The Pentagon is facing a bipartisan rebellion on Capitol Hill over plans to shift troops out of Africa to counter China, just the latest obstacle the Defense Department has faced as it tries to carry out a major pivot in U.S. security policy.
More than a dozen lawmakers last week urged Defense Secretary Mark Esper to maintain the American troop presence in the Africa, warning that a withdrawal could harm U.S. national security amid a surge of jihadist military attacks on countries across the heart of the continent.
“Any drawdown of our troops would be short-sighted [and] could cripple AFRICOM’s ability to execute its mission,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, warned last week.
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. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is visiting U.S. commands around the globe to gauge how many forces can be redeployed to what military strategists call the “Indo-Pacific” theater, part of a new defense strategy to focus on “great-power” rivals and, in particular, China.
“Rather than talking about drawing down troops in Africa, we should finally assign forces to AFRICOM on an enduring basis in order to provide the command with predictable resourcing so it can be most effective in defending U.S. national security,” the Oklahoma Republican said.
While the U.S. and its allies have largely destroyed Islamic State’s physical “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, private analysts and U.S. allies warn that Islamic State affiliates and other violent jihadist groups have been stepping up their activity in Kenya, Somalia and sub-Saharan nations such as Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Chad.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last week a U.S. military pullback in the Sahel region would be “bad news,” and the State Department’s global coalition to defeat Islamic State announced in November the alliance would be focusing new attention on the Sahel region in North and West Africa.
ISIS has regrouped after being geographically destroyed in the Middle East, and quickly gained a significant foothold in Africa’s unstable, impoverished Sahel region, which spans from the Atlantic Ocean across continental Africa to the Red Sea.
Echoing Mr. Inhofe, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Armed Services Committee sent a joint letter to Mr. Esper last week cautioning him to “carefully consider the adverse implications of reducing our force posture in Africa.”
Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, and Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the committee’s ranking Republican, warned that “the threat of violent extremism and terrorism persists” in the region, according to the letter obtained by Defense News.
“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,” they continued.
The New York Times reported late last year that the anticipated U.S. pullback would include abandoning a recently built $110 million drone base in Niger and ending assistance to allies who have launched major counter-terrorism operations in the region.
The U.S. military so far has mostly played a secondary role centered on training and advising local forces.
The Defense Department move is intended to refocus efforts to counter threats from China and Russia in alignment with the recommendations of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, spearheaded by former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.
Mr. Esper told NPR in an interview last week he was “looking at every theater and every command to look at where I can free up time, money and manpower forces, to reallocate to the Indo-Pacific, to deal with a long-term threat of China,” including Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
“I’m confident that we will be able to pull some forces out of each of these locations to make sure that I’m putting the priority of my resources to the long-term challenge facing the United States. That is the People’s Republic of China,” the Pentagon chief added.
But some influential voice on Capitol Hill remain skeptical.
“A withdrawal [from Africa] would also abandon our partners and allies in the region,” said Sens. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat. A reduced U.S. presence in Africa “would also certainly embolden both Russia and China,” they added.
Eleven House Armed Services Committee members, from both parties, wrote in a separate letter last week that “the execution of stability operations in Africa and meeting China and Russia in great-power competition are not mutually exclusive.”
“Rather than retreat from African affairs, it is in the interest of the United State to continue to share democratic values and military expertise with developing nations across the continent,” the letter said.