NAVAL AIR STATION PENSACOLA, Fla. — Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is not backing down on potentially shifting U.S. forces out of Africa despite a week of negative reactions from members of Congress — but the secretary did say that “no decisions” have been.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday while travelling to Florida, Esper noted that “everything you do has some type of folks questioning and having concerns” and did not seem concerned by the pushback, which included the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.
"We haven’t talked to them yet in detail… frankly, no decisions have been made,” the secretary said. “I’ve talked to members of Congress several times and once we get through the reviews, I will update Congress as well.”
The potential drawdown of troops is part of a broader review process looking at each U.S. combatant command to decide if the force structure is appropriate for the guidance of the National Defense Strategy, which focuses on countering Russia and, especially, China.
Esper added that he “hopes” to meet with the chairmen and ranking members “next week” to talk about a number of defense issues.
Last week, Defense News reported that House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, had written the secretary asking him to “carefully consider the adverse implications of reducing our force posture in Africa,” and cautioning that “the threat of violent extremism and terrorism persists” in the region overseen by U.S. Africa Command.
The chairmen followed criticisms from earlier in the week by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del. A bipartisan group of 11 congressmen, led by HASC Vice Chair Anthony Brown, D-Md., also 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.”
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.
When Esper returns to the Pentagon Friday, he will have another meeting with AFRICOM on the potential changes. Esper will also be discussing the start of a review of U.S. Southern Command soon.
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.