The Pentagon is mulling plans to wind down special operations missions on the African continent and reassign troops to other, more in-demand regions.
The plans, submitted by a top U.S. military commander, align with the Trump administration’s strategy to focus on near-peer threats from countries like China and Russia.
“No decision has been officially made regarding the U.S. counterrorism forces operating in Africa,” a Pentagon press official told Military Times. “In light of the [2018 National Defense Strategy’s] updated priorities, the [DoD] is reviewing plans, operations, and military investments across the globe to develop the best options that address the evolving threat to U.S. national interests.”
“The optimization effort does not mean that we are going to walk away from counterterrorism in Africa, but that these efforts must be ‘right-sized’ to align with current security priorities,” the official added.
The Defense Department would reportedly focus the troop cuts and decreased missions on Central and West Africa, where U.S. special operations missions have focused on training up African host-nation forces to combat growing insurgencies from Islamist militants.
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. military presence in Africa is disappearing entirely.
“We’re not walking away,” said Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the leader of U.S. Africa Command who submitted the plans, in an interview this week with the New York Times, which first reported the story. Waldhauser added that the United States would still “reserve the right to unilaterally return” to protect American interests.
There are currently 6,000 U.S. troops strung throughout Africa, spread over 53 countries, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon in October.
The roughly 1,200 special operations troops on missions in Africa would be facing the most immediate drawdown, according to the Times' interview.
After contact with the enemy, it took an hour and a half for the first American aircraft to arrive overhead the battlefield where four U.S. soldiers were killed near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, on Oct. 4.
A part of the plan being floated to Washington leadership is to decrease U.S. special operators by 25 percent over 18 months, and by 50 percent over three years, the Times reported. Such a decrease would dial back the number of troops to approximately the same number as what was on the continent in 2014 — about 700 operators, according to the Times.
Waldhauser said that in Africa, U.S. National Guard soldiers and conventional troops could work more with African nations as special operations units move to other roles elsewhere in the world.
The plan follows an October ambush in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead, and an attack in June that killed another U.S. soldier in southwestern Somalia.
Africa gained traction as another battlefront in the Global War on Terrorism when Islamist militants began pledging allegiance to the once prominent Islamic State, as well as al-Qaida. Boko Haram — a jihadist militant group based in parts of Nigeria, but also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon — was one example of a group attempting to ally itself with the main IS cohort in Iraq and Syria.
None of the African-based ISIS offshoots have attacked the United States, though. That distinction has caused some to question whether it is in the United States' interest to combat these threats across the African continent.
AFRICOM isn’t the only combatant command expected to submit drawdown plans under the 2018 National Defense Strategy that prioritizes great-power competition over defeating terrorist groups, according to Waldhauser in the Times' interview.
“America’s military reclaims an era of strategic purpose, alert to the realities of a changing world,” Mattis said when announcing the new defense priorities in January. “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."
The deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger in an early October ambush has cast a spotlight on a once-obscure mission in the West African nation.
Waldhauser told the Times that an AFRICOM drawdown could start in a country like Cameroon, where 300 U.S. troops have reportedly had success in training local forces and no longer need Americans to accompany them on missions.
“They can do it on their own,” Waldhauser said. “That would be an example of a country where we have worked ourselves out of a job.”
Niger was also listed in the Times' interview with Waldhauser as a country where local forces are getting to a point where they may soon not need U.S. oversight on missions, despite that country being the place of the deadly October ambush. The Pentagon’s investigation into the attack found shortfalls that led to the disaster stemmed from a lack of “command oversight at every echelon.”