Pentagon chief Mark Esper signed a ten-year military cooperation agreement with Tunisia on Wednesday, October 30, during his first visit to the African continent, welcoming a rapprochement to deal with the deterioration of security in Libya.
The role of the United States with the Tunisian army has developed in recent years, particularly in the areas of training and equipment for the fight against terrorism, but also in strengthening border security with the United States. Neighboring Libya. “We look forward to deepening this relationship in order to help Tunisia protect its ports and borders and roll back terrorism”, said Esper after meeting Tunisian President Kais Saïed. The goal is to face “To violent extremists who represent a threat”, but also “To our strategic competitors China and Russia”, he added in front of the graves of American soldiers who fell in North Africa.
Tunisia, considered since 2015 by Washington as an ally ” major “ in the region, has been a discreet but crucial support in the Libyan file. Libya has been plagued by internal conflicts since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, further exacerbated by the presence of international jihadists and the interference of foreign countries. The United States, which provided air support to the NATO coalition to bring down the dictator, has since retreated, largely limiting itself to strikes against jihadist dens.
Reluctance of the population
A sign of the growing ties between Tunis and Washington, the two countries regularly conduct joint military exercises. Since the fall of Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the United States has also invested a billion dollars in the Tunisian army, according to the American defense.
The agreement signed Wednesday, a roadmap whose content has not been detailed, runs over ten years in order to establish a long relationship to ensure training and after-sales in the event of an arms transfer. sophisticated, says one in the entourage of Mr. Esper.
The use of Tunisian airspace was not discussed on Wednesday and the deployment of a permanent base is not considered acceptable by Tunisia, another US source said.
Faced with the reluctance of the Tunisian population, the authorities have repeatedly denied the presence of American bases in Tunisia. But the presence of an American squadron in charge of operating drones within a Tunisian base in Bizerte had been confirmed during a court martial in 2017 in the United States, which the American specialized press had done. the echo.
“There was renewed interest” from the United States for Tunisia and Morocco, two long-standing partners, “Because the region has become more strategic over the past ten years” with the rise of jihadist groups in Libya and the Sahel, indicates Tunisian political scientist Youssef Cherif. “But Tunisia does not seem to have given its approval (to Washington) to use its airspace and its territory to carry out attacks”, he told AFP.
Direction Algiers and Rabat
In May, the US Africa Command said it was considering sending additional troops to Tunisia in light of the deteriorating situation in Libya, triggering an outcry in the country. Africom then specified that these troops would only be responsible for training and not for combat.
In Tunis, Mr. Esper also met his Tunisian counterpart Ibrahim Bartagi, who emphasized “The importance of US support in the area of border security”, in particular through electronic surveillance, according to the defense ministry.
The two men spoke about Tunisia’s role in Mali, a country hit by jihadist attacks where Tunis has deployed troops under the UN banner since last year.
Mr. Esper pointed out “The importance of an apolitical army”, on the eve of his visit to Algiers, the first visit of an American Minister of Defense since 2006. In Algeria, since February 2019, the government supported by the military has faced an unprecedented popular protest, the Hirak, hampered by the arrival of the coronavirus in March. The US minister will end his tour on Friday in Rabat, another ally ” major “ In the region.