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Lawmakers push back at Pentagon’s possible Africa drawdown

Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s plan to draw down U.S. forces in Africa is facing increased pushback on Capitol Hill.
The top Democrat and Republican on the House Armed Services Committee have joined numerous lawmakers calling on Esper to stop a planned reduction of the 6,000 to 7,000 troops fighting militant terrorist groups on the continent and instead keep the forces in an effort to better counter Russian and Chinese aggression.
“A decrease in our investment now may result in the need for the United States to reinvest at many more times the cost down the road,” Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) wrote in letter to Esper last week.
The letter is a response to a New York Times report in December that found Esper was mulling greatly reducing or completely withdrawing U.S. troops from West Africa in a plan that would focus on several hundred American troops deployed in Niger, Chad and Mali.
U.S. forces are in West Africa to train and assist security forces in an effort to quell extremist Islamic groups including Boko Haram and those that pledge loyalty to the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
While it’s difficult to predict the specific effects of U.S. forces drawing down in West Africa, it’s likely that such a move would decrease the ability of African security forces to resist those groups if left on their own, according to Alice Hunt Friend, a former defense official now an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s not that the terrorist groups in the Sahel and in West Africa are all that large or strong or capable, it’s that they’re very bold and the African militaries out there are really incapable,” Friend said.
“Our capabilities are still a lot better than a lot of what these African forces have so it’s very helpful for U.S. forces, even in small numbers, to be out and about with them.”
She pointed to Mali, where insurgent groups in 2013 were poised to take over the capitol before the French military intervened.
Should U.S. forces withdraw from the region, it is “entirely plausible that a scenario like that could play out elsewhere,” Friend said.
“One thing I know lawmakers expressed concern about was, ‘Let’s say we withdraw completely and then there’s another crisis,’ a la Mali, and we have to flow back in again and that will be hard and expensive.”
Though details of Esper’s decision have been closely guarded by the Pentagon, reports indicate that it could include abandoning a recently built $110 million drone base in Niger and ending assistance to French forces fighting militants in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The plan would be part of a larger proposed shift of the roughly 200,000 U.S. service members deployed abroad in an effort to diminish missions formed after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and focus instead on pushing back on military moves from Russia and China.
Smith and Thornberry’s letter, which was also signed by committee members Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Elise Stefanik, (R-N.Y.), presses the Pentagon chief to “carefully consider the adverse implications of reducing our force posture in Africa” as “the threat of violent extremism and terrorism persists” on the continent.
The plea follows other efforts on both sides of the chamber to convince Esper to keep troops in Africa. A bipartisan group of 11 House lawmakers warned in a Jan. 10 letter of “a shortsighted action” that would diminish national security.
In addition, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) raised “serious concern” to Esper about a possible diminishing of U.S. forces in Africa, warning in their own letter to Esper last Wednesday that a withdrawal or reduction “would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond,” and “would also certainly embolden both Russia and China.”
That same day, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) declared that Africa “must remain a key theater for our counterterrorism efforts,” and said in a statement that “any drawdown of our troops would be short-sighted, could cripple AFRICOM’s ability to execute its mission and, as a result, would harm national security.”
The lawmakers’ concerns are not without merit. In 2017, the U.S. role in Africa was front and center after American soldiers were ambushed while on patrol in Niger. Four U.S. troops were killed in the incident.
Following the attack, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis questioned the value of U.S. forces in West Africa “and didn’t like the answers he got so directed force reduction,” Friend said.
Esper, who looks to compete with China and Russia as part of the Nationals Security Strategy, wanted further reductions, possibly down to zero, she added.
It’s unclear if the reductions would affect Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a United States Naval Expeditionary Base through which most military personnel in Africa rotate.
Most likely, it would impact the roughly 500 Special Operations troops in Somalia fighting al Qaeda-linked terrorist group the Shabab, as well as the other several hundred operating across Niger, Chad and Mali.
While a U.S. troop reduction in Africa would align with the goals of the administration’s National Defense Strategy, the lawmakers in their letters and statements argue that U.S. forces must remain in Africa to prevent a power vacuum from opening should U.S. forces largely withdraw.
“A withdrawal from the continent would also certainly embolden both Russia and China,” Graham and Coons write in their letter to Esper. “The influence of these nations on the continent has significantly increased with Russia currently maintaining military cooperation deals with the governments of at least nineteen African nations and China opening its first overseas military installation in Djibouti in 2017.”
And Inhofe in his statement stresses that “China’s and Russia’s growing influence isn’t restricted to Europe and the Indo-Pacific.” Rather, he adds, recent actions “clearly demonstrate that both countries view Africa as a critical battlefield to fulfill their global ambitions and challenge U.S. interests.”
Esper is expected to unveil a new force plan for Africa later this month.
“Africa has always been an economy of force theater and it’s always the theater that we do what we can versus doing what we must,” Friend said. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon and so the question really is, under this new strategic framework, is what we can do in Africa shrinking or staying the same?”