WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is looking at alternative locations for the largest military exercise in Africa amid Senate pressure to bump Morocco from its position as an annual host for the drills.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, has led the charge against having Morocco host the African Lion exercise to push back against its control of the disputed Western Sahara.

“For more than five decades, the Sahrawi people have been subjected to repeated broken promises and vicious attacks by the Moroccan government,” Inhofe said last week at a confirmation hearing for the nominees to lead Africa Command and Special Operations Command.

“I have pushed [the Defense Department] to look at alternative locations for the annual African Lion military exercise that’s been hosted in Morocco previously,” Inhofe added. “I’m pleased that [Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin] is in agreement with me on this issue.”

Inhofe’s office told Defense News he secured a commitment from Austin in a private meeting to look at alternative locations for the annual exercise, which the United States and 10 partner countries conduct jointly in Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Ghana.

The report accompanying the Senate’s version of the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act also directs Austin to “develop a plan to rotate the hosting arrangements and locations” of all multilateral exercises, including African Lion, within AFRICOM’s purview and submit a report by December.

Lt. Gen. Michael Langley and Lt. Gen. Bryan Fenton, the nominees to head AFRICOM and SOCOM respectively, told Inhofe during their confirmation hearing they agreed with finding alternative locations for the African Lion exercises.

“I will follow up on this serious issue,” said Langley. “I know the Department of Defense has been looking at it. I think it’s time to see if Morocco’s making progress.”

Inhofe has long been critical of Morocco’s control over the Western Sahara, which pits Rabat against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front — a Sahrawi independence movement.

He called it “shocking and deeply disappointing” when former President Donald Trump upended decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara at the same time Morocco signed onto the Abraham Accords normalizing ties with Israel. President Joe Biden has left Trump’s policy intact.

Former Moroccan prime minister Saadeddine Othmani tweeted last year the African Lion exercise, which has been held for nearly two decades, “marks the consecration of American recognition of the Moroccan Sahara.” Othamni tweeted at the time that part of the 2021 drills would be held in the Western Sahara, but deleted the tweet after AFRICOM denied the exercise would be held in the disputed territory.

After that, the Senate added a provision to the 2022 NDAA banning U.S. forces from participating in multilateral exercises hosted in Morocco unless the defense secretary certifies the country is “committed to seeking a mutually acceptable political solution in the Western Sahara.”

Austin did not make that certification for this year’s exercises, which took place last month, and instead submitted a national security waiver permissible under the 2022 NDAA to allow the drills to proceed.

“U.S. Africa Command continues to explore alternatives to further diversify the locations of multilateral exercises and continues to consult closely with the Department of Defense and Department of State to ensure full compliance with future requirements as directed by the NDAA,” a Defense Department spokesman told Defense News in a statement.

Neither the Senate nor House versions of the 2023 NDAA contain the language banning Morocco from hosting U.S.-led exercises that Congress added to last year’s bill. However, the Senate report accompanying this year’s bill authorizes $10 million for AFRICOM to “assess alternative locations and host arrangements for multilateral exercises with African partners.”

“The committee further believes that diversifying the hosts and locations of these exercises may help the [Defense Department] expand partnerships in Africa, increase the capabilities of African partners and further U.S. access and influence on the continent,” states the report.

Other AFRICOM-led exercises include the Navy’s Cutlass Express near the Horn of Africa, Obangame Express on the west African coast and Phoenix Express in the Mediterranean.

With Inhofe retiring at the end of the year, the Sahrawis will lose one of their most powerful advocates on Capitol Hill. But Morocco’s status as a key host in the African Lion exercise may remain in peril.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., also sits on the Armed Services Committee and indicated at last week’s confirmation hearing he intends to continue pushing Morocco on its Western Sahara policy. He expressed concern the long-simmering conflict with the Polisario Front could once again devolve into open war.

“This could be a powder keg,” said Rounds. “With other outside interests priming the pump, should we not get this issue resolved, it could be another one of these hot spots that does not go away and a little bit of attention right now may go a long way.”

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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