moroccan Air Force personnel in 1977.
In March, the U.S. completed a $250 million dollar sale of American-made M88A2 tank recovery vehicles to Morocco while Congress also approved the sale of 25 F-16 fighter jets.
“Morocco is a country we have been friends with for many, many years, and I am confident that we will remain friends and strategic partners for generations to come,” Esper said.
“Now more than ever, our two nations are working closely to tackle the challenges of an increasingly complex security environment ranging from counterterrorism and other transnational threats to regional instability and broader strategic challenges,” he added.
“We do this together to promote the security, stability, and the prosperity of our shared goals and our peoples.”
One key area for cooperation has been the annual “African Lion” exercise, which draws participants from across Africa. “It is a key training and exercise event for many, many years, not just between the United States and Morocco,” Esper said.