Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Pentagon Debates Drawdown in Africa, South America

The potential troop cuts face scrutiny inside the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A U.S. Army instructor demonstrates a weapon to Malian soldiers on April 12, 2018, during an anti-terrorism exercise at a military camp near Ouagadougo, Burkina Faso.
A U.S. Army instructor demonstrates a weapon to Malian soldiers on April 12, 2018, during an anti-terrorism exercise at a military camp near Ouagadougo, Burkina Faso. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief Plus. What’s on tap today: The U.S. Department of Defense eyes cuts in Africa and South America, the U.S. Senate debates calling witnesses in the impeachment trial, and officials dispute spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

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Africom and Southcom Chiefs Face Lawmakers

The four-star officers in charge of U.S. forces in Africa and Central and South America are testifying on Capitol Hill this morning about their respective commands. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, of U.S. Africa Command (Africom), and Navy Adm. Craig Faller, of U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), spoke to the lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing that started at 9 a.m. this morning.

The officers face senators at a critical time, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper weighs major drawdowns in both regions. The reductions are being considered as part of a wide-ranging review of the posture of U.S. forces worldwide. Esper has tasked commanders with looking at where they can free up resources—to either bring troops home or reposition them in the Pacific to counter what the Pentagon sees as its long-term strategic threat: China.

Some Pentagon and State Department officials, as well as Republican lawmakers, have expressed concern that the potential cuts are driven by the president’s reelection campaign rather than sound military strategy, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report.

Countering China? Sen. Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has spoken out against reducing the U.S. footprint in Africa—some 5,000 troops, compared to 75,000 in the Middle East. He doubled down on that criticism during his opening statement today. Inhofe and others argue that withdrawing from Africa and South America would allow China to increase its influence in regions where it already has a significant economic presence. Meanwhile, Russia is buying influence with arms sales and paramilitaries.

Terrorism is still a threat. The debate comes at a critical time for the counterterrorism mission in Africa. Despite years of efforts to stamp out terrorist groups across the continent, the threat is increasing, particularly in the Sahel region. In 2019, there were 3,471 violent events linked to extremist groups in Africa—double the number in 2013.

During a press conference with the French defense minister on Monday, Esper called on European allies to step up their support in the Sahel to fill the gap if and when the United States draws down. Townsend echoed those comments in his testimony, warning that withdrawing troops “precipitously” could have a negative impact on the fight against the extremists.

What We’re Watching 

Trump seeks nuke boost. U.S. President Donald Trump will ask for an additional $20 billion in funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the federal agency that maintains U.S. nuclear weapons, according to Sen. Jim Inhofe. The decision follows a brief internal spat in which Lisa Gordon-Hegarty, the head of the NNSA, requested a $20 billion increase but was rebuffed by White House budget officials and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. Several Republican lawmakers, including Inhofe, supported the funding increase and Trump’s decision is considered to settle the dispute, pending congressional approval.

Speaking of nukes. The United States has deployed a Trident W76-2 nuclear warhead aboard the USS Tennessee submarine for the first time since Trump commissioned this type of warhead two years ago. It is a low-yield warhead, with about a third of the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Trump administration argues it needs such weapons to counter Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. But critics say deploying the warhead raises the likelihood of nuclear confrontation.

Impeachment trial continues. Thursday marks the last day of senators are questioning lawyers from both teams at Trump’s impeachment trial. Democrats are working behind the scenes to push for enough votes to allow witnesses at the trial, aiming at a handful of moderate Republican senators. But those efforts appear to be faltering in the Republican-controlled chamber. If the Senate doesn’t vote to allow witnesses, Republicans could move to acquit Trump as soon as Friday. Stay tuned.

Special ops review. U.S. Special Operations Command conducted an internal review that found special operations forces place too much emphasis on combat experience at the expense of “leadership, discipline, and accountability.” The review followed a series of conduct violations involving special operations troops, including Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was charged with committing war crimes, including murdering an Islamic State prisoner. Gallagher was eventually acquitted, with his rank restored by Trump. Despite sweeping allegations of misconduct, the report also concluded that there were no “systemic ethics problem” in special ops.

Don’t call it a comeback (yet). Worsening tensions between Iran and the United States in the Middle East have given the Islamic State room to bounce back. The U.S. military temporarily suspended operations in Iraq after the showdown with Iran following the assassination of military commander Qassem Suleimani. That has given the remnants of the Islamic State the opportunity to gain ground and ramp up attacks in Iraq and Syria. U.S. operations resumed on Jan. 15 after a 10-day pause.

Quote of the Week

“And of course, the American people care about the people of Ukraine.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters on his way to Ukraine—days after reportedly telling NPR:“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”

Foreign Policy Recommends

Life along the line of control. Life along the highly militarized border between India and Pakistan, known as the Line of Control, sometimes has a festive flair, as captured in this New York Times dispatch. Every night at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, thousands of patrons fill purpose-built stadiums on either side of the border for nationalist pep rallies, filled with singing, chanting, and dancing.

Odds and Ends

Trump border wall falls over. A section of Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is apparently susceptible to high winds. A section of the wall that was under construction between Calexico, California, and Mexicali, Mexico, was hit by strong winds this week. Its concrete anchors had yet to cure, pushing the steel frames over into the Mexican side.

Pop geography quiz. After Pompeo reportedly lashed out at an NPR reporter for asking him questions about Ukraine—including demanding that she point out Ukraine on a blank map—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty produced a newsy geography quiz featuring a blank map: “Can You Survive The Pompeo Challenge?

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

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