A bipartisan group of lawmakers is worried about possibly reducing U.S. military presence in Africa, following reports that the Pentagon is contemplating a drawdown of U.S. troops on the continent to better focus on countering aggression from Russia and China.
Spearheaded by Maryland Democrat Rep. Anthony Brown, the lawmakers said in a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that cutting back U.S. troops in Africa was antithetical to the National Security Strategy Congress backs.
“While we understand your decision to review our force posture and to deploy our military as efficiently as possible, we are concerned that a narrow focus on confronting Russia and China in great power competition is a shortsighted action that both diminishes our overall national security posture and our ability to lead with American values and influence,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, sent on Jan. 10.
In the past five years, Russia has signed more than 20 bilateral military cooperation agreements with African states, and the NSS has outlined ways that China is also bolstering its economic and military presence in the region, the lawmakers said.
Furthermore, they cited Russia’s response when hundreds of U.S. troops moved out of Syria late last year, prompting Russian forces to move in and establish a helicopter base in Qamishli, Syria, according to the Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda station.
“Reports on the ongoing force posture deliberations indicate the potential to repeat this mistake by abandoning bases and other assets,” the U.S. elected officials said in their letter to Esper.
Additionally, they pointed to the recent deaths of Army Spc. Henry Mayfield Jr. and two U.S. Department of Defense contractors as a reason why the U.S. must “remain vigilant in all theaters.” Mayfield and the contractors were killed on Jan. 5 following an attack from al-Shabab militants in Manda Bay, Kenya.
The lawmakers also voiced concern that shifting attention to Russia and China would mean progress the U.S. has made in Africa would go down the drain.
“Rather than retreat from African affairs, it is in the interest of the United States to continue to share democratic values and military expertise with developing nations across the continent,” the lawmakers said.
Brown, a retired colonel in the Army Reserve who is now the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, brought a Congressional delegation to visit military bases in Niger, Nigeria and Mali in August 2019.
In addition to Brown, the following House lawmakers also signed the letter: Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.; Austin Scott, R-Ga.; Richard Hudson, R-N.C.; Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa.; Gil Cisneros, D-Calif.; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; Elaine Luria, D-Va.; Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M.; and Michael Waltz, R-Fla.
They all requested the Pentagon loop them in immediately if any decisions were made to modify troop deployments in Africa.
Esper, who has routinely emphasized that China is the Pentagon’s top priority, indicated last month that the Pentagon was weighing cutting U.S. troop presence in multiple areas of operations.
“We’ve begun a review process where I’m looking at every theater, understanding what the requirements are that we set out for, making sure we’re as efficient as possible with our forces,” Esper told reporters on Dec. 6, 2019.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported on Dec. 24 that the Pentagon was contemplating a reduction of the U.S. footprint in West Africa, where U.S. troops have been combating the Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked militants like al-Shabab.
Officials told the Times in December that reorganizing troops from West Africa is part of a larger effort to examine global deployments, and redistribute forces to counter Russia and China.
The Pentagon reportedly had not consulted Congress at that point, but had reportedly directed AFRICOM to design a troop redeployment plan by January. AFRICOM referred Military Times to the Pentagon, who did not provide additional details on the report.
“We aren’t going to speculate on future force postures," a Pentagon spokesperson told Military Times in December.
More recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley told Agence France-Presse that the U.S. was examining various options to cut back and reallocate troops in Africa with the objective to either “increase readiness of the force in the continental U.S.” or move them to the Pacific region.
“We’re developing options for the secretary to consider, and we are developing those options in coordination with our allies and partners,” Milley said Jan. 13, according to Agence France-Presse.
Even so, Milley said that a reduction in troops did not equate to a total withdrawal from Africa.
“Economy of forces does not mean zero,” Milley said.
AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns told Military Times in December the command would continue to “maximize results with its assigned forces.” He also said that international efforts in Africa are preventing threats from spreading in the region, as he noted that Russia and China were seeking to expand their influence in the area.
“The African continent is a place where global competitors like Russia and China are actively competing, and looking to become great,” Karns said.
“As part of an international effort, U.S. Africa Command continues to address threats presented by ISIS and al-Qaeda aligned groups, such as al-Shabaab, confronting malign activity on the continent with a force footprint that delivers great value for America,” Karns said.