Withdrawal from Africa could undermine partnership with France

Withdrawal from Africa could undermine partnership with France
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Much has been written, including in The Hill, about the Pentagon’s consideration of a controversial plan to withdraw America’s forces from Africa, to focus on potential threats from Russia and China. The plan would involve the redeployment of some of the 6,000 to 7,000 troops now operating in a number of countries in and around the Sahel, semi-arid land that stretches across Africa and interposes between the Sahara Desert and the southern African savanna. These troops conduct training missions for African forces and, most critically, support both West African and French troops in their battle against Islamic extremists. 

Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon may treat coronavirus patients aboard Navy hospital ship A defining moment in our medical supply chain crisis Military personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas MORE has made it clear that not all American forces will depart from the African continent. But he has left open the question of whether they will continue to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), refueling and armed drone support to the roughly 4,500 French forces that are fighting the ISIS- and al Qaeda-linked extremists on the ground in Operation Barkhane. It appears that part of any drawdown would be the closure of the recently opened $110 million airbase in Agadez, Niger, from which American units operate. 

Esper’s reluctance to foreclose any option of withdrawing these support elements led the French minister of the armies, Florence Parly, to remonstrate personally with Esper during their meeting in Washington in late January. As she put it in their joint press conference, “It's a classic case of burden-sharing, where limited U.S. support leverages an immense effort carried out by France and Europe.”

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Actually, it is far more than burden-sharing. It is a continuation of decades of American-French cooperation in Africa that has withstood the political vicissitudes that often have troubled relations between the two powers. During the 1980s, with France long having withdrawn from NATO’s integrated military command, and with French President Francois Mitterrand often at odds with Ronald Reagan, the two countries coordinated military operations against Moammar Gadhafi’s incursions into Chad. Indeed, Mitterrand’s military assistant, and later French chief of staff, Jean Saulnier, was a frequent — and unnoticed — visitor to the Pentagon to coordinate the Franco-American effort in Africa. 

Again, during the presidency of Jacques Chirac, French opposition to the American invasion of Iraq did not prevent ongoing cooperation between the two countries’ militaries. In particular, the French and American navies worked closely together, especially in the Indian Ocean, where the islands of Reunion and Mayotte are French overseas departments with the same status as Metropolitan France. 

There is a growing consensus in the Pentagon that France currently is America’s strongest European ally. It plays a major role in the NATO’s military leadership; a top French officer has led NATO’s Allied Transformation Command since 2009, when France rejoined the alliance’s military command. Should the United States withdraw its support for France’s counterterrorism operations in the Sahel, the door would be left wide open for Islamic extremist groups to further terrorize and destabilize the pro-Western governments of the region. 

Moreover, Russia has begun to make its presence felt in the Sahel as well. For example, Moscow has offered to sell equipment to the Central African Republic, which has come under increasing attacks from Mali-based Islamic terrorists. The CAR’s forces are trained by militaries from European Union states, but do not receive equipment from the EU. Several EU states, particularly Russia’s Nordic neighbors, view Moscow’s offer to the CAR with great apprehension.

No less worrisome would be the threat to the longstanding military relationship that has operated successfully below the political radars of both countries. France has made it clear that it needs the support it receives from the United States; its own forces are stretched to the limit over the Sahel’s wide geographic swath. Whether France could continue its African operations would become an open question.

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It is time that the Pentagon made it clear that it will not cease its support for French counterterrorism efforts in Africa. American support for these operations involves less than 1,000 troops — in other words, less than a battalion. The leverage that this small force provides to the War on Terror far exceeds their potential marginal contribution to a deterrent posture in either Europe or East Asia. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE is determined to draw down most of the 10,000 American forces in Afghanistan. Let those forces be the source of additional units that could deploy to deter Russia or China, and let the small units in Africa continue to bolster what continues to be a critical military partnership between America and its oldest ally.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.