West African leaders aren’t on board with the possibility of U.S. troops vacating the region, according to a new report.
U.S. Africa Command says that there are approximately 6,000 Department of Defense personnel in Africa, but those numbers could go down following a review the Pentagon is executing to reexamine U.S. troop presence in multiple areas of operations.
“If one actor leaves the chain, it weakens the whole group,” Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé said, according to the Washington Post.
Gnassingbé warned that militants from Iraq and Syria are filtering into Africa via Libya, and predicted they would gain power on the African continent, the Post reports.
Senegalese President Macky Sall also characterized a possible reduction of U.S. troops as an error, citing that “instead of coming to help, you wish to remove the little help there is.”
“It would be a mistake, and it would be very misunderstood by Africans,” Sall told the Post, stressing that help from the U.S., Europe, and African states is required to eliminate terrorism.
Terrorist activity in the Sahel region of Africa has dramatically risen recently, according to the United Nations Special Representative and Head of the UN office for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas. He said earlier this month more than 4,000 deaths related to terrorist attacks were reported in 2019 in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — amounting to five times the number of deaths reported in 2016.
Additionally, he cautioned that the “geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening West African coastal states.”
AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns said failing to address security issues in West Africa could lead to prompt violent extremist organizations to use the region as a safe haven for their operations.
“In West Africa there is considerable concern by African and international partners about the deteriorating security situation,” Karns told Military Times. “If appropriate pressure on the terrorist networks is not applied, the Sahel region and pockets of West Africa could become a petri dish for terrorist recruitment, planning, and activity.”
U.S. troops in Africa are primarily responsible for assisting counterterrorism operations against groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked groups such as al-Shabab. Karns said this involves providing logistics support, airlift, intelligence sharing, among other things. Troops from allied nations are also involved in counterterrorism efforts, including France, who has roughly 4,500 troops in West Africa.
But Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has stressed that China is the Pentagon’s top priority.
As a result, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley said the U.S. was examining several possibilities that would redistribute troops in Africa to enhance readiness in the continental U.S. or relocate them to the Pacific, according to Agence France-Presse.
The comments come on the heels of a New York Times report published on Dec. 24 that said one possibility being looked at is withdrawing several hundred U.S. troops in Niger, Chad and Mali. The report, which cited U.S. officials familiar with the discussions, also said another possibility is ending assistance to French forces in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
AFRICOM officials said the Pentagon will ultimately decide what happens, and added that no final decision has been issued yet.
Leaders in West Africa join others who’ve raised concerns with a potential drawdown in troops in Africa. U.S. lawmakers have also expressed opposition to reducing troops in Africa, and French President Emmanuel Macron said Jan. 13 that it would be “bad news for us” if the U.S. cut back the number of U.S. troops in Africa.
West Africa isn’t the only part of the continent that the U.S. is working to eliminate terrorism. To the east in Somalia, AFRICOM has recently ramped up airstrikes targeting violent extremist groups including al-Shabab and ISIS-Somalia and conducted a total of 63 airstrikes against violent extremist organizations in 2019.
That’s more than the 47 in 2018 and the 35 in 2017 the command executed.
Airstrikes in Somalia have continued into the new year, including one on Jan. 19 that assessments say killed three al-Shabab militants and one on Jan. 16 that reportedly killed two militants.
Karns said that the strikes are designed to thwart al-Shabab’s influence on the continent.
“The pace of airstrikes can be characterized as an active effort to disrupt terror networks, create organization confusion, and degrade their ability to plot and plan broader attacks,” Karns told Military Times. “Persistent pressure and pursuit of al-Shabab contains their ambition and denies them an opportunity to expand their vision of destruction and chaos more broadly.”
AFRICOM estimates there are approximately 5,000 to 7,000 al-Shabab militants in Somalia.