Where does US-Tunisian military cooperation end?

Tunisians are opposed to the US-Tunisian military cooperation under the pretext of fighting terrorism, claiming that it undermines the country’s sovereignty and independence.

al-monitor A member of the Tunisian army's special units stands in front of military equipment given to Tunisia by the United States, at a military base in Tunis, Tunisia, May 12, 2016. Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

us-tunisian relations, terrorism, military operation, john kerry, bilateral relations, beji caid essebsi, barack obama, air force

Nov 1, 2016

Tunisia is once again embroiled in the controversy about housing a secret US military base. A report by The Washington Post Oct. 26 claimed that the United States has deployed unmanned aircraft to a facility in Tunisia — without specifying the exact location — to conduct spy missions in neighboring Libya.

Air Force Reaper “drones began flying out of the Tunisian base in late June” and “played a key role in an extended US air offensive against an Islamic State [IS] stronghold in Libya,” the newspaper said.

The report has again sparked the controversy about the US intentions to establish a military base in Tunisia that first emerged in November 2013, following the visit of Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of the US forces in the US Africa Command to Tunis at that time. The controversy further renewed debates about national sovereignty and the goals behind the US-Tunisian cooperation and bilateral relations in terms of the war on terrorism.

According to The Washington Post, the unmanned aircraft flying out of the Tunisian facility are conducting spy missions on IS strongholds in the Libyan city of Sirte.

However, according to another report by Reuters Oct. 26, quoting sources in the US government, the Tunisian military base was used as “a launch pad for strikes against IS, as part of the US offensive to support the Libyan forces fighting to expel IS from the city of Sirte.”

The Tunisian Ministry of Defense, however, denied that Tunisian soil is being used to launch strikes against Libya. In a statement Oct. 26, the ministry said, “We refute what has been circulated in a number of foreign news outlets claiming the presence of US military bases in Tunisia and that the Tunisian soil is being used to strike targets in Libya.”

The ministry had announced in March that “the bilateral military cooperation between Tunisia and the United States [is limited] to training at the hands of two US military men for Tunisian armed forces in terms of the use of sophisticated military equipment, security intel and surveillance systems that the Tunisian army had acquired to enhance its border surveillance system in order to detect any suspicious movements on the border.”

Tunisian Defense Minister Farhat Horchani announced Oct. 27 that his country has recently received from the United States reconnaissance planes and unmanned drone systems for training and to monitor the southern borders and detect any suspicious movements.

Noteworthy is that the Tunisian government declined to make further comments to the media on the issue, contenting itself with the Defense Ministry’s statement.

This comes in the context of US President Barack Obama’s policy. Obama designated Tunisia in May 2015 to be a major non-NATO ally during a visit by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to the United States. During the same visit, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding providing for strengthening cooperation in the military and security sphere and the fight against terrorism.

In November 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Tunisia and participated in the US-Tunisian strategic dialogue sessions, which are part of a mechanism aimed at strengthening bilateral relations between the United States and Arab Maghreb countries at high-level periodic meetings.

In March, Tunisian media leaked reports on said dialogue session, revealing that Tunisia agreed to receive US troops on its territories and a memorandum was signed under the title “Draft agreement on the US forces legal status in Tunisia.”

Ahmed Mannai, the head of the Tunisian Institute for International Relations, considered the article in The Washington Post to be an “affirmation of the US intentions to gain a foothold in Tunisia even though this is limited to military personnel offering training for Tunisian forces or advisers.”

“It is unfortunate that the Tunisian government is not dealing with enough transparency with the public opinion in regard to cooperation with the United States in the fight against terrorism,” Mannai told Al-Monitor.

He said, “The content of the bilateral agreements signed between the two countries in November 2015 during Kerry’s visit to Tunisia has yet to be revealed. However, according to media leaks, these agreements allow the deployment of US forces in Tunisia. The question is why the [Tunisian] authorities did not talk about them and submit them to parliament for discussion. They called them a memorandum instead of agreement so as to not bind themselves to obtain parliamentary approval. All this indicated that the state is seeking to hide some dangerous aspects in this mysterious cooperation. The Washington Post said that the Obama administration has kept the negotiations about the secret base a secret for over a year, so as to not embarrass authorities.”

Mannai added, “The United States is using the war on terrorism as a pretext to ensure its military presence in Tunisia. It is true that the current US presence [in Tunisia] is limited to military trainers and unmanned aircraft, but it is obvious that things will develop later on under the same pretext. History tells us that the United States — once it is present in an area — is there to stay without any excuse. This is the case in the Gulf, Japan, South Korea and Cuba. However, the Tunisian authorities are to blame here as they have undermined the country’s sovereignty. They could have preserved cooperation with the United States without direct military presence that might compromise the independence of the country.”

In contrast, writer Munzer Badyafi told Al-Monitor, “I don’t believe the United States needs direct military presence in Tunisia to fight against terrorism or for other goals. The direct military presence and military bases are something long overdue and an expensive logistics process to no avail in comparison with the new technologies that are more effective and less costly. This is especially true for a country that possesses enormous information capabilities and sophisticated satellites. This is not to mention that the concepts of national sovereignty and independence have lost their connotation especially since the world has turned into a small village. We cannot understand the fast changes in the world and where we stand vis-a-vis this change if we are still basing our understanding on expired concepts and convictions.”

It appears that the controversy on the extent of the US-Tunisian cooperation is likely to gain more steam as a large portion of the Tunisian elite, young people and leftist forces are strongly against the US presence in Tunisia under any circumstances whatsoever. This is while Tunisian officials, namely Essebsi, are banking on the United States militarily and economically as evidenced during his last visit to Washington in May. The United States, on the other hand, is going through its own policy serving its interests on Tunisian soil, shrugging off any criticism by the parties in Tunisia.

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