Small Wars Journal

Morocco: A Model for Military-Military Assistance

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 3:34pm

Morocco: A Model for Military-Military Assistance

Cadet Michal Joy Cantrell

In February 2003, the government of Morocco was described as “oppressive, unjust,[and] apostate.1 Given the source (Osama bin Laden), there could hardly have been a more ringing endorsement of the United States’ oldest ally. The relationship, which officially began in 1786, has become increasingly focused on security issues since September 11, 2001.2 These shared interests, such as preventing the metastasis of groups such as Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and guarding state stability in a region in transition, place military-to-military security assistance programs at the heart of American-Moroccan cooperation.3 In the age of austerity and the context of the Army’s mission to Prevent, Shape, and Win, this Shaping mission is of particular interest due to its low cost and potentially high payoff.  Thus, in this article, I undertake an analysis of the military-to-military components of the United States’ security assistance program in Morocco.  A decade after the Casablanca Bombings targeted Westerner-frequented locations, where do these programs stand?4

All told, U.S. military-to-military initiatives appear to be a limited success in protecting regional stability in the Maghreb, state stability, liberalization, and terrorism prevention. Ranging from the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program’s individual military exchanges to large-scale, combined training exercises such as Operation African Lion, these efforts have contributed to the monarchy’s stability: stability which arguably tempered what might have otherwise been a brutal response to the demands of the February 20th reform movement of 2011, the Moroccan Arab Spring. There has been no watershed moment for the United States to attribute to the influence of security assistance programs and further assessment is clouded by question regarding the role of military exchange participants in liberalization and human rights violations in Western Sahara. Separately, concerns linger regarding the role of military assistance in a potential arms race between Algeria and Morocco, as well as the monarchy’s intransigence in opening the public sphere to freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

United States Security Assistance Programs in Morocco

Compared to security assistance programs with Egypt, military-military programs in Morocco are impressively multi-faceted given their small fiscal footprint.5

IMET: In fiscal year 2012, 40 Moroccan officers and 30 mid-senior level officials studied in the United States at the National Defense University, Army and Air Force War Colleges, National War College, and company-level command courses at a cost of $1.71 million.6 Many participants are stationed in Western Sahara upon completion of their exchange course, which results in an inability to track 25% of graduates after graduation.7

Foreign Military Financing (FMF): Five years after attaining independence in 1956, Morocco began purchasing military materiel from the United States. These purchases include transport aircraft, radar and sonar technologies, TOW missiles, M-60A Patton-2 Tanks, and recently, 24 F-16 aircraft.8 In part, this helps legitimize the ruling authorities and promotes interoperability between American and Moroccan forces; however, such sales must also be viewed in the context of the potential for the Moroccan-Algerian arms race discussed below.

Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP): Morocco is a partner in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, joining forces with the United States with the intent of rooting extremist cells and networks from its territory. Little is available regarding program specifics at the unclassified level.

Operation African Lion: A long-standing, bi-lateral, annual training operation, each iteration of African Lion involves nearly 1000 Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines training alongside their Moroccan counterparts.9 The stated goal is to increase interoperability and to facilitate cultural exchange and relationship-building between both nations’ service members—goals that notably were pursued in a training area near Agadir, a major tourist attraction and one of the southernmost cities prior to entering Western Sahara.10 Though the most recent iteration in April 2013 was abruptly deferred by Moroccan officials in response to the United Nations’ findings of human rights abuses in the Sahara, there have been no indications that the cancellation is permanent.11

State Partnership Program: Alongside African Lion, the State Partnership Program allies the Utah National Guard with the Moroccan military in an affiliation akin to “sister cities” in support of the United States Africa Command, but predating regional alignment efforts. Since 2003, the Utah National Guard and Morocco have built ties through exchanges and joint training opportunities focusing on disaster response, civil disorder, and border security, all of which harness the longer-term nature of National Guard assignments to create continuity in the relationship.12

United States Interests in Morocco

The five U.S. Security Assistance programs pursue ends that address the United States’ four overriding concerns in Morocco: regional stability, state stability, liberalization, and terrorism prevention.

Regional Stability: The nearly forty-year tension between Morocco and Algeria over the autonomy of Western Sahara (or Moroccan Sahara, as it is known in Morocco) persists. This proxy war, which dates to Spain’s withdrawal from the region in 1975, hinges on the Polisario Front’s assertions of independence in the face of Moroccan attempts to capitalize on its disputed claims to the territory.13 Algeria, desiring to divert attention from its own internal struggles and harboring lingering bitterness from the 1963 Sand War that saw Morocco attempt to annex Algeria’s Tindouf and Bechar provinces, backed the Polisario in its guerilla war.14 Though open hostilities ended with a 1991 ceasefire that promised a Saharawi referendum on independence, failure to implement that provision on all sides leaves the conflict unresolved and 100,000-140,000 Moroccan troops on “The Berm,” a wall of sand and stone bordering Polisario territory in the regions’ south and southeast provinces.15 Further mistrust manifests itself in the 20-year old closure of the Algerian/Moroccan border and an arms race between the two states dating to the early 2000s. The conflict, however, has yet to boil over to open blows, and much of the tension lies between the governments rather than their citizens.

