WASHINGTON — As the Trump administration pulls back America’s military presence in Africa, it’s calling for more African regional security organizations to step up, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said Thursday.
In a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Bolton unveiled the administration’s strategy to counter the rapidly expanding financial and political influence of China and Russia across Africa and work through allies to curb radical Islamic terrorism.
Overall, Bolton also sought to contrast America’s straight-forward approach — to “help African nations take control of their economic destinies and their own security needs” — with China’s “predatory” investments in local infrastructure projects.
“China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Bolton said. “Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption, and do not meet the same environmental or ethical standards as U.S. development projects.”
On the military front, China opened its first overseas military base last year in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, the site of the only permanent U.S. military base on the continent. Bolton warned of a possible shift of the strategic region, along the lucrative and busy Red Sea shipping lane, to China.
But the plans to develop U.S. economic ties and protect the independence of African countries comes as the U.S. military will cut 10 percent of its 7,200 forces deployed in Africa. America hopes to foster African self-reliance, Bolton said.
“What we’d like to do is empower the African countries to do more security, to do it more of their own security, to do it in coordination with one another — they’re the ones who know the neighborhood — rather than have the deployment of American forces who are comparatively very well paid and well equipped,” Bolton said.
Bolton also emphasized the potential of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a band of 5,000 troops comprised of Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mali — formed to counter militants linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel.
The U.S. almost doubled its pledge of financial support for the force that began deploying last year to fight a surge in Islamist militant attacks, Bloomberg reported last month. Assistance was set to jump to $111 million, from an initial pledge of $60 million made in October 2017.
But the G5 Joint Force, according to the United Nations, is suffering from “equipment shortfalls, capability gaps, insufficient infrastructure and a lack of secured operational bases [that] continue to delay its full operationalization.”
U.S. special operations forces in Central and West Africa have been focused on training up African host-nation forces to combat growing insurgencies from Islamist militants. But the military is ramping down on the continent, following a national report that the U.S. military lacks the global resources to meet China or Russia in a potential future conflict.
“Our goal is for the nations of the region to take ownership over peace and security in their own neighborhood,” Bolton said.
“Under our new strategy, we will also take several additional steps to help our African friends fight terrorism and strengthen the rule of law,” Bolton said. “We will assist key African governments in building the capacity of partner forces and security institutions to provide effective and sustainable security and law enforcement services to their citizens.”
That said, Bolton expressed support for the idea of moving U.S. Africa Command headquarters to Africa from Germany, where it’s been since its founding in 2007. “I think the Pentagon has been clear that it ought to be in the theater it’s responsible for,” he said.
Bolton said the U.S. wants to see more regional cooperative security organizations like the G5 Sahel Joint Force emerge around the world.
As the force seeking to build regional capability to combat terrorism, transnational organized crime, and human trafficking in the Sahel, “G5 countries must remain in the driver’s seat—this initiative cannot be outsourced to the U.N. for funding and other support.”
Bolton, who has long denounced the United Nations, said the U.S. will a reevaluate its support for U.N. peacekeeping missions — only supporting those it deems “effective and efficient.” He blasted the peace-keeping operation in the Western Sahara for lasting 27 years.
“All too often at the United Nations, establishing the peace-keeping force and deploying it is the end of creative thinking,” he said. “There needs to be a lot more focus on resolving the conflict. Success is not simply continuing the mission ad infinitum."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.