Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune today in the first visit of a Pentagon chief to the North African country since 2006.
It was also the highest-level US diplomatic meeting with the new Algerian president since longtime ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted amid popular protests last year.
The meeting came a day after Esper signed a 10-year road map for defense cooperation agreement with Tunisia's defense minister and one day before an expected stop in Morocco. The trip is the latest sign that the United States sees strategic opportunity in bolstering its partnerships in North Africa amid concerns in Washington over Russia's and China’s growing influence in the region.
“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 during a ceremony in Carthage on Wednesday.
“At the same time, violent extremists continue to pose a threat not only to regional stability, but also to our homelands. The United States’ enduring partnership with like-minded countries — including here in North Africa — is key to addressing these challenges.”
“As the global partner of choice, the United States will continue to deepen our alliances and partnerships across the continent, including with Tunisia, where your democratic government and sovereignty have made much of our work in this region possible,” Esper said.
“We look forward to expanding this relationship to help Tunisia protect its maritime ports and land borders, to deter terrorism and to keep the corrosive efforts of autocratic regimes out of your country,” he said.
Esper’s visit to Algeria came a week after the head of the US Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, met with Tebboune in Algiers to discuss increased military cooperation.
Townsend also sat down with Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Said Chanegriha and Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum after having paid a similar visit to Tunis earlier this month.
Why it matters: The ouster of the Bouteflika government has presented the United States with an opportunity.
Situated on the Mediterranean between war-torn Libya and increasingly unstable Sahel countries such as Mali, Algeria has relied on Russian military hardware for decades, and far outpaces its neighbors in military spending —– even Egypt, which has more than double its population.
If approved in a referendum scheduled for November, proposed changes to Algeria’s constitution could permit the country’s forces to be deployed outside its borders, allowing it to partake in multinational missions and training.
Last year Esper suggested the Pentagon was looking at cutting AFRICOM’s already relatively slim resources to focus on deterring Russia and China. The Pentagon now says it is looking to build up its partnerships in North Africa amid concerns about Russia's growing military footprint on the Mediterranean.
Townsend appealed to Congress in January, arguing that the Trump administration’s new strategic priority of countering Russia and China must be dealt with on a global stage and at the local level, particularly in Africa, where both Beijing and Moscow have shown signs of strategic interests.
Earlier this year, Russia deployed mobile radar systems and fighter aircraft to support its Wagner mercenaries in Libya, developments that AFRICOM has publicized in detail.
What’s next: Townsend travels to US ally Morocco on Friday.
Know more: Algeria is still going through a fragile transition. Serious questions about human rights and the country’s economic future remain, Rina Bassist and Simon Speakman Cordall write.