Moderator: Good morning to everyone from the Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record press briefing with Major General Andrew Rohling, Commander of the U.S. Army’s Southern European Task Force Africa and Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe and Africa. Major General Rohling will discuss exercise African Lion 21, a joint combined exercise led by Southern European Task Force Africa, or SETAF-AF, sponsored by U.S. Africa Command, and conducted in the Kingdom of Morocco, Tunisia, and Senegal. We will begin today’s briefing with opening remarks from Major General Rohling, then open the floor to questions about the exercise and U.S. commitment to regional stability in North Africa.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request everyone to keep that in mind and speak slowly.
I’ll now turn it over to Major General Rohling for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
Major General Rohling: Thank you, Geraldine. Thank you for everyone. Good morning. Thanks for your interest in African Lion. I look forward to talking to you today and answering your questions. I would also like to start with a really large thank you for our Moroccan, Senegalese, and Tunisian partners for hosting African Lion 21 in their respective countries.
This year’s African Lion, which is the 17th iteration, was the largest and most complex that we have had to date. Eight thousand personnel from eight different countries participated directly in the exercise, and another 15 observed the training with the potential to join for African Lion 22. Over the course of the past two weeks, we have conducted a multitude of training events across Morocco and Tunisia on the land, in the sea, and in the air, building readiness and interoperability for the joint and multinational teams. We have two more days remaining in the exercise, but I’m already incredibly proud of all the efforts that all the participants have put together.
With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Great, thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue. We’ll start the Q&A portion with one of those pre-submitted questions, and it is from Waleed Sabry from Al Watan newspaper in Bahrain, and the question is: “What is your assessment on the fight against extremist organizations like ISIS, al-Qaida, and Boko Haram?” Over.
Major General Rohling: Well, thanks, Waleed, for that question. And where we are with the fight against extremists is part of the reason that we’re conducting an exercise such as this. This exercise that we’re conducting, African Lion, gets as close as we can to the range of military operations that we expect and must be prepared for in this complex and uncertain security environment across Africa. So this exercise, as I’ve noted, involves air, ground, and naval maneuvers from the individual to the squad up to the joint task force level that involve thousands of servicemembers, again, from multiple countries.
So I think that this exercise is exactly what it is designed for and ready to compete against that extremist threat that is here across the African continent.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question, we’ll go to the live [inaudible] from Monalisa Freiha from Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: The line is open. Please go ahead with your question.
Question: Hello, this is Monalisa Freiha from Annahar newspaper, Lebanon. Thank you. General, this is the first time such exercises are held near the disputed region of Western Sahara. Is it a recognition of the Rabat position on the region, or how do you explain such moves?
Major General Rohling: Thank you, Monalisa, for your question. All locations for African Lion 21 were selected early in 2020 and they’re spread across Morocco and in areas that we’ve been – that have been widely reported. The press has been invited and it’s reported on each location for African twenty – for African Lion 21, both in the print and in the digital media. There were no African Lion 21 activities conducted south or east of Grier Labouihi. Over.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question was pre-submitted by Muath Alamri from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, and the question is: “What is your assessment of Iranian activities in Northern Africa and how can the U.S. deter such activities?” Over.
Major General Rohling: Thank you for that question. Well, as you know, this is an annually scheduled execute – or annual scheduled exercise, and in light of today’s political and security environments, it’s more important than ever that we train with our partners so that we’re ready to cooperate effectively to promote our mutual understandings and international security regardless of the threat.
Moderator: Our next question will go to the live queue and it’s from Mike Wagenheim from i24 News. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: And we have his line open. Please go ahead with your question.
Question: Good day, sir. Hope all is well. Thanks for doing this. A question for you: What type of multinational military action in this particular region do you see in the future? What avenues for cooperation do you see on that front?
Major General Rohling: Well, thanks, Mike. So there’s a wide range of military operations that range from humanitarian to disaster relief to potential conflict, and so the design of African Lion was to try to incorporate almost all of those into the scenario so that we become a little more proficient. We conducted a live humanitarian relief exercise north of Agadir that has seen over 7,000 patients conducted over 20,000 different medical operations. So real, live humanitarian assistance. We exercised a disaster relief exercise in the Port of Agadir that, much like the unfortunate incident in Lebanon where they had a large explosion in the port, that assets that were there to assist and help maintain both security and recovery was exercised. And lastly, we exercised in a command post computer-driven exercise, large-scale combat operations that would help us fight a whole different level of warfare.
