The US military is weighing significantly drawing down the number of US Special Operations Forces in Africa despite senior military officials warning that the terrorist threat in Africa is increasing, three defense officials tell CNN.
The planned reductions are intended to help better align the US military’s posture with the Trump administration’s new defense strategy which focuses more on near-peer competitors like Russia and China as opposed to counterterrorism missions.
US Africa Command, which oversees US troops on the continent, has submitted to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a plan to significantly reduce the number of US forces in Africa, the majority of which work to help countries there battle terrorist groups.
It is not clear whether Secretary of Defense James Mattis will approve the proposal.
“No decisions or changes have been made yet to the forces operating in Africa,” Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Sheryll Klinkel told CNN.
“The Department consistently reviews plans, operations and military investments across the globe to develop the best options that address the constantly evolving threat to US national interests,” she added.
A spokesperson for US Africa Command later said the “force optimization” plan “supports the National Defense Strategy’s direction to prioritize great power competition.”
“Our commitment to stability in Africa is strong, and any force optimization recommendations will prioritize ensuring we maintain mission effectiveness to the greatest extent possible,” Samantha Reho told CNN.
Africa Command would not disclose which African countries would see a reduced US military presence under the new proposal due to that information being classified.
The plan’s submission was first reported by The New York Times.
Elite American Special Operations Forces currently operate in about 12 African nations, including Somalia, Niger and Cameroon, where they advise local forces.
“We’re going to help them to degrade the enemies that we share in common. They are fighting America’s enemies. These are sworn enemies of the United States, that’s why we’re here. We can fight them here or we can fight them somewhere else at a much higher cost,” the commander of US special operations in Africa, Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, told CNN in April.
Senior US military commanders have warned of the increasing threat of terrorist groups to the region, particularly in West Africa.
“The al Qaeda- and ISIS-inspired threats in Lake Chad Basin and here in the Sahel are very real and continue to grow in strength,” Hicks said, referring to two regions in western Africa.
While US troops are primarily in a supporting role, they have encountered combat on multiple occasions.
Four US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger last October and another US adviser was killed in Somalia in June.
“The threat is increasing at different rates and different volumes depending on where you are at in the theater in Africa,” a US military official familiar with US operations in Africa told CNN.
Even before the planned reduction, senior military officials had noted that US troops operating in Africa faced greater resource constraints than in places like Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
“We’re mindful of the limits of our resources,” Hicks said in April, saying the then-US military footprint in Africa was “sustainable” over the longer term.
And while the Pentagon is seeking to focus its efforts more on Moscow and Beijing, US officials have expressed concerns about the growing Russian and Chinese presence in Africa.
Russia has sent military assistance to Libya and 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 US installation.