The chief of U.S. Africa Command is making a pitch to maintain the U.S. military presence on the continent, as reports circulate about potential cuts to focus on threats from China and Russia.
CNN noted that the Senate Armed Services Committee asked Gen. Stephen Townsend about an ongoing Defense Department review of the military’s combatant commands, which lawmakers think may result in cuts to U.S. troops in Africa.
“I think that in the past, maybe, we’ve been able to pay less attention to Africa and it be OK for America. I don’t believe that’s the case for the future,” Townsend told the committee.
Multiple defense officials told the network that the majority of proposals being considered in the review involve some reduction of U.S. troops in Africa, and one official said at least one includes increasing financial assistance to nations fighting terrorist groups.
Townsend told the committee on Thursday that the U.S. has approximately 5,000 troops in Africa and approximately 1,000 Defense Department civilians and contractors. He warned that decreasing that number could leave a “void” for Chinese and Russian influence.
“If the U.S. steps back from Africa too far, China and Russia will fill the void to our detriment,” he said in his written testimony to the Senate. “Violent extremist organizations will be able to grow unchecked, some will ultimately threaten the homeland, and we will lose opportunities for increased trade and investments with some of the fastest growing economies in the world.”
The general cited Russian mercenary influence and Chinese investments, in addition to terrorist groups in Africa like ISIS and al Qaeda, as reasons to remain in the continent.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper cautioned that the review does not automatically mean a decrease in troops but could mean troops are transferred to focus on counter-terrorism, but “maybe less” against al-Qaeda and ISIS in Africa.
“We’re not going to totally withdraw forces from Africa. Economy of force does not mean complete withdrawal,” he said at a Pentagon press conference Thursday
The Trump administration has already cut the number of counterterrorism forces in Africa by 10 percent in 2018, CNN reported.