JOHANNESBURG — Even as destroyed U.S. military aircraft smoldered from an al-Shabab attack that killed three Americans this month in Kenya, the al-Qaida-linked group issued a taunting message to African troops: The U.S. will abandon you just as it did the Kurds.
Islamic extremists are already exploiting possible U.S. military cuts in Africa that have caused a rare bipartisan outcry in Washington, with lawmakers stressing the need to counter China and Russia and contain a growing threat from Islamic State group affiliates.
• WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Worried U.S. partners have pointed out the poor timing of reducing the U.S. military presence: Africa’s extremist groups “set a record pace of activity in 2019” with more than 10,400 killings, a doubling of activity since 2013, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies says in a new report.
The U.S. Africa Command, signaling concern over the Pentagon’s potential cuts, has emphasized the Somalia-based al-Shabab as a threat after its leader in November made an unprecedented call to attack Americans wherever they are.
The Pentagon’s possible reduction of U.S. troops in Africa is part of a worldwide review by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is looking for ways to tighten the focus on China and Russia. It is not known when a decision will be announced, but officials say Esper has made clear the U.S. will not withdraw from Africa entirely.
“If the Americans were to decide to withdraw from Africa, it would be bad news for us. I confirm it,” French President Emmanuel Macron said at a counterterror summit with West African leaders this month. “I hope I can convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism, in which he is deeply engaged, is also at stake in this region.”
The U.S. has about 5,200 Africa Command personnel, troops and others, on the continent, plus about 800 other Department of Defense personnel.
• WHY ARE U.S. LAWMAKERS SPEAKING OUT?
High-profile Republicans and Democrats have warned the Trump administration that cutting the U.S. military presence in Africa would hand over influence on the youthful, booming continent of 1.2 billion people to an assertive China and Russia.
That goes directly against national security strategy, the lawmakers say.
“Both countries view Africa as a critical battlefield to fulfill their global ambitions and challenge U.S. interests” including along critical maritime routes, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Jim Inhofe, said Friday. “Significant” U.S. troop cuts are being considered, he said.
Other lawmakers pointed out the recent establishment of China’s first overseas military base in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti — a short distance from the U.S. military’s only permanent base in Africa — as well as growing Russian activity via mercenaries and military cooperation deals.
• WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT AMERICANS KILLED IN KENYA?
The al-Shabab attack in Kenya slipped largely under the global radar as the U.S. and Iran faced off over the U.S. killing of Iran’s top military commander. But the Jan. 5 attack was notable as al-Shabab’s first against U.S. forces in Kenya, East Africa’s economic hub.
According to internal Kenyan police reports seen by The Associated Press and U.S. Africa Command statements, the al-Shabab fighters killed a U.S. service member and two Defense Department contractors, wounded two other Defense Department members and destroyed several U.S. aircraft and vehicles at an airfield used for counterterror activities.