At a time of escalating turmoil and uncertainty in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. military’s African Lion exercise, Phase II of which wrapped up last week in Agadir, Morocco, is another reminder of just how important it is that the United States continue to strengthen its relationships in the region, and of how we have a strong friend in Morocco.

African Lion, which began in the 1990s as a biennial U.S.-Morocco effort, is now an annual event -- and the largest annual U.S. joint military exercise in Africa. Some 2,500 military personnel from not just the US and Morocco, but also the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Senegal, and Tunisia, trained for weeks for the exercise, designed to address potential crises by building, as the U.S. Marine Corps put it, “familiarity and operational proficiency.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In Phase I of this year’s exercise, held in February in Agadir, a Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) was created to prepare for a simulated international crisis, taking troops through a scenario that focused on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and rapid and stable deployment operations.

U.S. Air Forces Europe Air National Guard adviser Col. Pierre Oury, who oversaw the air training component of the exercise, told Military Times, “The Moroccans… have one of the most capable air forces on the African continent, and we are very interested in working with their capabilities, and accomplishing objectives such as sharing our experiences and building stronger relationships."

This relationship building has gone, and continues to go, a long way. Morocco, which was named a major non-NATO ally in 2004, remains the only Maghreb country that is a member of the U.S.’s anti-ISIL coalition.  It was among the first Arab countries to condemn the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., and since then, it has enhanced its cooperation with the U.S. on military and counterterrorism efforts through data-sharing, law enforcement partnerships, and the interdiction of financing for terrorists. In 2011, Morocco joined the U.S. and 28 other countries as a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. In 2014, during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, Morocco and the US signed a Framework for Cooperation on Training for Civilian Security Services.

Equally important is Morocco’s leadership –- at home in the region -- in keeping the peace and fighting both terrorism and its root causes. Morocco offers expertise on its multifaceted approach, which includes traditional counterterrorism efforts, a focus on economic and human development, and an innovative international program for Imam training. Morocco has contributed troops to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa; gave France, Spain and Portugal access to its bases during the Mali crisis; and has hosted the UN-brokered peace talks between Libya’s warring factions. Recognizing, along with the U.S., the importance of a thriving continent, Morocco has strengthened its trade, economic, and social ties with its African neighbors, signing numerous pacts on everything from trade, to banking, to education, to healthcare, to agriculture with Senegal, Chad, Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire, among others.

As the U.S. confronts harsh realities in the Middle East and Africa, African Lion reminds us again that we are not alone there.

Gabriel is a former U,S. ambassador to Morocco, and currently advises the government of Morocco.