US military drones operating from Tunisia
It all started in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor set himself on fire and gave birth to the Arab Spring in 2011. His uncle Ridha Bouazizi, who is also a fruit vendor said, “These government inspectors used to confiscate our goods and demand bribes. It was because of their tyranny that Mohammed set himself on fire.”
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Self-rule in the tiny African nation has been messy, but ultimately a new country emerged from the turbulent Arab Spring with a somewhat successful transition and returned to the business of living life.
Enter the US.
Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi has confirmed the US military is now operating out of an unnamed military base. His critics say the US presence is a breach of its sovereignty.
A large segment of Tunisia’s, young people, elite, and leftist supporters remain adamant that the US stays out of its fledgling democracy. Yet, many government officials are relying on America’s military spending to economically sustain the former French protectorate. Since Essebsi became president, he has traveled to the US and gained favorable-NATO status from the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, not one to let a good wartime crisis go to waste, the Pentagon quickly moved to establish a military base in the African country, according to senior US officials. Pentagon officials confirmed they were using Air Force Reaper surveillance drones to fly cross-border missions into Libya, specifically Sirte.
The Washington Post confirmed the Reaper “drones began flying out of the Tunisian base in late June and played a key role in an extended US air offensive against an Islamic State [ISIS] stronghold in Libya.”
The Tunisian government claims the drones are only flying over the Tunisian-Libyan border in an effort to warn its military of any impending attacks from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria known to be operating from nearby Libyan strongholds. But Tunisia’s parliament has requested Essebsi clarify exactly what American troops are doing in their country.
Essebsi told local TV channel Elhiwar Ettounsi, that the US was only conducting surveillance “and it was at our request. Our agreement with the US was to share intelligence information.”
The worry in Tunisia is the nation could be ripe for another Islamic uprising if the United States is uses Tunisia to conduct drone strikes on Libyan soil. Despite fighting against a repressive government, the fragile nation is relying on a mutual political agreement with Islamic groups to keep relative order.
According to a Reuters report, “Islamic State (has) exploited the chaos of post-uprising Libya to establish a foothold there, using it as a base for attacks (against) Tunisia and Egypt. The perpetrators of several militant attacks in Tunisia in the past two years were trained in Libya. The United States is fighting the group’s Libyan arm with air strikes launched from its ships in the Mediterranean and armed drones launched from Sicily. Washington’s use of armed drones against militants in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan has been criticized for its toll on civilians, and some opponents question its legality under international law.”
President Essebsi says the drones being used were given to Tunisia after 70 US service members trained his military. So far the President says there is no timeline for the US departure.
Essebsi said fears of an ISIS attack inside Tunisia are well founded after an ISIS ambush in the town of Ben Guerdan earlier this year. The assault left 53 people dead, including civilians. Essebsi also says he believes more attacks from neighboring Libya were underway and suggested his country should remain on offense in its fight against all terrorist groups. “We do not have clear information, and we should act instead of waiting until another Ben Guerdan,” he finished.
But, Ahmed Mannai, the head of the Tunisian Institute for International Relations, suggested there was something afoot between the US military and Tunisia’s president.
“The United States is using the war on terrorism as a pretext to ensure its military presence in Tunisia. It is true that the current US presence [in Tunisia] is limited to military trainers and unmanned aircraft, but it is obvious that things will develop later on under the same pretext. History tells us that the United States — once it is present in an area — is there to stay without any excuse. This is the case in the Gulf, Japan, South Korea and Cuba. However, the Tunisian authorities are to blame here, as they have undermined the country’s sovereignty. They could have preserved cooperation with the United States without direct military presence that might compromise the independence of the country.”
Read more: Tunisia—too small to care written in January of 2014.