So this exercise gave us the opportunity to train for and to look at ways to improve across the full spectrum of potential missions for North Africa, and Africa writ large.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Chamsidine Sane from Senegal, and the question is: “What is your opinion of France’s decision to suspend joint military operations with Malian forces and do you think this could benefit Russia and threaten Western interests in the Sahel?” Over.
Major General Rohling: Well, thank you for that question. First I’d like to thank Senegal for their participation in exercise African Lion. They have been instrumental throughout the planning and then into the execution. In fact, the Senegal rapid reaction element deployed from Senegal, partnered with Morocco, and is integral to the humanitarian assistance mission that we conducted down at the Port of Agadir. And then the aim of the training is to enhance that cooperation on regional security issues to include counter-violent extremist organization and hybrid threats involving near-peer competitors.
And then finally, with regards to your question on France, I will let the French speak for their – I cannot speak for the French in that decision. Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question will go to the live queue and it’s from Pearl Matibe from Power FM 98.7. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: And her line is open. Please go ahead with your question.
Question: Thank you very much, Major General. This is Pearl, Power FM 98.7, South Africa, but based in Washington, D.C. I wonder if you could take some time to address those on the continent – for example, in sub-Saharan Africa – who might be critics of African Lion 21. Question would be: Why was Morocco selected as the location when those critics might consider countries like Morocco and Tunisia to be disconnected from the rest of Africa? And where – I do see you did have observers from the African Union; you did have NATO participating in training with you. Could you clarify for those critics NATO’s role when it was previously understood that NATO generally operates on the continent through the African Union? Maybe clarify why NATO was part of it, and is this not seen as an exercise that benefits more the United States than the rest of Africa? Thank you.
Major General Rohling: Well, thank you, Pearl. A very meaty question. So first, why are we conducting the exercise in Morocco? This is the 17th iteration of African Lion, so the African Lion series of exercises has always been conducted here in Morocco. Morocco has been a gracious host to this exercise. But it’s important to notice, as you pointed out, that it’s not just Morocco that’s training here and the United States. The number of partners we have that are actually training is – exceeds – is eight different actual participants in the exercise, with a large number of observers that have also been here as well. So while the exercise remains in Morocco, as it has for the last 17 iterations, it is not a only U.S.-Morocco bilateral exercise and we are trying to make it as inclusive for – so anyone who’s a critic of the exercise should participate in the exercise because it’s open for everyone. And as we design African Lion 22, that invitation is there for all of African – for all the African countries to be a part of it, and I’m looking forward to those who are critical of it to join us and they’ll see the benefits of this great exercise.
With your question regarding NATO, NATO is, as you know, has recently published NATO’s Strategic Direction South that is looking at the continent of Europe not just to the – looking east but looking in a 360-degree view of NATO. If you look south from NATO, you of course find the African continent. So including NATO in this exercise helps bring together what the NATO countries bring to Africa and where Africa brings to NATO; those are two that are clearly connected, and so it’s a logical combination to exercise both continents and the countries that are involved in both. So I think it’s a logical combination between the organizations, and as I pointed out, it is most certainly not a U.S. exercise; it is a absolutely large, joint exercise with combined partners across multiple countries. So thank you, Pearl, for that question.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Patricia Bonsu from the Multimedia Group Limited in Ghana, and her question is: “Ghana has been largely praised as a very hospitable and welcoming country to foreign nationals. What is your assessment of the future of cooperation between Ghana and AFRICOM?” Over.
Major General Rohling: Well, thank you, Patricia, for that comment. Ghana is in fact a great ally and a great participant in AFRICOM activities, and in fact I can speak from the Army perspective that we have recently introduced a small Army contingent, a security force assistance element, to work with our – Ghana and the Ghana army to develop ways to cooperate into the future, and I think that we have a great future ahead of us with Ghana. They are in fact a strong partner, strong regional partner, and in fact they are participating in African Lion 21 as an observer and we look forward to their participation into African Lion 22.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Rama Gasmi from Tunis Afrique Press, or the TAP News Agency, and her question is: “Why did you choose Tunisia among the available countries to conduct the African Lion exercise and how will this boost cooperation between the U.S. and Tunisia on a military level?” Over.
