U.S. Officials Worry Looming Military Cuts in Africa Are ‘About Politics’

Pentagon eyes reducing its footprint in the region as terrorist groups expand in the Sahel.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. soldiers in Senegal
U.S. soldiers walk during a combined training exercise with Senegalese troops in Thiès, Senegal, on July 25, 2016. SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

As Defense Secretary Mark Esper weighs proposals for a major reduction of U.S. forces in Africa, some Pentagon and State Department officials as well as top Republican lawmakers are concerned that the potential drawdown is more motivated by the president’s reelection campaign than sound military strategy.

Possible cuts to the U.S. military’s footprint in Africa, where the United States has roughly 5,000 troops, are part of the Defense Department’s recent review of deployments worldwide. Esper has said he is asking all of his military commanders to look for areas where they can free up resources in order to either bring troops home or reposition them to the Pacific to counter what the Pentagon sees as its long-term strategic threat: China.  

But some senior Pentagon and State Department officials are concerned that political pressure could tilt the scales toward a full or partial withdrawal, effectively ceding the continent to Chinese influence, four current and former officials tell Foreign Policy.

“The concern inside the Pentagon is that this is now not based on implementing the NDS,” said one former Trump administration official, referring to the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, which shifted the military’s focus from counterterrorism to competing with geopolitical rivals like China and Russia. Instead, “it is about politics.”

Facing a heated reelection fight in November, President Donald Trump is pushing to fulfill his 2016 campaign promises to bring U.S. troops home and to end the country’s so-called forever wars. That has become more difficult as tensions with Iran in the Middle East have risen in recent months: The Pentagon has deployed thousands more U.S. forces to the region since the Jan. 3 U.S. strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, in addition to more than 10,000 troops it sent last year.

But experts say drawing down the U.S. footprint in places like Africa and South America could come at the expense of combating a rising threat from extremism and growing Chinese influence. 

In a letter to Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent on Jan. 24, Republican lawmakers James Risch and Michael McCaul said they were “concerned” by the Pentagon’s reported plans to cut back its presence in Africa.

“Both China and Russia are increasing their presence throughout Africa. US presence is vital to countering those efforts,” they wrote. “Terrorist activity in this region is rapidly increasing, and it is part of the President’s National Security Strategy to continue working with our partners in Africa to defeat terrorist organizations to protect the homeland.”

Risch is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and McCaul is the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

One defense official pushed back on the idea that the White House is driving the drawdown, noting that any cuts are “implicitly” tied to the NDS. Although Esper has not made a final decision, a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Africa is not likely, the official said, noting that China has a major presence on the continent that the Pentagon is looking to counter. 

“We are looking at the entire map and moving forces into a posture where they are able to longterm be addressing key issues with regard to China and Russia,” the official said. 

Esper and a small group of senior defense officials discussed the proposals during a meeting on Friday, according to two officials. A final decision likely won’t come for weeks or months, one defense official said. 

The review comes at a critical time for the counterterrorism mission in Africa. Despite yearslong efforts to stamp out terrorist groups across the continent, the threat is only increasing. In 2019, there were 3,471 violent events linked to extremist groups in Africa—a doubling of such activities since 2013—according to research from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Pentagon’s National Defense University. The Sahel saw the biggest uptick in violence.

During a summit earlier this month, French and West African leaders agreed to ramp up military cooperation to combat al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in the region, which have strengthened their hold and increased recruitment by exploiting grievances within local populations and marginalized communities. France committed to sending an additional 220 troops to the Sahel region following the summit.

America’s growing military role in Africa remained mostly unknown until October 2017, when four U.S. Army special operations soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger. The majority of the 5,200 U.S. military personnel in Africa are currently serving at a base in Djibouti. These troops focus primarily on supporting French forces and training local militias to defeat extremists. 

Even as the Pentagon mulls a drawdown, top Trump administration officials and U.S. lawmakers have voiced alarm about the security situation in the Sahel.

“That is one part of Africa where unfortunately the progress, if there’s any, is very, very minimal,” the top U.S. diplomat on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday. Nagy said the United States is “very actively involved” in the region, but confronting the security threats is ultimately up to governments in West Africa. “At the end of the day, the problems in the Sahel are not going to be solved by France or by the United States or the international community. They have to be solved by the states in the Sahel,” he said.

Still, the Trump administration is eyeing plans to appoint a special presidential envoy for the Sahel to coordinate the international response to terrorist groups in the region. The appointment could come as soon as next month, a senior U.S. diplomatic source said.

The State Department declined to comment for this story.

Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that any drawdown of U.S. troops on the continent would be “short-sighted,” could destroy U.S. Africa Command’s “ability to execute its mission” and “would harm national security.”

Inhofe noted China’s predatory economic practices and increase in military activity across the continent, including building ports and establishing its first overseas military base, in Djibouti—which is strategically located on a critical maritime transit route. Meanwhile, Russia is increasing its own influence by selling arms and deploying forces in the region. 

Inhofe also stressed the continuing threat of terrorism, noting a deadly attack by al-Shabab militants in Kenya earlier this month that killed a U.S. service member and two Pentagon contractors.

“Given what is at stake for both U.S. national security and effective implementation of NDS, we must have a meaningful, albeit limited, U.S. presence in Africa,” Inhofe said. 

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons met with Africom chief Stephen Townsend this week, reflecting similar concerns. Their meeting “confirmed [Coons’s] views that the presence of U.S. troops in Africa, roughly 0.3 percent of DoD’s personnel and budgetary resources, remains in our national interest,” according to Sean Coit, a spokesman for Coons. 

The plan to reduce forces in Africa has also faced pushback from allies. France, which is leading the fight in West Africa against extremists, is appealing to Trump not to cut off U.S. military support to French forces on the continent. 

During a press conference after a meeting with Esper on Monday, French Defense Minister Florence Parly stressed that U.S. support in the Sahel is “really critical” to counterterrorism operations. But Esper pushed back, calling on allies to step up support for the fight. 

“It is time for other European allies to assist as well in the region, and that could offset whatever changes we make as we consider next steps in Africa,” Esper said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer