The Pentagon is considering significantly cutting back its U.S. presence in West Africa, according to a new report.
U.S. troops in Africa have focused on defeating Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked militants such as al-Shabab. But several hundred U.S. troops in Niger, Chad and Mali are most likely to be pulled from the region as part of the Pentagon’s plan, the New York Times reports, citing officials familiar with the internal discussions.
In particular, reduction options on the table include vacating Nigerien Air Base 201, which just became operational in November and cost $110 million. U.S. Africa Command announced last month that intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations previously conducted out of a base in Niamey, Niger, are now being conducted out of Nigerien Air Base 201 in Agadez.
Likewise, U.S. officials claim another possibility being considered is eliminating assistance to French forces in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, a possibility the Times reported has taken aback U.S. allies in the region like France, which has approximately 4,500 troops in West Africa.
A potential reduction — or total withdrawal — is reportedly part of a larger examination the Pentagon is conducting to re-evaluate global deployments while it looks to redirect forces from counterterrorism efforts so that it can better counter aggression by China and Russia.
The Times reports Congress’ input hasn’t been requested, and that the Pentagon is taking the lead on a potential drawdown. Additionally, the Pentagon has reportedly instructed AFRICOM to craft a withdrawal and troop redeployment plan by January.
AFRICOM referred Military Times to the Pentagon when asked for comment about future force decisions.
“We aren’t going to speculate on future force postures," a Pentagon spokesperson told Military Times.
However, AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns told Military Times that AFRICOM was committed to conducting its assigned missions and would continue to “maximize results with its assigned forces.”
“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. “The African continent is a place where global competitors like Russia and China are actively competing, and looking to become great.”
Karns added that continued international efforts in Africa are blocking threats in the region from growing.
According to officials who spoke to the Times, redistributing troops from West Africa is part of a first wave of drawdowns. Officials anticipate subsequent reductions in Latin America, along with Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report comes as Esper has signaled the Pentagon is considering modifying U.S. troop presence in various areas of operations. Esper has also consistently reiterated that China is the Pentagon’s top priority, as detailed in the National Defense Strategy.
“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 Dec. 6.
Specifically, he has discussed reorganizing U.S. troops in the Central Command area of operations and said he was interested in cutting back forces in Afghanistan so they can be relocated to the Indo-Pacific region.
“I would like to go down to a lower number because I want to either bring those troops home, so they can refit and retrain for other missions or/and be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition, that’s vis-a-vis China,” Esper told reporters Dec. 16.
There are approximately 13,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, and slightly over 6,000 Department of Defense troops on the African continent