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US Can’t Find Its Roar on African Lion’s Sahara Issues
Members of the US and Moroccan special forces disembark off a CH-47 Chinook military helicopter as they take part in the African Lion military exercise near the city of Tifnit in southwestern Morocco, June 17, 2021. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

US Can’t Find Its Roar on African Lion’s Sahara Issues

US military won’t explicitly deny what others are confirming in Western Sahara

The US military continues its coyness surrounding its military activities in the disputed Western Sahara.

Exercise African Lion, which started on June 7 and concludes on Friday, has brought together the armies of allied countries, including the US and its partners, Morocco and Senegal, along with the UK, Canada, Brazil, Tunisia, the Netherlands and Italy, as well as the Atlantic Alliance, for a total of some 8,000 troops. The operations have been conducted on land, in the air and at sea. Military observers from some 15 countries representing Africa, Europe and the Americas are attending the exercise, with an eye to joining next year. Egypt is among the observer countries this year.

Moroccan and other media have claimed that locations of military exercises taking place during African Lion would include the disputed Western Sahara region, around 80% of which is controlled, and all of which has long been claimed, by Morocco. About 20% of the territory is controlled by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which has long called for an internationally backed referendum of Western Sahara residents to determine the region’s future.

As a key part of last year’s Trump White House-brokered normalization agreement between Morocco and Israel, the United States became the first major power to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The Biden administration has never explicitly confirmed that it has kept that policy in place, but current State Department maps of Morocco include Western Sahara.

Morocco’s armed forces highlighted the inclusion of Mahbes in African Lion. Mahbes is the location of a 1985 battle over Western Sahara. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) did not mention it as part of the exercises. African Lion is also taking place in the regions of Agadir, Tifnit, Tan Tan, Tafraoute, Ben Guerir and Kenitra.

The exercises in Mahbes are especially significant because the town is less than 50 kilometers from the Algerian border and approximately 100 kilometers from Tindouf, which serves as the headquarters for the Algerian-backed Polisario Front military forces, which have waged a long-running war against Morocco for control over Western Sahara.

During African Lion, multiple media outlets showed the US testing HIMRAS rocket launchers in what reports claimed was in the area of Mahbes. The HIMRAS system carries six rockets with an effective firing range of 300 kilometers. Mahbes was reportedly also the scene of a paratrooper deployment in an exercise that tested rapid reaction and mobilization.

Still, the US military has gone to great semantic lengths to avoid confirming or denying exercises in Western Sahara. AFRICOM and military officials have given The Media Line and other outlets slightly different versions or combinations of the following when questioned on African Lion locations:

“Exercise locations are spread across Morocco, from Kenitra Air Base in the north to Tan Tan and Grier Labouihi training complex in the south. The locations were selected based on one criterion – making sure that the largest military training exercise in Africa continues to enhance the US-Moroccan security partnership, and our relationship with other participating nations, as we work together to secure regional stability. Greir Labouihi is the southernmost training location in Morocco where the African Lion exercise is taking place.”

The statements always note that the locations were selected in the summer of 2020. That time frame came before the US recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara

Nevertheless, The Media Line followed up with AFRICOM, noting that it was unclear from the initial statements whether AFRICOM was counting Western Sahara as Moroccan territory or not.

AFRICOM North Africa Media Chief Bardha Azari refused to provide further clarity, directing The Media Line instead to the State Department for such policy issues. Essentially, AFRICOM’s policy seems to be that if it ignores mentioning Western Sahara, then it can avoid dealing with the political issues that come with it. Nowhere can be found an outright denial by the US of African Lion exercises taking place in Western Sahara.

Spain withdrew its participation from African Lion, with Spanish outlet El País reporting that Spain’s government did not wish to “legitimize the occupation of the Sahara.” Spain’s Defense Ministry officially cited budgetary restrictions for withdrawing from this year’s exercises, after participating in the joint military maneuvers for the past few years. In fact, Spain did not even send observers. Spain controlled the territory now called Western Sahara from 1884 to 1976, giving it up following Moroccan demands and international pressure, mainly stemming from United Nations resolutions regarding decolonization.

Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling, US Army Southern European Task Force-Africa commander and US Army Europe and Africa deputy commanding general for Africa, did provide clarity on some of African Lion’s other objectives and outcomes, including how the exercises could help provide for more multinational military activity in the region.

“There’s a wide range of military operations here that range from humanitarian to disaster relief to potential conflict, and so the design of African Lion was to try to incorporate almost all of those into the scenario so that we become a little more proficient,” Rohling told The Media Line.

“We conducted a live humanitarian relief exercise north of Agadir covering over 20,000 different medical operations. So, real, live humanitarian assistance. We exercised a disaster relief exercise in the Port of Agadir that, much like the unfortunate incident in Lebanon where they had a large explosion in the port, that assets that were there to assist and help maintain both security and recovery was exercised. And lastly, we exercised in a command post computer-driven exercise, large-scale combat operations that would help us fight a whole different level of warfare. So, this exercise gave us the opportunity to train for and to look at ways to improve across the full spectrum of potential missions for North Africa, and Africa writ large,” Rohling said.

Tunisia joined Morocco in hosting exercises this year.

“Tunisia remains a strong ally of the United States with strong partnership. I visited Tunisia as part of African Lion 21. They are well tied into the exercise and well tied into trying to maintain stability and security for the African continent. So, Tunisia is a great partner, not just for the United States but a great partner for all of the African continent, and they have been and will be key for us as we go into future African Lions,” said Rohling.

Separately, the US military claims it has carried out a simulated strike on a pair of S-400 missiles as part of African Lion. The Russian S-400 air defense system is considered one of the best in the world, with the ability to destroy fighter jets, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and drones. The US Army’s Southern European Task Force-Africa (SETAF-AF) conducted Command Post Exercise (CPX), a simulated war game, in Morocco last week, in which two S-400 missiles were targeted.

SETAF-AF released a video of a CPX run at a facility in Agadir. An officer can be heard on the video saying, “Two strikes were conducted against those two S-400s.”

Russia operationalized the S-400 in 2007 and has deployed it in a number of conflict zones, including in Syria. However, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the S-400 has not been tested in a serious war situation.

Moscow has, though, been keen on exporting it. Most notably, Turkey, despite being a NATO member, acquired the S-400 in 2017. That led to an extended spat between Ankara and Washington, resulting in sanctions on Turkey and its booting from the US’s F-35 fighter jet program. The subject remained a point of contention in this week’s meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq are among other states that have discussed with Moscow the possibility of acquiring the missile system, according to CNBC. By targeting the S-400 and releasing the aforementioned video, the US is putting would-be buyers of the S-400 on notice that the missile itself might not live up to the hype, likely in hope of deterring its purchase.

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