Furore in Washington over Trump admin plans to withdraw troops from Africa

Chief White House Correspondent for | + posts

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

The U.S. Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began in Washington D.C. on Tuesday with what many had predicted would be dominated by partisan debates, with Democrats arguing that the 45th American President had violated his oath office and should be removed, and Republicans saying Democrats were attempting to remove Trump from office because of the 2020 presidential election coming up in just 11 months.

But, if partisanship is the new normal in Washington D.C. on virtually every issue, news reports that the Trump administration was planning to either significantly reduce troops from Africa or withdraw them all together led to a surprising bi-partisanship.

Republicans and Democrats all united against such plans, warning that withdrawing troops from Africa was not in the interest of the United States, and would be a golden opportunity for China and Russia to increase their influence there and undermine the U.S. and American allies in the European Union.

American newspapers reported that Defense Secretary Mark Esper was weighing proposals for a major reduction — or even a complete pullout — of U.S. forces from Africa.

According to the reports, the Trump administration could also pull intelligence assets and U.S. defense attachés, leaving America with a weakened ability to stop terrorist threats.

Newspapers said the potential force withdrawal was part of Esper’s “blank slate” review of global operations to shift the deployment of approximately 200,000 American forces stationed abroad to focus on Russian and China aggression as defined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

The Hill reported that under consideration is a plan to abandon a recently-built $110 million drone base in Niger and to end assistance to French forces battling militants in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. 

The report said U.S. has approximately 6,000 to 7,000 troops in Africa, with “the largest number of them concentrated in the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa. U.S. forces are in West Africa to train and assist security forces to defeat extremist Islamic groups including Boko Haram and those that pledge loyalty to the Islamic State and al Qaeda”.

The leak that Pentagon was planning to pull troops from Africa triggered a lot of anger and condemnation in Washington D.C. with many criticizing the Trump administration’s Africa policy, calling it totally adrift and utterly transactional — a move that would leave a large hole that China and Russia would fill.

Some suggested it would be a strategic retreat at a time when Islamist organizations are expanding across the Sahel and West Africa.

In addition, many argued that if enacted, the new policy would be in defiance of the White House’s own Africa policy, of U.S. national security interests in preempting threats to the U.S. homeland and in contravention of commitments to our NATO allies.  

The Hill noted that the proposed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Africa was happening at a time President Emmanuel Macron of France was arguing that The future of the world will largely be played out in Africa.

Mr. Macron has visited 16 African countries since becoming president of France, including a trip last December to Mali to meet with French troops combatting terrorism.

“Macron’s assertive Africa policy is a response to what French diplomats see as the disintegration of the post-WWII international consensus which has created a new scramble for Africa, with its mineral resources, demographic advantage, and the human potential of its young population empowered through education and technology,” the newspaper said, adding that the scramble was happening in real-time.

“2019 saw the Chinese dominant, but being pressed by Russia, which hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa Sochi Summit, attracting 43 Heads of State, (chiefly focused on military-to-military cooperation); the Turks established logistical bases across the continent, and vied for investment with Middle Eastern States. 2019 saw the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development, and this month, January 2020, the UK hosted a pre-Brexit UK-Africa investment summit,”. The Hill said.

With all the anger and warnings, The Hill added that “when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was peppered with questions from reporters on his way to a summit in Brussels to meet with his NATO counterparts, he confirmed that — in fact — resources from Africa, “could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase readiness of the force in the continental U.S. or redeployed to” the Asia Pacific region”.

Miley said Esper has not made up his mind about what changes he would make.

“We’re developing options for the secretary to consider, and we are developing those options in coordination with our allies and partners,” he said.

The confirmation of media reports seemed to make things worse and heightened the alarm in the U.S. Congress.

According to The Hill, series of letters were written from both Republicans and Democrats, all of them warning that withdrawing troops from Africa would be a costly mistake.

The newspaper wrote: “on Jan. 10, 11 lawmakers wrote Secretary Esper raising concerns about the redeployment of troops from Africa as a, “shortsighted action that both diminishes our overall national security posture and our ability to lead with American values and influence.” The bi-partisan letter was led by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.).

“Five days later, on Jan. 15, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) wrote to Esper warning against possible plans to reduce U.S. troop presence in Africa. Graham and Coons said: “We write to express our serious concern regarding reports of a possible decision to significantly reduce or completely withdraw U.S. Armed Forces within the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) area of responsibility, specifically the Sahel of West Africa.

“Furthermore, the retention of forces within the AFRICOM area of responsibility serves as a check against the growing presence of near-peer competitors like China and Russia who continue to expand their influence across the continent,” the two Senators wrote. (AFRICOM is one of six of the U.S. Defense Departments geographic combatant commands which became fully operational capable on Oct. 1, 2008).

“Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) issued his own statement echoing Graham and Coons’ concerns. He said, “Africa has been and must remain a key theater for our counterterrorism efforts. Without pressure, the threat these groups pose to the U.S. will grow unchecked.”

Almost in unison, on Friday, Jan. 17, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat and Republican warned Esper to reconsider plans to reduce military forces in Africa. In a letter to EsperChairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and ranking member Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), urged the secretary to “carefully consider the adverse implications of reducing our force posture in Africa,” cautioning that “the threat of violent extremism and terrorism persists” in the region overseen by U.S. Africa Command”.

Simon Ateba

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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