State stability: The Moroccan King, Mohammed VI, responded to the February 20th reform movement with public moderation. Protests and rallies went largely unchallenged, albeit under the watchful eye under the  ubiquitous presence of police forces on every street corner.16  Since Mohammad VI’s coronation in 1999, he has made reform-minded gestures, such as a truth commission investigating abuses that occurred prior to his reign (albeit without punishment) and the institution of more progressive rights for women, that stand in sharp contrast with the Senawat Al Sawda (Black Years)under his father, Hassan II.17 This willingness to be seen to yield power figures favorably in the monarchy’s self-preservation and reduces the probability of a violent restructuring à la Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

Liberalization: Morocco is not a democratic state.18 Culturally, Moroccans expect a strong king. The current Alaouite dynasty, which claims the title Cherif by tracing its lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed, has provided governance to the overwhelmingly Muslim population since the 17th century.19 The reforms passed by popular referendum in 2011 saw the monarchy constitutionally cede power in that Mohammed VI bound himself to appoint the prime minister from the winning party of the parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, the King remains firmly entrenched in the constitution as Amir Al Mouminine, Commander of the Faithful, a title that has served as a basis of authority in Morocco for nearly a millennium since being conferred on an 11th century ruler by the Abbasid Caliphate.20 The parliamentary elections paired with the new constitution relieved immediate political pressure without any need to institute drastic, destabilizing reforms.21

Practical confirmation of the monarchy’s continued centrality in government is evidenced by the actions of Abdelilah Benkirane, the new Prime Minister and head of the former opposition, who has continued his predecessors’ unwillingness to challenge the crown. In July 2012, Benkirane boasted to the Arabic speaking world of how he worked closely with the palace in all matters and publically abdicated his responsibility to fight corruption by saying he would instead depend on the King of Morocco’s moderating influence to countermand it.22 A month later, the pattern continued when he repudiated a newspaper article which quoted him as saying he and the palace did not see eye-to-eye on some issues.23

The reforms allowed by the current monarchy notably have not opened the public sphere or addressed the lack of freedom of the press. Broadcast media and radio stations are primarily controlled by the state, and though print publications are primarily privately owned, journalists who do not self-censor risk being driven out of business by advertising boycotts of government-owned corporations, fines, and imprisonment.24

Terrorism: Since September 2001, Morocco has experienced nine terrorist attacks while neighboring Algeria has had 1,102.25 Terrorist activity targets locations popular with tourists; however, thanks to a strong Moroccan security apparatus, the majority of news regarding terrorism within Morocco deals with cells being broken up rather than attacks being conducted.26 While the Moroccan government may have motive to embellish the number of networks it has uncovered, the relative dearth of attacks in comparison to Algeria is clear.

However, the extra-territorial influence of Moroccan extremist movements is troubling. The loosely Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Moroccan Islamic Combatants Group provides fighters for jihadist causes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (a 2007 assessment of foreign fighters entering Iraq through Syria revealed that 6.1% hailed from Morocco, despite it being the country of origin furthest from Iraq geographically).27 Its ability to draw on Moroccan migrants to Europe has caused particular concern in Spain and the Netherlands due to their large migrant Moroccan populations. That concern has been little ameliorated by the perpetration of the Madrid Bombings and murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Moroccan nationals.28


It would be simple to determine if relationship-building programs like IMET, FMF, Operation African Lion, and the State Partnership Program are abject failures; the rub is in assessing the extent of their success.  Even without a defining moment in which the mettle of the partner military’s professionalism was put to the test, the amount of success directly attributable to U.S. efforts defies quantification, much less the establishment of causality. However, the qualitative impact of such programs is to be found not in a singular moment but a steady state: the fact that Morocco’s armed forces have not been placed in such an extreme position that their professionalism would be pushed to its breaking point.

In terms of military materiel and training support through FMF, TSCTP, IMET, and Operation African Lion, there can be little doubt that military-to-military ties between Moroccan and American forces and Morocco’s efforts against terrorism have been strengthened. However, Morocco’s military modernization efforts are one of the few areas in which it and Algeria are troublingly on the same page (Table 1).29

Since independence of both states, patterns of arms spending have inescapable parallels. Periods of large arms build-ups correspond with historical tensions—with the late 70’s struggle over the Sahara, Algerian political upheaval of the late 80’s culminating with the cancellation of its 1992 elections, and the ensuing decade of civil war all showing increased military expenditures on the parts of both neighbors.

