Broad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa

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Just when you think that Washington D.C. is wholly broken, that bipartisanship is dead-on-arrival, and good policy comes secondary to politics, something surprises you.

So it did for me last week as I watched the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional push-back in reaction to press reports that U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was weighing proposals for a major reduction — or even a complete pullout — of U.S. forces from Africa. The articles asserted that intelligence assets and U.S. defense attachés could also be pulled, leaving America with a weakened ability to stop terrorist threats.

The potential force withdrawal is part of Esper’s “blank slate” review of global operations to shift the deployment of approximately 200,000 American forces stationed abroad to focus on Russian and China aggression as defined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

Under consideration is a plan to abandon a recently-built $110 million drone base in Niger and to end assistance to French forces battling militants in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The U.S. has approximately 6,000 to 7,000 troops in Africa, with the largest number of them concentrated in the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa. U.S. forces are in West Africa to train and assist security forces to defeat extremist Islamic groups including Boko Haram and those that pledge loyalty to the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

The leak of Pentagon intent set off a series of opinion articles criticizing the Trump administration’s Africa policy, calling it totally adrift and utterly transactional — a move that would leave a large hole that China and Russia would fill. Some suggested it would be a strategic retreat at a time when Islamist organizations are expanding across the Sahel and West Africa.

I mostly agreed with the opinion invective, because what was being proposed, if enacted, would be in defiance of the White House’s own Africa policy, of U.S. national security interests in preempting threats to the U.S. homeland and in contravention of commitments to our NATO allies.  

“The future of the world will largely be played out in Africa,” states Emmanuel Macron, who has visited 16 African countries since becoming president of France, including a trip last December to Mali to meet with French troops combatting terrorism.

Macron’s assertive Africa policy is a response to what French diplomats see as the disintegration of the post-WWII international consensus which has created a new scramble for Africa, with its mineral resources, demographic advantage, and the human potential of its young population empowered through education and technology.

This scramble is happening in real-time. 2019 saw the Chinese dominant, but being pressed by Russia, which hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa Sochi Summit, attracting 43 Heads of State, (chiefly focused on military-to-military cooperation); the Turks established logistical bases across the continent, and vied for investment with Middle Eastern States. 2019 saw the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development, and this month, January 2020, the UK hosted a pre-Brexit UK-Africa investment summit.

Last week, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was peppered with questions from reporters on his way to a summit in Brussels to meet with his NATO counterparts, he confirmed that — in fact — resources from Africa, “could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase readiness of the force in the continental U.S. or redeployed to” the Asia Pacific region.

Miley said Esper has not made up his mind about what changes he would make, noting that “we’re developing options for the secretary to consider, and we are developing those options in coordination with our allies and partners.”

With rumor established as truth, Secretary Esper’s troop withdrawal proposal heighted the alarm in the U.S. Congress, which has a long history of pushing back on short-sighted policies in Africa.

On Jan. 10, 11 lawmakers wrote Secretary Esper raising concerns about the redeployment of troops from Africa as a, “shortsighted action that both diminishes our overall national security posture and our ability to lead with American values and influence.” The bi-partisan letter was led by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.).

Five days later, on Jan. 15, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) wrote to Esper warning against possible plans to reduce U.S. troop presence in Africa. Graham and Coons said: “We write to express our serious concern regarding reports of a possible decision to significantly reduce or completely withdraw U.S. Armed Forces within the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) area of responsibility, specifically the Sahel of West Africa.

“Furthermore, the retention of forces within the AFRICOM area of responsibility serves as a check against the growing presence of near-peer competitors like China and Russia who continue to expand their influence across the continent,” the two Senators wrote. (AFRICOM is one of six of the U.S. Defense Departments geographic combatant commands which became fully operational capable on Oct. 1, 2008).

Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) issued his own statement echoing Graham and Coons’ concerns. He said, “Africa has been and must remain a key theater for our counterterrorism efforts. Without pressure, the threat these groups pose to the U.S. will grow unchecked.”

Almost in unison, on Friday, Jan. 17, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat and Republican warned Esper to reconsider plans to reduce military forces in Africa. In a letter to Esper, Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and ranking member Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), urged the secretary to “carefully consider the adverse implications of reducing our force posture in Africa,” cautioning that “the threat of violent extremism and terrorism persists” in the region overseen by U.S. Africa Command.

What a week in Washington.

But in the end, all good — because there is still time for Esper to re-think the fundamental importance of the U.S. troop presence in Africa, America’s responsibility to its European allies and African partner-nations, and to grasp that this broad and bipartisan rebuke could have implications for the wide-ranging structural changes he wishes to make in force deployment — forfeiting political capital which the Trump administration can scarcely afford.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Adam Smith Africa Anthony Brown Anti-terrorism Chris Coons Emmanuel Macron James Inhofe Lindsey Graham Mac Thornberry Mark Esper Scramble for Africa United States Africa Command

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