The Pentagon is facing a firestorm of opposition to plans to cut troop levels in Africa. Regional analysts and military insiders from Capitol Hill to the capitals of Europe are warning that any reductions could fuel a resurgent terrorist goal of making mincemeat out of the continent.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper reiterated this week that he is considering a drawdown of the roughly 5,000 U.S. forces stationed across Africa as part of a broader fundamental shift of military resources toward the Pacific to contain China. Officials say the redeployment is still in the review phase.
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.
Attacks have been even deadlier in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and elsewhere across Africa’s impoverished Sahel region, which specialists say has become one of the world’s most fertile breeding grounds for terrorism.
Al-Shabab operates mainly in eastern Africa, but the Sahel region has experienced a resurgence of violence from groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM).
Many of the groups have used the collapse of the central government in Libya — and a subsequent flow of fighters and weaponry to unstable sub-Saharan nations — to regroup, rearm and train after the fall of the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
France has taken the lead in counterterrorism operations across central Africa’s Sahel region, but French military success depends on critical intelligence and logistic assistance by U.S. forces, analysts say, and a major American withdrawal could weaken Europe’s resolve to keep up the fight.
French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly was in Washington this week making that case to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and U.S. lawmakers.
“The U.S. support [in Africa] is critical to our operation,” Ms. Parly told Mr. Esper on Monday. “Any reduction would limit our effectiveness against terrorists.”
The result of a U.S. pullback, critics say, could be extremist control of areas far larger than what ISIS held during its peak of power in Iraq and Syria.
“Who is bearing the brunt of it? It’s the French,” John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “If the French withdraw, then those weak and fragile states are potential mincemeat for various jihadi groups.
“If there was a significant withdrawal of American forces … and if the French either take their toys and go home or greatly cut back what they are doing there, those fragile states — impotent as they are — [will be] able to control less and less territory, West Africa becomes a jihadist playground where they can do pretty much whatever they want,” said Mr. Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
The Trump administration has made minor reductions to U.S. troop levels in Africa in the past 18 months, even after four U.S. Green Berets and four Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush by Islamic State fighters in Niger in 2017.
More than 1,000 U.S. personnel are in the Sahel, and the Pentagon has opened a $110 million drone base in northern Niger.
But as Washington dispatches an ever-rising number of forces to the Middle East and eyes a long-term shift to the Pacific, Pentagon officials seem increasingly convinced that more drawdowns in Africa are necessary.
That is in line with the major 2018 rewrite of the U.S. strategic defense blueprint overseen by James Mattis as defense secretary. It explicitly called for a shift from a focus on counterterrorism to a concentration on confronting traditional nation-state powers such as Russia and, especially, China.
“My top priority is to implement the National Defense Strategy. That means that we are focused on great-power competition with China, then Russia,” Mr. Esper said during a joint press conference this week with Ms. Parly. “My aim is to free up time, money and manpower around the globe, where we currently are, so that I could direct it toward either that region or, secondly, return forces to the United States … to become more ready, to improve their readiness.”
Defense officials haven’t gone into detail about the number of troops who could be pulled from Africa or exactly where they would redeploy. Mr. Esper also did not offer a firm timetable of when his review of U.S. Africa Command will be completed.
Ms. Parly said she understands the overarching American goal but made no secret that France considers U.S. assistance to be crucial to the Africa mission.
Some African countries are watching the Pentagon deliberations with unease as well. Nigerian Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said now is not the time to scale back the mission given an increase in terrorism in countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
“What we need now is more support,” Mr. Mohammed told The Associated Press this week. “I’m not talking in terms of physical soldiers, American soldiers. But I think we need more support. Otherwise, we will inadvertently be strengthening the hand of the terrorists.”
Misgivings on the Hill
Powerful lawmakers agree. Ahead of a key Senate hearing Thursday to examine U.S. policy in Africa, influential members of Congress sent a letter to Mr. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the administration to reconsider its long-term strategy.
In addition to fighting extremism, they said, a robust U.S. presence in Africa is part and parcel of the effort to counter the ambitions of China and Russia, both of which are seeking to expand their footprints in the region.
“Success in degrading terrorist safe havens in the Middle East has sent terrorist elements fleeing to other parts of the world,” wrote Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch, Idaho Republican, and Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Ten thousand ISIS and al Qaeda jihadists are estimated to be active across Africa. Extreme poverty, weak governance and vast ungoverned spaces make West Africa, and particularly the Sahel, fertile ground for terrorist recruitment and violence,” they said
They added that the U.S. must aggressively “push back on Russian and Chinese influence” across the continent.
Indeed, specialists say the consequences of a U.S. drawdown — even a relatively small one that keeps current troop levels largely intact — could be far-reaching. Troop reductions, they say, could result in the expansion of terrorist activity and send a dangerous signal to desperate African governments that Washington isn’t fully committed to the region.
“Reports of a drawdown in Africa are concerning because they further limit the ability of U.S. forces … to operate effectively on the continent,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser to the institute’s Critical Threats Project. “The U.S. will be accepting risk to its missions, or defining down those missions, as AFRICOM’s resources drop.”
“The issue is that, even as the U.S. moves resources to properly contest Chinese and Russian influence in Eastern Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East, Russia and China are investing in Africa and gaining influence on the continent,” she said. “African partners know full well that they are getting a bad deal when working with China, but oftentimes China’s timelines and its blind eye toward human rights and other issues outweigh what the U.S. can offer.”