Algeria: the underside of the visit of the US Secretary of Defense

The American Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, began a North African tour and was host to Algiers this Thursday: a first visit of this rank since that of Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. According to US officials, this North African tour including the three capitals, Tunis, Algiers and Rabat, has the official objective of strengthening ties with these three North African countries, discussing terrorist threats, but also “regional instability exacerbated by the pernicious activities of China and Russia on the continent [africain] “. As a reminder, Mark Esper’s meeting on Thursday with the Algerian Head of State, Abdelmadjid Tebboune – who holds the post of Minister of Defense – as well as with the Army Chief of Staff, Saïd Chengriha, was preceded by the visit to Algiers of the head of the United States Africa Command (Africom), Army General Stephen Townsend.

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“One of the most powerful armies in Africa”

Also, and according to the American firm of risk studies, North Africa Risk Consulting (Narco), “several meetings between Algerian officials and officials of the Defense Department have taken place over the past two months”. Earlier, in November 2019, a discreet meeting brought together in Washington during the ninth session of the American-Algerian military dialogue, James Anderson, Assistant Under-Secretary of Defense, and Major General Mohamed Bachar, director of the very sensitive department the employment and preparation of the Algerian Ministry of Defense.

During this meeting, the Defense Department recalled the principles of its relationship with Algiers, based in particular on ” [communs] concerning regional security through cooperation, including exchanges of expertise and lessons, military exercises, and professional military training ”. “Algeria has one of the most powerful armies in Africa and has significant expertise in counterterrorism operations. Its army has advanced platforms on land, air and sea, ”reads the DoD website. “Cautious during the months of the popular uprising, the US administration is reconnecting with what it sees as the ‘new power’, which, by and large, does not change its doxa on issues of regional security and the fight against terrorism ”, attests a diplomat in Algiers who wishes to remain anonymous. Cooperation between Algiers and Washington in the field of the fight against terrorism, which dates back to post-September 2001, when the Americans finally understood the Algerian discourse on the cross-border threat of “global jihad”, seems to be the main focus of the bilateral relationship.

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The “Jeffery Woodke” case

In this chapter of “counter-terrorism”, according to the Narco cabinet, it will probably be a question between the US delegation and the Algerians of the case of the American hostage Jeffery Woodke, the humanitarian kidnapped by the terrorists of the Islamic State in the Grand Sahara in Niger in 2016 and which would be captive in Mali. “The Algerian intelligence services have extensive networks in northern Mali and probably have some knowledge of Woodke’s whereabouts. Algiers might even be able to activate unofficial networks to communicate with Woodke’s kidnappers, ”said the Narco cabinet. As a reminder, four American soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed on October 4, 2017 by jihadists in Niger (about twenty kilometers from the Malian borders) during an operation supposed to capture one of the heads of the Islamic State in the Grand Sahara, Doundoun Cheffou, suspected by Washington of being involved in the kidnapping of Jeffery Woodke.

But beyond these aspects, where Algiers is very comfortable thanks to its track record and expertise in counterterrorism, it is the regional “instabilities” that are in question: primarily the Sahel and Libya, as well as what Washington calls “the pernicious activities of China and Russia on the continent [africain] As mentioned above.

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Don’t anger Moscow

However, coincidence of the calendar or not, Mark Esper’s visit to Algiers comes 48 hours after that of Dimitrii Chougaev, director of the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation of the Russian Federation, received with great pomp by the Lieutenant General of the Russian Federation. ‘Saïd Chengriha army. This is a way of confirming that Algiers, while investing in the efforts of “regional stability” dear to the United States, is not ready to sacrifice its long and privileged cooperation with Moscow.

During his meeting with Algerian officials on September 23, the boss of Africom “exposed to his hosts the new American priority in Libya, consisting in putting an end to the presence of the Russian private military group Wagner alongside the head of the Libyan National Army [ANL] Khalifa Haftar ”, reveals the confidential Africa Intelligence letter. “Washington wants above all to avoid the installation of Russian military bases in the country. Moscow is one of the main “godfathers” of the strong man of Cyrenaica, to the point of detaching a squadron of fighter planes in Jufra, in support of the ANL “, explains Africa Intelligence.

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Diplomatic balancing act

Last July, the Defense Department released satellite images showing, according to it, military equipment provided by the mercenary group Wagner, known to be close to the Russian president, “on the front lines” of the Libyan conflict in Sirte. , AFP reported. These photos showed Russian transport planes like the IL-76s, fighter jets, SA-22 anti-aircraft vehicles as well as a mine-resistant armored vehicle in Sirte and at Al-Khadim airbase in the eastern Libya, under the control of Marshal Haftar. Africom had also accused the Russian group of mercenaries of laying mines in and around Tripoli, in violation of a United Nations arms embargo on Libya.

Haftar, closer to the Egyptian rival, is not at all in the hearts of Algerian military and political decision-makers, but it is out of the question for Algiers to turn against the Russian ally. The confidential letter sums up the atmosphere of this Thursday’s meeting: “a great moment of diplomatic balancing act for the American envoy, but also for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune”.

The US software to convince its partners in the region of the merits of its anti-Moscow (and anti-Beijing) approach is to argue that “apart from the sale of arms for their own economic benefit, China and Russia do not do much to help counter the extremist groups who are stealing their future from Africans, ”as the Algerian site TSA reminds us, repeating the statements, in January, of General Gregory Hadfield, in charge of Africom’s intelligence.

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“Playing the long game”

But Algiers maintains its multilateral policy, refusing to adopt the polarities that prevail in the alliances that are formed and unwound in the region. Washington has always accommodated itself to the Algerian balancing act pushed to the point of diversifying its channels for the purchase of military equipment and the training of senior officers (with, obviously, a great penchant for the historical “friend” Russian). “Since the disaster of the intervention in Libya [en 2011] we listen more to our Algerian friends who militate for political and inclusive solutions, ”confided a US diplomat stationed in Algiers a few years ago. “We easily understand why Algiers refuses temporary projections like the G5 Sahel and why only an attitude of the ” playing the long game ” type, adopted by Algiers, remains the most relevant in conflicts of such complexity”, continued the Diplomat. The ex-GI of the first Gulf War Mark Esper would probably be attentive to Algiers’ arguments.

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