The United States secretary of defence, Mark Esper, heads to Algeria on Thursday to boost ties at a time when the North African country is trying to mediate two long-running conflicts in neighbouring Libya and Mali.
Esper, the first defence secretary to visit Algiers in almost 15 years, hopes “to deepen cooperation with Algeria on key regional security issues, such as the threat posed by extremist groups,” a senior US military official said.
Esper, due in the country as part of a North Africa tour, will arrive in Algiers after talks in neighbouring Tunisia, before heading to Morocco.
“Algeria is a committed counterterrorism partner,” General Stephen Townsend, head of the US Africa Command, said on a recent visit to Algiers.
US military officials frequently visit Tunisia and Morocco, where defence cooperation with Washington is well established.
But Esper will be the first defence secretary to visit Algeria, an ally of Russia and China, since Donald Rumsfeld in 2006.
He is expected to be received on Thursday by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune – who is also defence minister and head of the armed forces – and the army’s chief of staff, General Said Chengriha.
“Strengthening this relationship is very important to us,” Townsend said.
“Degrading violent extremist organisations … and enhancing regional stability is a mutual must.”
Algeria is trying to reactivate its role on the regional diplomatic scene, including as a mediator in the conflicts in Mali and Libya.
Armed groups in Libya and the wider Sahel region have become an increasing concern since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Conflict in Libya since has seen multiple nations backing opposing forces, including Turkey on the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) side and Egypt, France and Russia on the other.
Mali, supported by France and UN peacekeepers, is struggling with an eight-year-old conflict that began with a Tuareg rebellion in the north that was quickly usurped by armed groups in the region.
“The Americans want to reposition themselves in the region, which has seen the arrival of new players like Turkey,” said Algerian political scientist Mansour Kedidir.
“Algeria has always been considered by the Americans as a ‘pivotal state’ whose vulnerability can engulf the whole region if it is affected by jihadists.”
The relationship between the two countries dates back decades when, during the 1954-1962 war of independence from colonial rulers France, Washington is said to have pressured Paris into negotiating with Algerian nationalists.
“The United States has a strong bilateral security relationship with Algeria that dates at least to the early days of the Global War on Terror,” said Michael Shurkin, from the California-based RAND Corporation policy think-tank.
“Their partnership has regional implications.”
Algeria was one of the first countries to offer the US support after the 9/11 attacks in New York.
But the US relationship is crucial for another reason, Shurkin noted.
“The US role must also be seen in the context of Algeria’s reluctance to work with France,” Shurkin said.
France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel as part of its campaign (Operation Barkhane) against armed groups.
Washington is also likely interested in selling weapons to Algeria, which currently receives some 90 percent of its supplies in this segment from Russia.
Just ahead of Esper’s planned visit, Chengriha met with a top Russian military delegation for discussions on the state of “military cooperation between the two countries,” Algeria’s defence ministry said in a statement.
Kedidir, the political scientist, said Esper’s visit was only a first step for the US.
“It’s a long-term job that cannot be settled in one visit,” he said.