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Navy secretary mends fences in Morocco after U.S. troops sent home

Aug. 15, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus meets with Moroccan Gen. Abdelaziz Bennani during a stop Monday in Rabat, Morocco.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus meets with Moroccan Gen. Abdelaziz Bennani during a stop Monday in Rabat, Morocco. (MC1 Arif Patani / Navy)
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Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus meets Aug. 13 with Marines assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania. (MC1 Arif Patani / Navy)

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus began his tour of African countries Monday with a visit to Morocco, where just four months ago, officials abruptly canceled an annual training exercise and sent 1,400 U.S. troops packing.

Mabus spent the day visiting with military and governmental officials to discuss the way forward. His spokeswoman, Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, said the secretary addressed several issues, including the mutual benefits of joint exercises like African Lion, the largest military exercise conducted within U.S. Africa Command.

Mabus “emphasized the importance of continuing engagements as we work together to address security issues in the region and that we looked forward to continuing our partnership in the future,” Lawrence said.

This past April, hundreds of Marines, sailors and soldiers — as well as 900 Moroccan troops — were in place to start the exercise when officials there became upset that President Obama had backed having the U.N. monitor human rights issues in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The exercise was canceled and all 1,400 U.S. troops were sent home.

Paul Sullivan, a professor who teaches security studies at Georgetown University, said the issue of that disputed territory remains incredibly emotional for Moroccans, comparing it to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But he still saw the Moroccan reaction of canceling African Lion as a short-term phenomenon — one that likely won’t be repeated as both countries see the relationship as too important to risk further damage.

Now, with increased regional instability and terror threats on U.S. interests across Northern Africa, Morocco remains one of the most important allies with which the U.S. should partner, Sullivan said.

“Morocco has a lot of diplomatic clout going all the way to the Gulf region,” Sullivan said. “Clearly intelligence cooperation, war games like the one that was canceled and the relations many Moroccans have throughout the region in trying to stabilize situations would be beneficial.”

Mabus, Lawrence said, told Moroccan officials that the U.S. military looks forward to advancing their partnership. Tough economic times for both countries make working together a benefit, she said, so Mabus took the opportunity to reaffirm the commitment.

Large-scale exercises should not be the sole focus, however, Sullivan said.

“The big war games are good for newspaper headlines and front page pictures, and can be good for developing relations,” he said. “Yes, they’re important. But there are other smaller, quieter things that we can do to develop those relations.”

Exchange programs for military officers and enlisted personnel, or small scale-training exercises where troops from each country can learn from each other, can be incredibly effective, he added.

Mabus’ other stops in Africa have included Mauritania, which, like Morocco, borders Algeria. While there, he dropped in on the U.S. embassy in Nouakchott and posed for photos with Marine security guards.

The Navy’s social media team is tracking the secretary’s trip on Twitter, using hashtags such as #PartnershipsMatter or #PresenceMatters.

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