US Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited four North African states last week, reviving American efforts to reshape its focus on the continent. In February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a tour of several African nations in a bid to increase ties with Washington. The Trump administration was said to be reevaluating the US commitment to operations in the Sahel, but was clear that it wanted to do something different on the continent.

First African Trip for Esper

Esper has held his position as head of the Defense Department since July 2019, but his trip to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Malta was his first visit to the continent. It’s not unusual, however, for his department to not pay the continent the same attention to Africa that’s afforded areas such as the Middle East and Asia; the last time a defense secretary from Washington visited any African state was in 2006, as CNN reported.

However, with operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria driving terrorists out of the Middle East, many extremist fighters have found refuge in the Sahel. Recently, France has been the primary Western state spearheading counterterrorism operations out of Mali, but that battle has been uphill, a problem exacerbated by Malian tribal politics.

Whereas Pompeo’s trip was more economically and politically-oriented, Esper’s naturally sported more military overtones. The main purpose for the Trump administration dispatching Esper was two-fold: to strengthen military partnerships to enhance the counterterrorism security apparatus on the continent and convince states to choose the US over China and Russia for their needs.

Esper’s greatest challenge for his trip lied in Algeria where Washington is hoping to capitalize on shifting political waters that might be more favorable to the US. For the past 60 years, the state has predominantly relied on the Soviet Union and Russia for military supplies. Although the US is always seeking stronger military alliances, often these entail weapons purchase agreements, and could be viewed as the driving factor.

In return, Washington also gains a foothold wherever it sells arms and technology. Not only can it gain a friend across the globe and more options from which to stage operations, it also gains insight into other nations’ internal defense workings.

China and Russia Are On Washington’s Mind

In Algeria’s case, the US relationship has essentially been nonexistent, giving the Trump administration a far-out goal to strive for.

“We don’t engage them quite as much because their ties have been towards others,” a Pentagon source explained to CNN. “There’s a chance to maybe push the door open a little bit in expanding our bilateral relationship with them.”

Behind Russia, China is the next largest supplier of weapons for Algeria.

“Today, our strategic competitors China and Russia continue to intimidate and coerce their neighbors while expanding their authoritarian influence worldwide, including on this continent,” Esper said at an event at the North American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia. “At the same time, violent extremists continue to pose a threat not only to regional stability, but also to our homeland. The United States’ enduring partnership with like-minded countries — including here in North Africa — is key to addressing these challenges.” 

Washington’s goal is to partner with other states to offer an alliance that isn’t hostile and malicious like Russia and China, he said. Only with the the US can African states retain their sovereignty and avoid answering to Beijing or Moscow.

Algeria is at a Turning Point

Esper’s sales pitch to Algeria comes at the right time. Following pro-democracy protests that forced out President Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year, there is hope a new constitution will pass via referendum next month. One change would include the ability for the nation’s armed forces to be deployed internationally and take part in training exercises, held by the UN, African Union, or the US.

If the new Algerian government is willing once a new constitution is approved, the US is keen to make it a regional partner. The state could prove vital should Washington decide to take a more active role in combating terrorism in the Sahel. 

“Algeria has always been considered by the Americans as a ‘pivotal state’ whose vulnerability can engulf the whole region if it is affected by jihadists,” said Algerian political scientist Mansour Kedidir. Buffing Algeria with a US military partnership could also ward off a threat in the east posed by extremists in Libya.

Region Ripe for Dealmaking

To put it simply, with French and UN Peacekeeping forces unable to gain ground in the Sahel, Algeria could play a critical role should terrorism spread further across North Africa. Washington saw an opportunity open with the new political climate and Esper has made a play to that end.

The US defense secretary also signed 10-year military agreements with Tunisia and Morocco. Both states have boasted strong ties with America, particularly since the Arab Spring saw Tunisia emerge as a successful democracy. Washington considers both to be major Non-NATO allies in the region and they are key cogs in American counterterrorism operations across North Africa.

Malta Resists Agreeing to SOFA

Esper also stopped in Malta, meeting with the state’s prime minister and president. Washington’s goals with Malta are less ambitious as the island state is a comparatively smaller power in the Mediterranean. However, it does have a vital port that could be harnessed to boost maritime security.

The US has been trying to convince the Maltese government to agree to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would govern foreign troops deployed within Malta’s borders. Washington wants it so American soldiers can have greater authority on Hurd’s Bank, a common smuggling route. 

Instead, the Maltese government proposed a weaker agreement which the US rejected, so the likelihood of a SOFA coming to fruition with Malta continues to elude US politicians. 

Esper’s tour of North Africa is an overt sign that Washington is gearing up to make a push to defend its influence across the region. With China and Russia gobbling up weapon sales that could be going to American producers and regional instability driving demand, it’s America’s turn to project power. Visits to Tunisia and Morocco were mostly formalities, but Algeria has great potential for future US partnerships if it can be convinced to forsake Moscow and Beijing.

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