Rethinking U.S. troop deployments in Africa

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 16th of January, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: getting out of Africa.

The Pentagon has been discussing troop reductions in the Middle East for years. And according to a recent report in The New York Times, Africa could be next. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is reportedly considering a partial or complete withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in West Africa.

BASHAM: These reductions are part of a global shift away from counterterrorism deployments, and toward confronting so-called great powers. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. WORLD Radio correspondent Jill Nelson breaks down the benefits and risks.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: President Donald Trump pledged to bring U.S. troops home during his campaign in 2016. He reiterated that commitment during his 2019 State of the Union address.

TRUMP: As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars.

And as his first term draws to a close, he’s trying to make good on that promise. During a December speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper promoted a new global strategy.

ESPER: We have entered a new era of great-power competition. China first and Russia second are now the department’s top priorities.

That likely means less blood and treasure invested in fighting local terrorist networks, including those in Africa.

The United States currently has more than 6,000 troops deployed on the continent. Their primary mission is to train and assist local security forces in their fight against Islamic terror groups.

Gil Barndollar is a former Marine Corps captain and a senior fellow at Defense Priorities. He thinks a drawdown in Africa is a good idea.

BARNDOLLAR: The U.S. has its fingers in almost every pot to one degree or another but we haven’t really shown the ability to juggle all those things with any proficiency yet. I’m not sure the United States can walk and chew gum very well despite how big its bureaucracy is and how big its ambitions and budgets are.

He says China’s predominance in Asia and the threat that poses to the U.S. economy is far more important than terrorist activities in West Africa.

BARNDOLLAR: How much are ISIS militants and Boko Haram and other insurgents in parts of rural West Africa, how much are they really a threat to Americans on U.S. soil? I think that’s hopefully what Mark Esper and the Pentagon are starting to question as they look at our resources and our commitments.

African terror groups might not be a threat to Americans, but they’re wreaking havoc on local communities.

Twin Christmas Eve attacks in Burkina Faso killed 42 people. Boko Haram, the group behind the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian school girls in 2014, has also increased attacks against civilians. The State Department claims terrorist attacks have doubled this past year in the Sahel, the region just below the Sahara. Churches and Christian communities are frequent targets.

In the Horn of Africa, Al-Shabaab, a group with ties to Al-Qaeda, killed almost 80 people in a December attack in the Somali capital.

Katherine Zimmerman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on terrorist groups in Africa and the Middle East. She says it’s short-sighted to dismiss them as a threat because they haven’t launched an attack on U.S. soil.

ZIMMERMAN: It’s very clear from the past decade the role that Africa has played in terms of the Salafi-jihadi threat from groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb sending financing to more lethal groups in Yemen.

Local terrorist groups often support global terrorist networks, she added.

And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted in November that Islamic State militants are gaining strength in Africa. Once these groups gain ground and experience locally, they will shift their focus to the West, Zimmerman says. 

ZIMMERMAN: You only need to look at the attacks that we’ve seen in Spain and France and even in England to see the connections back to the African space.

Zimmerman says leaving Africa could create opportunities for other global powers to step in. The two most likely candidates are China and Russia, the two countries singled out by the Pentagon as posing the most threat to America. Zimmerman notes Russian mercenaries are already playing a role in Central Africa.

But there’s one thing Barndollar and Zimmerman agree on when it comes to U.S. military engagement in Africa: Something needs to change. Barndollar says a militarized foreign policy is not the answer to Africa’s economic and societal tensions.

BARNDOLLAR: It’s hard to be optimistic about a lot of these places which again raises the utility of putting American troops there and thinking we’re going to fix things largely through force of arms and security force assistance.

Zimmerman says we’ve been fighting the wrong wars. We shouldn’t be focused solely on counterterrorism in Africa.

ZIMMERMAN: What we’re not doing inside of the African continent  particularly is looking at the specific local conflicts, grievances, the governance issues, and trying to address those. We’ve done that tactically, so on a very small scale in certain villages and districts, but nothing that’s at that kind of strategic level causing change.

According to The New York Times, the Pentagon asked U.S. Africa Command to submit sometime this month a proposal for a troop drawdown and redeployment. That could include abandoning a recently completed $110 million airbase in Niger.

Meanwhile, U.S. allies in the region still consider African terror groups a significant threat. France announced this month it would send several hundred more troops to its mission in West Africa. It currently has more than 4,000 military personnel in the region and relies on U.S. support.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File) In this Saturday March 7, 2015 file photo, Nigerian special forces and Chadian troops participate with US advisors in the Flintlock exercise in Mao, Chad. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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