Major General Rohling: Thanks, Rama, for that question. I wouldn’t say we chose Tunisia, I would say that Tunisia chose to be part of African Lion 21 as any other country had the opportunity to be, starting almost a year ago plus, and in the past that they have participated in multiple other African Lions that we’ve participated in. Tunisia remains a strong ally of the United States with strong partnership. I visited Tunisia as part of African Lion 21. They are well tied into the exercise and well tied into trying to maintain stability and security for the African continent. So Tunisia is a great partner, not just for the United States but a great partner for all of the African continent, and they have been and will be key for us as we go into future African Lions.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Ali Laggoune from Al Bilad TV in Algeria, and his question is: “Did parts of the African Lion exercise take place in the Sahara region, and if so, what message does this send to neighboring countries such as Algeria?” Over.
Major General Rohling: Well, thank you, Ali, for that question, and I think we talked about that a little bit earlier. Again, just to reiterate, the – all locations for African Lion 21 were selected early, in 2020. They’re spread across Morocco, as we previously talked about. The press has been invited and reported, both digitally and in print, on every location for African Lion 21. There were no African Lion 21 locations or activities conducted south or east of Grier Labouihi. Thank you again for the question.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Fadoua Kadiri from the Moroccan News Agency, and the question is: “What are the prospects for U.S.-Moroccan military cooperation?” Over. Oh, sorry, and “your assessment of Morocco’s role in African Lion.” Over.
Major General Rohling: Well, that’s a great question. First of all, it’s important to notice that no – that the United States and Morocco have had 200 years of partnership. In fact, the – our oldest and first country that recognized the United States was Morocco. So I would assess our ability and our future as limitless, as it has been for the last 200 years. We have a strong partnership, we maintain a strong partnership, and I see a strong partnership into the future. Morocco is a key ally for us and a key part of stability and security for all of Africa, and we appreciate all that Morocco has done as our host for African Lion 21.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Eric Schmitt of the New York Times, and his question is: “Please assess the spreading al-Qaida/ISIS threat in the Maghreb, especially in the Sahel, and how it is impacting countries like Senegal.” Over.
Major General Rohling: Well, thank you, Eric, for the question. Clearly, violent extremist organizations in the Sahel have an impact across stability for all of the Sahel and Africa, and it’s a threat to everyone not just in Africa but across Europe. And so exercises such as African Lion help maintain our readiness and our ability to deal with such a threat, and so the partnership you’ve seen today – again, with over 15 observer countries and eight participants – show the solidarity towards fighting extremism and instability across the region. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Our final question is from Mohamed Abdallah from Nile News TV in Egypt, and the question is: “Could countries like Egypt be included in this exercise in the future?” Over.
Major General Rohling: Well, great. And in fact Egypt is included in this exercise; they have observers that are here right now and we look forward to how Egypt wishes to participate in African Lion 22. So I’m excited that Egypt is here. I hope that what they’ve seen is – interests them to be a greater participant into the future. So I’m excited to have them.
Moderator: Thank you. I’ll now turn it back over to you, sir, for your closing remarks.
Major General Rohling: Thanks, Geraldine. As we’re nearing the end of this year’s exercise, we’re already of course looking forward with anticipation and promise to African Lion 22. We’ve gained an incredible experience over the past few weeks, and we are already building upon that momentum. We see African Lion’s 18th iteration to grow exponentially. As we continue to watch world events closely, we know that threats and challenges exist on every continent. Our goal is to bring together partners and allies to ensure we are ready to address security challenges, whether that be humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, or conflict. Judging from the progress we’ve made in 2021, I know that this team will be even stronger when we execute African Lion 22. Thanks again for all of you for your insightful questions and helping tell the world about this important exercise. Again, thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you, Major General. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Major General Rohling for joining us and thank you to all of our callers for participating. If you have any follow-up questions about today’s call, you may contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you for joining us and have a great day.