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U.S. Seeks to Increase Engagements With African Nations

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Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper's visit to Malta and North African countries highlights America's long-term involvement in the region and the importance the United States places on relations with the nations.

Esper is visiting Malta, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco during his trip. 

"The focus of the trip is to strengthen our current alliances and partnerships in the region, as well as reaffirm the enduring U.S. military commitment to the African continent," a senior DOD official speaking on background said. 

Two men wearing face masks sit in chairs looking at each other with their hands folded in their laps.
Malta Meeting
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper, left, speaks with Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela during meetings in Malta.
Photo By: Jim Garamone, DOD
VIRIN: 200930-D-FN314-001

The secretary will discuss a range of issues with leaders of the countries. The official noted it is very much a conversation among friends. "The United States is committed to an enduring partnership with the countries of Africa based on a relationship of mutual respect and shared values," the senior official said. 

Security in the Mediterranean will obviously dominate discussions, but Esper will also look at advancing bilateral defense and security cooperation more broadly and address national security risks posed by foreign investments in critical infrastructure.

He will spend more time listening to the viewpoints of these nations. What he learns will inform discussions back in Washington.

Libya has been in chaos since the fall of the Qaddafi regime and the uncertain and violent situation in the country influences the region and beyond. Russia is trying to establish a military base in Libya. If it succeeds, any solution to the war in Libya will be harder to negotiate, officials said. 

All of the nations Esper will visit have concerns about Libya and the secretary looks forward to understanding those concerns. Officials noted the situation looks different in the region than when examining it from Washington.

But the trip is more than just consultations on an immediate crisis. It is meant to highlight the U.S. commitment to Africa. DOD officials have made hundreds of trips to the continent over the past year. 

While Esper has messages for the region, he really wants to address the continent. Africa is the second-largest continent on the globe. It is incredibly diverse and complex and gifted with natural resources. The continent is the fastest growing by population. 

It has its problems. There are more ungoverned or "under-governed" areas in Africa than anywhere else in the world. These regions attract malign influences. Violent extremist organizations pose a real threat to shaky African national governments. Boko Haram in West Africa and al Shabaab centered in Somalia are the two largest terror groups but there are many more.

The United States is committed to long-term relationships with like-minded nations of Africa, and this separates the United States from China and Russia. America is the "partner of choice" worldwide. The DOD has a part in this with helping partners build capabilities and capacity to provide stability and security for their peoples.

Eight men wearing masks sit at a long table in a conference room.
Defense Meeting
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper, second from left behind table, meets with Tunisian Defense Minister Ibrahim Bartagi in Tunis, Tunisia.
Photo By: Jim Garamone
VIRIN: 200930-D-FN314-002

In Tunisia, Esper will visit the American Battle Monuments Cemetery from World War II. Tens of thousands of American service members died in North Africa beginning Nov. 8, 1942 when the amphibious landings began in Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch.

The American graves are a tangible example of the U.S. commitment to Africa. "It's important for us to flag the fact that not only have we worked with them for so many years, we're continuing to work with them today," the senior defense official said. "We have an enduring commitment."

U.S. Africa Command has troops in many countries on the continent. U.S. forces help with training, equipping and strengthening African nations militaries. The DOD efforts are just part of the broader U.S. interagency engagement. 

The visit will also highlight that the United States is part of the broader coalition seeking to help African nations prosper. These include the United Kingdom, France and others. "This is different from China and Russia, which are attempting to upset the rules-based order that Africa has developed," the official said. 

Esper was scheduled to make the trip to the region in April, but was forced to postpone it due to the pandemic. Still U.S. engagement remained strong as U.S. military exercises with North African and West African partners continued. Conferences — both virtual and real-life — also went on as planned. 

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