US to reduce number of troops in Africa

The Pentagon has approved a long-awaited plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops conducting counterterrorism missions in Africa over the next three years, three U.S. officials tell CNN.

One defense official told CNN that the planned reductions would reduce the number of U.S. counterterrorism troops and their enablers who support operations by approximately 25 percent.

Officials say the projected plan will reduce the total number of U.S. forces assigned to U.S. Africa Command by “less than 10%.”

While the exact number of affected forces is unknown, there are approximately 7,200 Department of Defense personnel assigned to Africa Command at present.

However, given the relatively few numbers of U.S. troops assigned to counterterrorism missions in Africa, any reductions could still have an adverse effect.

Special Operations Command Africa has approximately 1,200 troops operating in about a dozen countries such as Niger, Somalia and Cameroon, where they primarily advise local forces battling a variety of terrorist groups.

U.S. officials have been communicating the plan to African partner nations over the last few weeks and an official announcement is expected soon.

The Pentagon confirmed the plan in a statement issued later on Thursday.

“The Department of Defense released the National Defense Strategy earlier this year and provided clear guidance on how the department will prioritize efforts and resources for long-term competition with China and Russia, and build a more lethal force for major combat,” Pentagon spokesperson Cdr. Candice Tresch said in a statement.

“We will realign our counter-terrorism resources and forces operating in Africa over the next several years in order to maintain a competitive posture worldwide,” she said while adding that “this realignment specifically projects to reduce forces by about 10 percent over the next several years.”

“The department and U.S. Africa Command remain committed to ensuring the end result remains a mission-focused, adaptable and agile force with placement and access on the continent dedicated to assisting our African and international partners,” she added.

The planned reductions are part of a broader global effort intended to help better align the U.S. military’s global posture with the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy which focuses more on “near-peer” competitors like Russia and China as opposed to counterterrorism missions.

According to two officials familiar with the decision, the plan “will realign counterterrorism resources and forces operating in Africa over the next several years” in order “to maintain a competitive posture worldwide” while also adopting a more “sustainable” approach to counterterrorism.

“Being prepared for a counterterrorism fight is not the same as being prepared for a fight with Russia or China,” a senior defense official told CNN.

The official said that the U.S. would be “changing, and yes, reducing some of our efforts” and said “by recouping some of this investment, it allows us to train, experiment and plan for the near-peer competitors.”

Senior US military commanders warned last year that the terror threat in many African nations was growing, particularly in West Africa.

Defense officials said the reduction would have little to no impact on US troops conducting missions in Somalia, Djibouti and Libya.

The senior defense official said that the U.S. was more concerned about terrorist threats emanating from North Africa, where ISIS’s Libyan branch continues to have a presence, and East Africa where the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab is located.

U.S. troops in Djibouti are also involved in operations targeting the al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in nearby Yemen.

Those concerns helped shield U.S. counterterrorism forces operating in those areas from any significant cuts.

In West Africa, the plan will be to shift U.S. troops away from tactical-level counterterrorism missions out in the field and shift them more into advisory roles at the strategic level, farther from the front line.

A senior defense official said that the presence of U.S. allies in West and Northwest Africa, including thousands of French troops, helped reduce the risk of the U.S. shifting from a “persistent presence” to a “periodic presence” there.

While U.S. troops are primarily in a supporting role, they have encountered combat on multiple occasions, including a 2017 ambush in Niger that left four Americans dead.

Even before the planned reduction, senior military officials told CNN that U.S. troops operating in Africa faced greater resource constraints than in places like Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.

But defense officials say that despite the reductions, the new plan will “preserve the majority of U.S. security cooperation, partnerships and programs in Africa that strengthen partner networks and enhance partner capability.”

And the counterterrorism campaign appears to be continuing apace with the U.S. military carrying out an airstrike earlier this month in support of local partner forces that killed four Al-Shabaab militants near Araara, Somalia.

As part of the administration’s new China- and Russia-focused strategy, over the summer Africa Command submitted to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a plan to significantly reduce the number of U.S. forces in Africa.

And while the Pentagon is seeking to focus its efforts more on Moscow and Beijing, U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the growing Russian and Chinese presence in Africa.

Russia has sent military assistance to factions in Libya and trainers to the Central African Republic, while China has established major economic ties to a multitude of African nations and has built a major military base in Djibouti, close to a U.S. installation.

The senior defense official told CNN that “there’s always a risk” that Russia and China may seek to “backfill” the U.S. military presence in Africa but said the U.S. is taking steps to mitigate that risk.