After the cancellation of the annual ‘African Lion’ exercise in 2020 due to COVID-19, two senior US Army commanders, Gen. Christopher Cavoli and Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling (Commanding General and Deputy Commanding General of US Army Europe and Africa) flew to Tunisia last week to discuss preparations for the flagship ‘African Lion 21’ multinational military exercise due to take place later this year in June. In a move that signified the first official US delegation to North Africa under the Biden administration, the commitment to ensuring not only the continuation of the exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic, but moreover the intent to undertake one of the largest operations to date – spanning three continents and six countries – indicates a possible reaffirmation of the US’ presence in Africa.
Victoria Bosomworth, Associate Aerospace and Defense Analyst at Globaldata comments: “The United States’ role in Africa has been somewhat diminished over the last few years, after a waning period under the Trump administration that witnessed the withdrawal of troops from Somalia in December 2020. Other contributing decisions that arguably reduced AFRICOM’s presence on the continent included potential budget cuts and the possible relocation of AFRICOM headquarters, as well as the merger of US Army Europe and US Army Africa to USAREUR-AF. The US’ policy outlook during this time sought to prioritize the reliance of NATO and European allies on the continent, rather than commit to direct US involvement.”
The 17th iteration of the ‘African Lion’ military exercise, set to take place in June 2021, will involve around 5000 troops from the US and from a number of African nations such as Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal. With the aim of increasing operational readiness, interoperability between troops and strengthening military relations between the states, plans for the 2021 African Lion exercise will see the participation of nine nations and a number of observer states.
Bosomworth continues: “Despite efforts by NATO and other European forces to quell insurgencies in places like Mali and continued counterterrorism operations in Somalia, slow progress has been made in attempting to contain such threats and stabilize these countries due to a number of complex factors. As a result, Al-Shabab still maintains a significant presence in the Horn of Africa region, with IS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups ranging from the Sahel to various parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Some studies citing the increased death toll as a result of terrorist attacks over the past few years have suggested the prevalence of African
jihadist activity has substantially escalated, which has arguably witnessed a shift in terms of the ‘center of gravity’ for these organizations from the Middle East to Africa. Although an unwillingness by the US to commit to boots on the ground may remain in place despite the leadership transition, this gravitational shift may prompt greater engagement with the continent from the new government in other supporting areas.
“While the Biden Administration’s strategic stance on Africa appears yet to be formally decided, Biden’s focus on renewing strategic partnerships on the continent is an encouraging sign. The United States’ possible re-engagement with Africa also comes at a time where other great powers like Russia and China are growing their footprint in many African countries, expanding both economically and militarily. Russia in particular has begun to expand their military involvement throughout the continent after an announcement late last year, which declared their intent to establish a naval base in Sudan. This was underscored by an AFRICOM statement in 2020 which pointed to Russia’s increasingly active participation in the Libyan conflict. The US’ possible strengthening of ties between surrounding countries such as Tunisia and Morocco, through this year’s African Lion exercise, may thus not only aid in counterbalancing Russian influence on the continent but also assist in attempts to contain the growing jihadi threat in Africa.”