Mark Esper Algeria visit 1001
Algiers CNN  — 

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrived in Algeria Thursday to meet with the country’s president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a rare visit to the North African country by a top US official.

“My meeting today with the president and members of the military went extremely well, there are a number of areas where we plan to increase our cooperation, in areas such as counterterrorism,” Esper said after leaving his meeting at the presidential palace in Algiers.

The trip comes as the Trump Administration seeks to push back on Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

Esper’s visit, the first by an American Defense Secretary since 2006, is part of a larger push to boost ties with the North African nation, coming just days after the top general overseeing US military operations traveled to the country to meet with Algerian leadership.

“We would like to strengthen our ties with Algeria, and we look forward to both increasing engagements and furthering our cooperation,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of US Africa Command, said in a statement following his meeting with Tebboune.

Algeria commands a large military encompassing some 130,000 personnel, spends approximately six percent of its GDP on defense and is the world’s sixth largest importer of arms according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Unlike some of its neighbors such as Tunisia and Morocco, two long time American allies, Algeria has not had much of a relationship with the US military.

Since achieving independence from France in 1962 Algiers has historically looked to the Soviet Union and later Russia as a source of much of its military equipment, with Moscow providing some 67% of arms exports to Algeria from 2015-2019, according to SIPRI. China ranks second as the source of Algerian military equipment, providing 13% of Algeria’s arms imports.

The relative absence of a US-Algerian military relationship is something that the Pentagon hopes to change with Esper’s visit.

“We don’t engage them quite as much because their ties have been towards others,” a US defense official told CNN.

“There’s a chance to maybe push the door open a little bit in expanding our bilateral relationship with them,” the official added.

China has also invested heavily in Algerian infrastructure despite Algerian regulations on foreign investment, with Chinese firms helping to build a massive mosque in Algiers, considered to be the biggest in Africa.

Esper has been vocal about the Trump Administration’s desire to push back on Russian and Chinese influence in North Africa, accusing Beijing and Moscow of engaging in “predatory behavior … meant to undermine African institutions, erode national sovereignty, create instability, and exploit resources throughout the region,” during a speech in Tunisia on Wednesday.

Political change welcomed by US

A defense official said that the Pentagon feels that recent developments in Algeria including pro-democracy protests that helped lead to the ouster of long-time octogenarian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019, a new government and proposed changes to the country’s constitution have all contributed to an environment that makes an expanded US-Algeria relationship possible.

One proposed change to the country’s constitution would for the first time allow Algerian troops to be deployed outside of the country to participate in training exercises or to take part in U.N. or African Union-led missions, a change US officials point to as a promising sign of Algiers’ willingness to contribute to regional stability.

But criticism of the current Algerian government continues among protesters demanding change, particularly over press freedom and political rights, possibly complicating any enhancement of the relationship with the US.

Many of the protesters see the new constitution as unsatisfactory with some pledging to boycott a November referendum on the draft document but US officials expect the referendum to pass.

A years long civil war between Algerian Islamists and government forces during the 1990s helped give birth to some of the region’s most high profile terrorist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which has carried out a number of attacks in Algeria and throughout the region.

AQIM’s founder, the Algerian born Abdelmalek Droukdal, was killed in June by a French military raid in Mali that was supported by US military intelligence and targeting assistance.

But concerns about al Qaeda and ISIS-linked groups remain, particularly in Algeria’s southern neighbor Mali where extremists have been able to operate despite the efforts of a French-led regional counterterrorism operation.

US officials have expressed concerns that a recent mutiny by Malian troops which led to the ouster of the country’s civilian leaders has further destabilized the regional situation and risks allowing al Qaeda linked groups to expand amid the instability.

The Trump administration had been weighing additional cuts to its counter-terrorism operations in Africa including its support to French forces in the region following an earlier reduction in US troops on the continent in 2018. However, Pentagon officials stress that no final decisions have been made.

During his visits to Tunis and Algiers, Esper addressed the challenge of terrorism in the region, calling on countries to work together to combat the threat.

The last US Defense Secretary to visit Algeria was Donald Rumsfeld in 2006.