WASHINGTON – There are no plans to increase America’s permanent footprint in West Africa following this month’s deadly attack in Niger, nor has there been any request for such an increase, said America’s top uniformed official.
But the likelihood that the Islamic State group, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL, will move into the region means Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is looking into “recommendations” that can be made to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the White House.
Three Army commandoes and a soldier were killed and two more injured in an Oct. 4 when they were ambushed by around 50 militants armed with machine guns, rockets and light ground vehicles. There are roughly 800 American service members on the ground in Niger, as part of a train and equip mission, part of the roughly 6,000 forces in U.S. Africa Command.
AFRICOM, however, is often seen as underfunded, with Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM’s head, testifying to the Senate earlier this year that “our mission is impacted by inconsistent resourcing of key requirements and capabilities.
“For example, only approximately 20-30% of Africa Command’s ISR requirements are met,” Waldhauser said then. “This limits situational understanding, support to operations, and fails to offer threat indications and warnings.”
As a result, hardly a week goes by without some force level being shifted temporarily from European Command or Central Command towards AFRICOM.
But in terms of “a much more sustained presence, with a larger footprint, and there has been no discussion, nor has there been a request for that,” Dunford said.
Asked if there was a request for an increase in operations, Dunford said “there has not.”
That may have to change in the future, however, as ISIS falls out of Syria and Iraq and looks to regroup elsewhere, particularly after allied forces took back the cities of Mosul and Raqqa.
“One of the places we know ISIS has aspirations to establish a larger presence is in Africa,” Dunford said, noting that there are around 75 nations represented at a defense chiefs conference this week specifically to address that issue.
Last week, Mattis told reporters that the attackers appear to be new to the area and operating as an offshoot of ISIS. U.S. officials have indicated the militants may have been formally associated with al-Queda.
Asked specifically if ISIS is shifting into Africa, Dunford paused, then said “I would say its shifting. I’m not sure I’m ready to say its shifting just to Africa.”
He added that it is his belief ISIS will attempt to create a physical presence elsewhere in the world, which is “exactly why we were conducting the type of operations that happened in Niger.”
Added Dunford, “We know how important Libya and the Saini have been to the Islamic State. We know how much they have tried to eat into east Africa, and of course in this scenario we’re talking about here today, in west Africa.
“So we’re watching it very carefully and we’re going to make recommendations to the secretary and the president for the allocation of forces that meet what we see as the threat and what we anticipate the threat to be,” he said.
Notably, the Senate Armed Services Committee is set for a Thursday brief on the Niger situation, and as final negotiations on the defense bill are still underway, Congress could very well reach a shifting of funding towards AFRICOM.
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.