Allies worry as US considers downsizing military forces in Africa

DAKAR, Senegal – As extremist violence grows across Africa, the United States plans to reduce its military presence on the continent, a move that worries its international partners as they work to step up the fight in the tumultuous region of the Sahel.

Timing is particularly critical in the Sahel, the vast arid region south of the Sahara Desert, where militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have stepped up attacks over the past six months. In Niger and Mali, soldiers have been ambushed and sometimes overpowered by hundreds of extremist gunmen on motorcycles. More than 500,000 people have been displaced by violence in Burkina Faso.

The pending decision is part of a global review by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is looking for ways to focus more on China and Russia.

“My goal is to free up time, money and manpower all over the world, where we are now, so that I can direct it” to Asia or return forces to the United States. to improve combat readiness, Esper said Monday after meeting with French Defense. Minister Florence Parly, who visited Washington to urge the United States not to reduce its forces in the Sahel.

Leading Republicans and Democrats have warned that such a move would undermine national security. They argue that cuts in Africa could cede influence over the booming continent of 1.2 billion people to China and Russia.

The commander of US forces in Africa, General Stephen Townsend, is scheduled to testify Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the role of US forces in Africa.

Talking about a possible troop reduction “reinforces the view in West Africa that the United States is not interested, that it does not see it as of strategic importance and that it will cut and flee and abandon their African allies, ”Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Associated Press.

The United States has about 6,000 people on the continent. In West Africa, Africa Command has a mandate to advise and assist, while in East Africa, where most of the American troops are located, forces also accompany African troops on mission.

More than 1,000 American soldiers are currently in the Sahel. The United States has also built a $ 110 million drone base in northern Niger.

Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed urged the United States not to cut back, citing an increase in terrorism in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Chad since the defeat of ISIS in Syria.

“So I think what we need now is more support,” Mohammed told the AP. “I’m not talking in terms of physical soldiers, American soldiers. But I think we need more support. Otherwise, we will inadvertently strengthen the hand of terrorists. ”

The impending decision of the United States comes as the former French colonizer promises more support than ever to the countries of the Sahel. France has already sent more than 200 additional troops to bolster its already 4,500-strong operation in the Sahel, and French Chief of Staff Francois Lecointre has said he will ask for even more troops.

The Sahel mission “is a classic case of burden sharing, where limited support from the United States capitalizes on a huge effort led by France and Europe,” Parly said, speaking alongside Esper Monday at a Pentagon press conference.

Parly joined senior Portuguese, Swedish and Estonian military officials on a visit to Niger, Chad and Mali last week to discuss how to proceed with an international counterterrorism coalition dubbed Takouba.

During a summit with West African leaders this month, French President Emmanuel Macron said he hoped to convince US President Donald Trump that the fight against global extremism “is also at stake in this region.” .

West African leaders at the summit said they hoped the United States would maintain its military presence in West Africa.

The heads of state of the G5 Sahel, a group which includes Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad, called for the continuation of American and French military engagement in the region and “pleaded for a strengthening of the international presence by their side, ”according to the summit’s closing statement.

The U.S. footprint in West Africa, where the cuts would most likely occur, is small compared to other regions. But the effect of its force presence, training programs, development aid and military assistance is significant, according to the leaders.

Colonel Thomas Geiser, Africa Command’s deputy special operations commander, said the greatest risk is allowing Al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates to expand “and potentially consolidate refuges there “.

He underscored the need for a strengthened regional and multinational approach to violence and broader community support, saying African partners must lead the efforts. But a regional security force brought together by the G5 Sahel has struggled to fund its efforts and end the violence.

The G5 Sahel force will now focus most of its efforts in the tri-border region between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, targeting the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, Parly said.

However, progress in the Sahel has been minimal and the issues need to be addressed by these regional governments, Deputy Secretary of the African Affairs Division of the US State Department Tibor Nagy said on Monday during a telephone press briefing. .

“The United States is actively involved through a number of programs in the Sahel region,” Nagy said. “It takes political will to fight terrorism.

It is also unclear how the newly built drone air base in northern Niger will be affected. Last week, the United States handed the Nigerian Air Force a C-130 hangar at Nigerian Air Base 201.

Colonel Abdoul Kader Amirou, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Nigerien Air Force, said the hangar would strengthen the capacities of the armed forces and “strengthen joint actions between the Nigerien and American forces”.

Associated Press editors Robert Burns in Washington, Andy Drake in London, and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.

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