Alongside those trends, Moroccan acquisitions of United States equipment feature prominently, with the largest years being 1974-1983, 1988-1991, and 1996-1997. Although currently there are only a few media outlets frame these modernization efforts as an arms race, the region’s military balance combined with unresolved tensions between Algeria and Morocco remain points of keen interest as foreign military financing goes forward.30

The IMET program’s intent to further liberalization and human rights through a more professional military is complicated by Morocco’s force structure. Though senior graduates of professional military ethics courses are generally assigned to liaise with the United States, the majority of graduates are assigned commands in the Sahara.31 Unlike in the United States military, these assignments tardy the officers’ influence at the highest levels because the key to advancement in the Moroccan military is not command time, but proximity to the bureaucratic power center of gravity in the capital of Rabat.32  Though the integration of IMET officers into Morocco’s operational forces may seem like the structural constraints’ silver lining, the degree of IMET graduates’ impact on the ground in the Sahara is not confirmable, as concerns over human rights abuses there continue.33

The monarchy’s political reforms are both enabled and hindered by U.S. security assistance. The King’s confidence in his ability to remain in power is bolstered—both in terms of real military strength backing said power and the vote of confidence implicit in such programs. As he does not perceive his position as precarious, his response to the Arab Spring was to introduce temperate constitutional reforms rather than lash out to consolidate insecure power.  At the same time, the security of the monarchy’s position inhibits liberalization in that it enables quashing of freedom of the press and keeps the elected government unquestioningly in line with the palace.

Going Forward

Focus areas going forward must be the unresolved Algerian-Moroccan arms race and IMET participants’ role in the Western Sahara. With Algeria’s round-robin of presidents since independence and unsatisfactory reforms, the potential for current military modernization efforts to evolve into a destabilizing arms race warrants immediate attention. IMET participants too may face an urgent assessment, as the conflict in Mali has the potential to spill over into Polisario and Moroccan-controlled territory in the Sahara. Those two focus areas, however, must not detract from the advances already made in Morocco. The Moroccan government must be encouraged to continue liberalization. It is implausible to overhaul the entire political system at the cost of the monarchy’s stability; however, incremental steps will be more feasible and amenable to the powers that be as they seek to stave off public discontent.

Also requiring attention is a clarification of what is meant when military-military training summaries declare one of their ultimate goals is to promote Moroccan democratization.34 What is meant by “democratization?” The emergence of Western-style democracy of one citizen, one vote or gradual reforms molded to fit cultural and institutional norms? The answer to this question is integral to continuing assessments of military-military program success and moreover, the promotion of stability as conflicts over self-determination continue to rage across the Middle East and North Africa.


The long-term, low-cost military relationship with Morocco fostered by U.S. security assistance programs reflects the long-standing relationship between the two countries dating back to the early years after the American Revolution. Though the degree of importance of Moroccan support for the United States may seem insignificant on the international stage, the United States’ support of Morocco pays dividends in terms of building influence and creating a positive relationship with an Arabic-speaking country. U.S. support has enabled the monarchy to feel secure enough to adaptively relinquish some of its power and embark on gradual (albeit generally symbolic) liberalization. By extension, such efforts facilitated continued stability within Morocco.  Thus, at comparatively low cost, this Shape operation has been able to achieve its objectives.

