On May 19th, President Obama finally addressed the Arab Spring in earnest. He was unambiguous about standing with the protesters and against repressive governments, asserting that “America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them.”
Four days earlier, the very demonstrators the president sided with had marched in Temara, Morocco. They were heading for a facility suspected of housing a secret government interrogation facility to press for political reforms. It was then that the kingdom’s security forces attacked.
"I was in a group of about 11 protesters, pursued by police in their cars," Oussama el-Khlifi, a 23-year-old protester from the capital, Rabat, told Human Rights Watch (HRW). “They forced me to say, ‘Long live the king,' and they hit me on my shoulder. When I didn't fall, they clubbed me on the head and I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I found myself at the hospital, with a broken nose and an injured shoulder."
About a five-hour drive south, another gathering was taking place under far more hospitable circumstances. In the seaside city of Agadir, a ceremony marking a transfer of military command was underway. "We're here to support... bilateral engagement with one of our most important allies in the region," said Colonel John Caldwell of the U.S. Marine Corps at a gathering to mark the beginning of the second phase of African Lion, an annual joint-training exercise with Morocco’s armed forces.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Pentagon’s regional military headquarters that oversees operations in Africa, has planned 13 such major joint-training exercises in 2011 alone from Uganda to South Africa, Senegal to Ghana, including African Lion. Most U.S. training missions in the Greater Middle East are, however, carried out by Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees wars and other military activities in 20 countries in the Greater Middle East.
“Annually, USCENTCOM executes more than 40 exercises with a wide range of partner nations in the region,” a military spokesman told TomDispatch. “Due to host-nation sensitivities, USCENTCOM does not discuss the nature of many of our exercises outside our bilateral relationships.”
Of the dozens of joint-training exercises it sponsored these last years, CENTCOM would only acknowledge two by name: Leading Edge, a 30-nation exercise focused on counter-proliferation last held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in late 2010; and Eager Resolve, an annual exercise to simulate a coordinated response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high yield explosive attack, involving the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
However, military documents, open-source reports, and other data analyzed by TomDispatch offer a window into the training relationships that CENTCOM refused to acknowledge. While details of these missions remain sparse at best, the results are clear: during 2011, U.S. troops regularly partnered with and trained the security forces of numerous regimes that were actively beating back democratic protests and stifling dissent within their borders.