WASHINGTON — Facing skepticism from members of Congress about plans to alter force posture in Africa, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told members of the House Armed Services Committee that he remains committed to keeping U.S. forces on the continent.

“There are no plans to completely withdraw all forces from Africa,” Esper said Wednesday.

As part of a broader review of the force structure for the combatant commands, Esper has been considering moving forces out of U.S. Africa Command’s area of operations. Reports emerged at the end of 2019 that the department was looking at removing several hundred forces from Niger, Chad and Mali.

Esper has consistently stressed that no final decisions have been made on rotating forces in or out of AFRICOM, but that has done nothing to stall bipartisan blowback in Congress, including from HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who sent a joint letter to Esper raising concerns in January.

In response to a Jan. 14 letter from HASC Vice Chair Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., among others, which raised concerns about a drawdown in AFRICOM, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, who has since left the building, noted that the first action coming out of the review is to deploy the Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade to AFRICOM.

That move will coincide with rotating out a brigade from the 101st Airborne Division to return stateside for “training and preparation for high intensity conflict," per Rood’s letter to Brown.

At the HASC hearing, Esper said that swap is “the only decision made so far” about AFRICOM.

“It makes great sense in terms of great power competition because security force assistance brigade is trained, organized, equipped to do that mission ... whereas an infantry battalion doesn’t have that,” Esper said. "The infantry battalion in this case needs to go back to home so they can prepare for great power competition.”

Esper said both his AFRICOM and U.S. Southern Command reviews are ongoing. A defense official told an internal Defense Department publication this week that the review process for all the combatant commands will be completed by the end of September.

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.

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