End Notes

  1. Reuters, “Bin Laden's Message: Fight the 'Crusaders',” New York Times, 15 February 2003, <>, (31 August 2013).
  2. “US Morocco Relations-The Beginning,” United States Diplomatic Mission to Morocco, <>,(23 March 2013)
  3. Maghreb is a shortening of Al Maghrib, the Arabic name for the state of Morocco.
  4. Elaine Sciolino, “Suicide Bombs Kill Dozens in Casablanca,” 27 May 2003, <>, (01 September 2013). A series of suicide bombings across Casablanca, targeting sites including a Jewish community center, the Belgian Consulate, and a club, killed over 40 people in May 2003.
  5. Alexis Arieff, Morocco: Current Issues, Report no. RS21579, Congressional Research Service (2011).
  6. Ibid; and “Combined Education and Training Program Plan for Morocco FY2013”, TRADOC Pam 525-3-0: The U.S. Army Capstone Concept (23 March 2012) 3.
  7. Ibid, 13.
  8. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "General Trade Registers," SIPRI, <>, (17 January 2013); and Stefanie Torres, "Morocco Receives First F-16s," United States Africa Command, 08 August 2011, <>, (07 February 2013).
  9. William Price, "African Lion 12 Underway After "Historic" Maritime Offload," United States Africa Command, 13 April 2012 <>, (7 February 2013).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Kent Miller, “Canceled Moroccan Exercise Upends Marines’ Deployment,” Marine Corps Times, 17 April 2013, <>, (31 August 2013).
  12. Lillian Chatwin, "Utah Air National Guard Strengthens Moroccan Ties by Aiding International Air Show." United States Africa Command, 3 February 2010, <>,(7 February 2013).
  13. George Joffé, "Sovereignty and the Western Sahara," The Journal of North African Studies (2010): 375.
  14. Alf Andrew Heggoy, "Colonial origins of the Algerian-Moroccan Border Conflict of October 1963." African Studies Review (1970): 17-22; and ibid, 377.
  15. Joffé; and Thomas Stevenson, "Inside Disputed Western Sahara," Al Jazeera English, 10 January 2013, <>, (7 February 2013).  Estimates vary between 100-140,000 Moroccan troops. Either estimate, approximately half of Morocco’s military force, should be viewed in comparison with the current Sahrawi population of approximately 500,000.
  16. Aida Alami, “Moroccan Protests One Year On”, New York Times, 15 February 2012, <>, (30 August 2013). Despite some police crackdowns, thousands protested without retribution.
  17. Abdeslam Maghraoui. "Political Authority in Crisis: Mohammed VI's Morocco." Middle East Report (2001): 12-17.
  18. Polity IV Project ranks Morocco as a closed anocracy, a step removed from fully-institutionalized autocracy (examples include China). The abysmal 28.65% voting-age population turnout for the 2011 parliamentary elections is representative of the citizenry’s distrust of the dysfunctional Parliament. The Polity rating and voting date can be accessed at the following links: <>; and <>.
  19. Maghraoui, 12-17.
  20. La Constitution, Titre III, Article 42, Bulliten Officiel, 30 July 2011. <>,(23 March 2013); amd Ibn Khaldoun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 182.
  21. Matt Beuhler, "Safety-Valve Elections and the Arab Spring: The Weakening (and Resurgence) of Morocco's Islamist Opposition Party," Terrorism and Political Violence (2013):137-56; and Russell E Lucas, "Monarchical Authoritarianism: Survival And Political Liberalization In A Middle Eastern Regime Type," International Journal of Middle East Studies (February 2004): 117-118. This safety-valve described by Matt Beuhler also was noted by Russell Lucas as “a useful survival strategy for authoritarian monarchies” which allows them to “weather economic and political storms.”
  22. Benkirane’s Al-Jazeera interview can be viewed in Arabic at the following link: <>; and “Abdelilah Benkirane Impuissant face á la Corruption” Bladi, 31 July 2012,

<>, (23 March 2013).

  1. “Benkirane Apologizes to King Mohammad VI and his Advisers”, 9 August 2012, <>, (23 March 2013).
  2. “Morocco,” Freedom House, <>, (30 August 2013); and Sohrab Ahmari, “The Death Knell for Morocco’s Free Press,” 8 October 2010, <>, (30 August 2013). For example, the newspaper Nichane was driven out of business by a government-orchestrated advertising boycott in response to a popularity poll of the king, despite the fact that the poll’s result was an overwhelmingly favorable 91%. 
  3. Yonah Alexander,Special Update Report: Terrorism in North, West,& Central Africa: From 9/11 to the Arab Spring, International Center for Terrorism Studies (2012) 3.
  4. Carlos E. Jesús, "The Current State of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group," The Sentinel (March 15, 2009).
  5. Joseph Felter, and Brian Fishman, Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records,  (West Point: New York Combating Terrorism Center, 2007): 8.
  6. Alison Pargeter, "Uncovering Extremist Violence in Morocco." The Sentinel (July 15, 2008): 1-3; Fernando Reinares, "The Evidence of Al-Qa`ida’s Role in the 2004 Madrid Attack," The Sentinel (March 22, 2012):1-6; and Lawrence Wright, “The Terror Web,” The New Yorker, 2 August 2004,   <>, (20 January 2012).
  7. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Military Expenditures," SIPRI, <>, (17 January 2013).
  8. Paul Haltom, “Russian Arms Transfers to North Africa: Fuelling an Arms Race?”, Riavosti, 15 Mar 2013, <>, (1 Sep 2013).
  9. LTC David J. Shively, interview by author 01 September 2013.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Stevenson; and Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Morocco: Saharawis, 2008, <>, (7 February 2013).
  12.  “Combined Education and Training Program Plan for Morocco FY2013”, 3.

About the Author(s)

Cadet Michal Joy Cantrell is a first-class cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. She is pursuing a B.S in Arabic and American Politics, Policy, and Strategy and studied abroad at Al-Akhawayn University near Fes, Morocco. Upon graduation, she will serve as a military intelligence officer.