WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat and Republican joined a growing chorus of lawmakers warning Defense Secretary Mark Esper to reconsider plans to reduce military forces in Africa.
In a letter to Esper obtained by Defense News, HASC Chairman 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.
“A decrease in our investment now may result in the need for the United States to reinvest at many more times the cost down the road,” the HASC leaders wrote in the letter, dated Jan. 16. It was also signed by House Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin, D-R.I., and ranking member Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.
Though the idea is to redirect military forces to counter China and Russia to better fulfill the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the congressional disapproval is an early sign of the political capital Esper may have to spend in order to push through a series of ambitious reform efforts in the coming months.
Other critics on Capitol Hill include Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del.
Internal Pentagon deliberations to cut America’s footprint in West Africa, including potentially leaving a Nigerien base that was opened just months ago, was first reported by The New York Times in late December. The goal would be to move troops out of Africa and redeploy assets toward challenging China and Russia, per the National Defense Strategy.
According to the Times, Esper’s proposed cuts would most likely focus on the several hundred troops now deployed in countries like Niger, Chad and Mali. If so, that would be a fraction of the 6,000 to 7,000 American troops in Africa, and it would appear to exclude the 500 special operations troops fighting alongside local forces against al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked militant group based in Somalia.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 11 congressmen, led by HASC Vice Chair Anthony Brown, D-Md., sent a separate letter to Esper, warning the move is a “shortsighted action that both diminishes our overall national security posture and our ability to lead with American values and influence.”
Then on Thursday, Graham and Coons issued a letter to Esper, raising “serious concern” about the potential drawdown, warning that any “withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond.”
In a statement, Inhofe similarly warned that “any drawdown of our troops would be short-sighted, could cripple Africom’s [U.S. Africa Command’s] ability to execute its mission and, as a result, would harm national security.”
“Rather than talking about drawing down troops in Africa, we should finally assign forces to Africom on an enduring basis, in order to provide the command with predictable resourcing so it can be most effective in defending U.S. national security,” Inhofe’s statement read.
In theory, troop cuts in Africa would benefit the goals of the National Defense Strategy, particularly the need to refocus the U.S. military’s budget and attention toward the threat posed by China. So it is notable that in all three letters or statements, members argued that keeping forces in Africa is specifically needed to counter China, whose influence is growing on the continent.
The letter from HASC leaders acknowledged the “intent” behind the review of force posture, but argued that America’s presence in Africa is “effectively countering Russian and Chinese efforts to expand their influence.”
That angle also emerged during a HASC hearing Wednesday about countering China on a global scale.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., questioned how, if the troops are removed, the U.S. can be effective in addressing China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” in Africa. He suggested that the U.S. troop presence enables soft power so that groups such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and nongovernmental organizations can operate on the continent.
“My concern is that if we pull what amounts to a very small number of troops out of certain areas that nongovernmental organizations that provide services to the public ― healthcare, education ― then they will not be there,” Scott said.
Brown added that during a recent visit to AFRICOM’s area of responsibility, there was “some collective anxiety about their troop strength" and the command’s role in great power competition. Likewise Special Operations Command was “struggling a little bit” to articulate its role in modern geopolitics, he said.
Andrew Hunter, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a witness at the hearing, noted the Defense Department has so many forces overseas that he is “always a little puzzled by having really intense discussion about 1,000 troops in this location."
“And I would also say when it comes to Africa, it is economically the fastest-growing continent and is likely to be for some time to come," Hunter said. “The Chinese are making a huge strategic play for [it], so I don’t see a U.S. return on investment, if you will, by pulling out from there in a meaningful way.”
The broad and bipartisan rebuke of the move could have bigger implications for Esper’s larger attempts to change the layout of America’s footprint abroad as well as his other proposed changes to how his department operates.
It’s “a further reminder of how challenging it is to recalibrate and right-size U.S. military posture around the globe," said Mara Karlin, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, now with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Meaningfully implementing, the NDS will be impossible without a hard and serious look at new and different risks that emerge from posture changes," she said. “But failing to do so will neuter the U.S. military’s ability to enhance its focus on Asia and Europe — and minimizes serious dialogue on the risks of a fat and increasing Middle East posture as well.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.