- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is privately assuring nervous lawmakers that no African troop drawdown is in the works after getting significant pushback on Capitol Hill.

In a personal phone conversation between the secretary and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe on Monday, Mr. Esper told the Oklahoma Republican he has no intention of decreasing the U.S. troop presence on the continent, despite the Pentagon’s stated strategy of refocusing its forces to face the challenge posed by China and Russia.

Domestic skeptics such as Mr. Inhofe and foreign allies such as France have criticized the redeployment at a time when jihadi groups such as the Islamic State seem to be reorganizing and rebounding in sub-Saharan Africa.

“[Mr. Esper] said, if anything, we could be increasing the troops in the western part of Africa … he said I want to make sure that we make very clear we have no plans to decrease our presence specifically in West Africa,” Mr. Inhofe told reporters during a discussion in his office shortly after the call.

The Pentagon has been mulling plans to cut troop levels in Africa since 2018 with plans to drop from roughly 6,000 to about 5,400 — a move that is in line with the major 2018 rewrite of the strategic defense blueprint overseen by former Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Mr. Inhofe said the secretary referred to the reported troop reduction as a “misunderstanding,” and said “it’s more likely that we would increase than decrease.”

The chairman last week led a delegation of lawmakers to Africa to highlight the importance of continued military cooperation in the region, with stops in Uganda, Ghana and Mauritania and meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni President Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani of Mauritania and other regional officials.

Lawmakers and private analysts alike have cautioned that the result of a U.S. pullback could be extremist control of areas far larger than the land Islamic State held at the peak of its power in Iraq and Syria, and have pressured the secretary to maintain a significant force presence in the region.

At the Munich Security Conference last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, reportedly warned Mr. Esper he could “make your life hell” if the Pentagon went forward with the plan to withdraw troops from the African command, according to NBC News.

While the U.S. and its allies have largely destroyed Islamic State’s physical “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State affiliates and other violent jihadi groups have been stepping up their activity in Kenya, Somalia and sub-Saharan nations such as Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Chad.

Meanwhile, terrorist attacks across Africa have shaken weak governments and an assault by al-Shabab on a military base in Kenya recently killed three Americans, even as the Pentagon had begun a review on how to transfer more forces and resources to Asia.

As recently as last month, Mr. Esper has said he was considering a drawdown of the roughly 6,000 U.S. forces stationed across Africa, but assured reporters during a press briefing “we’re not leaving Africa, we’re not going to zero in Africa.”

“In some cases, we will increase, in some cases we won’t change, and in some cases we will decrease,” he said.

The administration has made minor reductions to U.S. troop levels in Africa in the past 18 months, which aligns with President Trump’s vow to bring more troops home from around the world. But Monday’s conversation appeared to signal a firmer commitment from the Pentagon.

“I would like to see [the troop presence] go up,” Mr. Inhofe said, “and I think that’s a real possibility.”

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