Marines from Task Force African Lion 13 and servicemembers from Joint Task Force-Port Opening, U.S. Transportation Command, begin the offload of vehicles and equipment to support Exercise African Lion 13 in the Port of Agadir, Morocco, on April 6. (Sgt. Tatum Vayavananda / Marine Corps)
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Hundreds of Marines with Task Force African Lion have suddenly been left with a lot less to do after Morocco abruptly canceled the huge annual exercise on Tuesday, just days after the Marines arrived.
The surprising turn of events came about after the Obama administration supported the placement of United Nations human rights monitors in the disputed Western Sahara territory, according to U.S. officials. The official word about the “deferment” of the exercise reached U.S. troops Tuesday night, according to Capt. Lauren Schulz, a Marine Corps spokeswoman in the coastal Moroccan city of Agadir
Close to 1,400 U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines participating in African Lion 2013, the largest exercise in U.S. Africa Command, are now planning to pack up and redeploy out of Morocco. The Marines, led by 14th Marines, 4th Marine Division, a Marine Corps Forces Reserve artillery unit out of Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, but with subordinate units spread across 13 states, have been training for the event since September.
The Marines are still at the training locations in Morocco and doing some training, Schulz said.
Led by Marine Corps Forces Africa, the exercise was to involve 900 members of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces and, for the first time, members of the Federal Republic of Germany Armed Forces. Thirteen African and European countries sent observers: Belgium, Egypt, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Senegal, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania and Malta.
The exercise aimed to provide combined arms training for U.S. and Moroccan ground and air forces, while simultaneously providing humanitarian assistance to local residents. The expected training involved Maritime Prepositioning Forces offloading and onloading equipment, establishing a command post, live-fire and maneuvering, peacekeeping operations, an intelligence-capacity-building workshop, amphibious operations, aerial refueling and low-level flight training. In addition, medical, dental and optometry assistance projects were planned.
For the Marine Corps, it provided an opportunity to showcase total force integration and the service’s capabilities in a wide variety of missions.
The first phase of the exercise was a success, Schulz said. The USNS Dahl, a cargo ship with Military Sealift Command, delivered more than 250 short tons of equipment to the port of Agadir on April 6, including M777A2 Howitzers, armored Humvees, gear and food. The troops also established a command post and conducted an intelligence capacity-building workshop.
The Moroccans’ decision to end the exercise was a setback for three of AFRICOM’s strategic goals:
Enhance Morocco’s effectiveness in fighting terrorism
Promote the Moroccan military’s adherence to the principle of civilian control and its ability to conduct operations respecting recognized international human rights and military standards
Advance the Moroccan military’s capacity for national self-defense
Mustapha Khalfi, a Moroccan spokesman who doubles as the minister of communication, summoned journalists Tuesday to express his government’s anger over initiatives to broaden the U.N. mission’s mandate in Western Sahara to include human rights monitoring.
“It is an attack on the national sovereignty of Morocco and will have negative consequences on the stability of the whole region,” he warned. “We count on the wisdom of the members of the Security Council to avoid such initiatives.”
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1976, sparking a decades-long battle for independence by the Polisario Front group, which ended with a U.N.-brokered 1991 cease-fire.
Ownership of the mineral-rich region is an incredibly sensitive matter for the Moroccans. Morocco has proposed a wide autonomy for Western Sahara, but the Polisario insist on the right to self-determination through a referendum. Neither side has budged and sporadic talks have ended in a stalemate.
The U.N. observer mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, currently has 183 military observers, 26 troops and six civilian police and its mandate for the next year is being examined next week.
Khalfi described the initiative to expand MINURSO’s mandate as “unjustified” in light of Morocco's efforts to improve human rights throughout country, including the annexed territory.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International, however, expressed concern recently over the harassment of pro-independence activists and the alleged use of torture in Western Sahara.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.