- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Wednesday insisted his department is not planning to withdraw all U.S. troops from Africa after reports of a force drawdown sparked an intense backlash among lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill.

During a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee to defend the Pentagon’s budget request, Mr. Esper called the prospect of withdrawing all forces from the continent “misreported.”

“There are no plans to completely withdraw all forces from Africa,” he said.

His appearance comes amid a wide-ranging review of the Defense Department’s combatant commands that department officials have said could lead to a reprioritization of troops.

“In some cases, we will increase; in some cases, we won’t change; and in some cases, we will decrease,” Mr. Esper said during a press briefing last month.

But the secretary walked back his prior comments and told the committee Wednesday that he is “looking to make sure I can resource the missions that are actually required, and to right-size the force consistent with that and the need to build readiness across the force so I can deal with China and then Russia.”

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.

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 the 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.

Just two days prior to the hearing, Mr. Esper assured Senate Armed Services Committee James Inhofe in a private conversation that he has no intention of decreasing the U.S. troop presence on the continent.

Mr. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, told reporters that “[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.”

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