US ‘Not Totally’ Withdrawing Forces From Africa, Says Esper

January 31, 2020 Updated: January 31, 2020

The United States will not be completely removing its forces from Africa, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Jan. 30, amid concerns from international partners that the United States would be making cuts as extremist violence grows across the continent.

The announcement came as Esper moved to spearhead a global troop review meant to free up more resources to address challenges from China’s military.

“We are not going to totally withdraw forces from Africa… I know that is the concern of many folks, but again I would say that no decisions have been made yet, this is a process,” Esper said.

Some 6,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed across Africa, and the possibility of cuts alarmed allies such as France, which relies on U.S. intelligence and logistics for its 4,500-strong mission in the Sahel region of West Africa.

France’s concerns for securing more support in the region mounted after 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Mali in November.

During a visit to the Pentagon this week, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said she warned Esper that joint counterterrorism efforts in West Africa would be harmed by cuts to U.S. military assistance.

The head of U.S. military forces in Africa also argued against troop cuts in a congressional hearing Thursday, saying efforts against militant groups would “not go in a good direction.”

Gen. Stephen J. Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee that strategic partnerships must not be sacrificed amid a growing extremist threat and assertive Chinese and Russian influence in Africa.

“A secure and stable Africa remains an enduring American interest,” he said. “In the past, maybe we’ve been able to pay less attention to Africa and be OK in America. I don’t believe that’s the case for the future.”

Townsend expressed concerns that the number of tasks that U.S. forces in Africa need to carry out could be reduced following Esper’s review.

Earlier this month in East Africa, three Americans were killed by Somalia’s al Shabaab terrorist group—an affiliate to al-Qaeda—during an attack at a Kenya Defense Force in Manda Bay used by U.S. and Kenyan forces.

Two Department of Defense (DOD) personnel and one Army soldier were killed in the terrorist attack on Jan. 5, officials said.

The fatal attack also followed a Dec. 28 attack by the organization that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in the region over the past decade or so. In that incident, at least 80 people died, according to the military.

It’s “obvious we were not as prepared there at Manda Bay as we needed to be,” Townsend said. “We cannot take pressure off major terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.”

“These groups and many others remain an inconvenient reality in Africa,” he added.

Townsend also warned against China and Russia “who are aggressively using economic and military means to expand their access and influence” in Africa, noting China’s offer of “smart cities” technology equipped with facial recognition and Russia’s pursuit of extractive ventures in the continent’s rich mineral resources.

He added that intelligence suggested Iranian and Iranian-backed forces were looking into plotting retaliatory attacks on Americans after the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and one of those places could be in Africa.

It is not yet clear when Esper will make his decision on possible military cuts.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.