THURSDAY, MAY 03, 2018

Opening Remarks by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Alan Patterson

 Thank you Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi and members of the Tunisian Armed Forces for giving me and my team a very warm welcome this week for the 32nd U.S.-Tunisia Joint Military Commission in Tunis.  This is my first visit to your country as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and I appreciate the generosity and hospitality that you have displayed since my arrival. I would also like to thank the other members of the United States delegation, who have travelled here from near and far, for taking the time to join us in what I am sure will be extremely productive discussions.

My previous career provided an opportunity to live in and experience Sub-Saharan Africa.  I had very little opportunity to work with officials from the Maghreb.  I look forward to now being able to interact and work with Tunisia and your neighbors in North Africa and the Mediterranean region in a more expanded role.  I would like to thank you again for enabling my visit to the American Cemetery and Carthaginian Ruins yesterday.

The relationship between the United States and Tunisia runs long and deep.  The United States was the first major power to recognize Tunisian sovereignty and established diplomatic relations in 1956, following your independence from France. Since then, the relationship has matured, and together we are addressing evolving challenges across the Maghreb, ranging from economic development to defeating violent extremist organizations.

Looking more broadly at the region, countering the spread of violent extremism will remain a priority for both the United States and our African partners for the foreseeable future.  Terrorism nodes and linkages are spreading, eroding stability in several regions.  The danger to all of us was highlighted on October 4th, when our own forces were ambushed while conducting partner operations with Nigerien forces.  This was a wake-up call to our government, and to United States citizens, that we must remain vigilant in our efforts and strong in our partnerships in all regions of the continent.

Terrorist organizations across the globe continue to morph, realigning based on shared interests, and spread their reprehensible ideology across the globe.  Despite successes made against the stronger branches of ISIS in the Levant, affiliated groups in the Maghreb and the Sahel still find refuge in under-governed and remote areas that have ill-equipped and under-trained security services, such as in Libya, Mali, and Niger.

Two days ago I attended a senior leader dialogue to evaluate this year’s AFRICA LION / PHOENIX EXPRESS exercises.  It is impressive to hear of Tunisia’s accomplishments in integrating your efforts with regional neighbors to address common threats.  I realize it is no small feat to achieve success in information sharing and in coordinating operational processes and protocols.  I also appreciate your willingness to host a portion of the exercise within your borders.  Such collaboration and openness is the only way that we will be able to combat transnational threats.  It is only through regional and global cooperation and assistance that we can hope to arrest the spread of violent extremist groups, provide security to our nation’s citizens, and prevent horrible terrorist attacks against innocent civilians.

The United States realizes a comprehensive regional approach is necessary to address the challenges our two countries face. That is why the United States adopts the “Three D’s” in our regional engagements: development, diplomacy, and defense. The JMC is a crucial aspect of our defense engagement with Tunisia, and I am truly honored to be able to work with Minister Zbidi and everyone else here to realize our common interests.

Expanding our cooperative and regional approach to addressing evolving challenges in the region, we continue to partner with the international community to encourage Libyans to find a political solution to the current crisis, while reducing ISIS’s ability to operate freely in under-governed spaces.  Additionally, we seek to reinforce successes within organizations that effectively cooperate to counter regional threats, such as the G-5 Sahel Joint Force, the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin Region, and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  We are always looking for new partners who share common goals of enhancing security and stability across the continent.

It is my understanding that while you are actively engaged in combating internal terrorist threats, you have undertaken the task to modernize your military — no minor feat even during the most peaceful of times.  We went through a similar process during the 1980s and understand the difficulties.  Modernizing a force is not an easy task, whether it is through the purchase of more technologically sophisticated weaponry, the restructuring of existing organizations, or the creation of new entities designed to operate more effectively.  During our discussions here, we look forward to identifying ways in which we can, perhaps, facilitate your modernization efforts and improve our joint collaboration.

Despite all of the benefits of modernization, however, there is a downside to becoming increasingly dependent on technically-sophisticated equipment.  As we become more reliant on technology, we risk becoming more vulnerable to cyber-attacks from a variety of actors.  It is also critical that we maintain our tactical skills and are able to operate effectively if our technology fails.  Having had our share of cyber-attacks over the last few years, we recognize the need to train our military leaders and soldiers to perform in the absence of technology.

One of the most meaningful ways to mitigate the risk of over-reliance on technology is to develop robust and enduring defense institutions.  Nations with strong defense institutions are better equipped to engage in effective, sustained operations targeting a range of domestic and regional threats.  While tactical programs to provide training and equipment are important, we are increasingly focused on strengthening defense institutions at three levels–strategic direction, generating forces, and operating forces–in all of our partnerships, whether in Africa or in other regions.  This approach reflects lessons learned in theaters ranging from Mali to Afghanistan and Iraq.  Reinforcing existing institutions and building internal capacities is a fundamental component of any sustained measure to combat instability and support our partners as they work to secure their citizens.

The United States is committed to enhancing Tunisian military capabilities to enable the Ministry of Defense to defeat violent extremist organizations, secure national borders, and respond to existing and emerging threats. I look forward to our discussions in this session on intelligence, counterterrorism, conventional forces, air-to-ground capability, border security, and defense institutional building.  We believe that by addressing these challenges, Tunisia will be able to continue to provide a safe and secure environment that facilitates a stable and prosperous economy and continued consolidation of its democracy.

One of Secretary Mattis’s key tenets is “strengthening alliances.”  To paraphrase some of his comments, relationships are dynamic.  They either improve as we cultivate them or decay due to our inattentiveness.  Relationships provide avenues for peace, fostering conditions for economic growth with countries sharing the same vision.  Strong alliances also temper the plans of those who would attack other nations or try to impose their will over the less powerful.  History is compelling on this point; nations with strong allies thrive, while those without stagnate and wither.

Looking back over the last year, our two countries can be proud of all that we have accomplished together.  I know I am.  But I am equally pleased by the opportunity we have during this JMC to examine ways we can partner and cooperate in the coming years.

Thank you again, Minister Zbidi for your warm welcome and hospitality.  I look forward to working with you all during the next couple of days. Thank you.