US Lawmakers are reportedly moving to introduce legislation that would prevent the removal or reduction of troops in Africa. The Trump administration has been conducting a review of the US military presence there since December and there are widespread fears in Congress that the removal of troops could have a destabilizing effect on the region.
The legislation is being introduced by Democratic Rep. Jimmy Panetta, Republican Rep. Richard Hudson, and Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, as according to an advanced draft obtained by Foreign Policy. Similar to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria a year ago, this potential withdrawal has sparked widespread condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats. The move was purportedly floated to redeploy U.S. troops to counter the growing influence of China and Russia however many in Congress fear that this would harm American interests. In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Sen Lindsay Graham and Chris Coons stated, “Any withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond as well as increase the geopolitical influence of competitors like Russia and China,”. Graham even put forth the idea of increasing the US military’s presence on the continent. Thus far no decisions have been made regarding troops reductions in Africa.
The United States currently plays a pivotal role in counterterrorism operations in countries such as Kenya, Somalia, and Niger, all of which are subject to frequent attacks from groups such as Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. U.S. forces provide training and equipment to local militaries, the idea being that it is cheaper and safer to train countries affected by terrorism to fight it themselves rather than bring down the full strength of the U.S. military. In another sense, the presence of U.S. troops also serves a secondary purpose of countering Russian and Chinese interests in the region. Esper’s idea that moving them out of Africa will help with this purpose is inherently counter-intuitive. The military’s presence and its ability to project power are what deters Russia and China. However, there is another aspect to this story that is seldom talked about, which is whether having soldiers on the ground is indirectly contributing to insurgent activity. United Nations Special Representative Mohamed Ibn Chambas recently reported that terror-related casualties had shot up to over 4000 in 2019 compared to 770 in 2016. In addition to serving in an advisory capacity, the U.S. military also uses bases in Africa to launch airstrikes and special forces raids against insurgent targets. America’s presence, although small, is highly visible to the general populace.
The collateral damage that often occurs because of airstrikes is also a major problem. Going by officially reported numbers, civilian casualties have remained relatively low throughout AFRICOM’s (United States Africa Command) tenure. However, there is a distinct possibility that these numbers are fudged. In Somalia, AFRICOM states that there have only been 2 civilian deaths as a result of its operations. Airwars, a UK-based airstrike-monitoring group, found that the actual number may actually be in the range of 72-140. This is to say nothing of the psychological damage that constant airstrikes can inflict upon the civilian populace, who fear that at any moment they could become victims of lethal circumstance. These unintentional casualties can serve to build up resentment against US forces and occasionally even act as a rallying cry for militant groups. If the United States wishes to promote stability in Africa, then it must review its presence in the country. To withdraw its forces entirely would be to abandon its geostrategic position against Russia and China but to increase military activities in the region, as Sen. Graham suggests, could serve to increase terror activities. This would ultimately serve as a destabilizing force and, in the end, work against AFRICOM’s stated mission.
AFRICOM has maintained a force of over 6000 troops on the continent for just over a decade and pre-AFRICOM US military involvement dates back even farther to the War on Terror. If troops are withdrawn or reduced, this would come as another cut since numbers were reduced by 10% in 2018. Casualties from US operations in the region have been relatively low but are increasing, just a few months ago a service member was killed when Al-Shabaab launched an attack on a Kenyan airbase.
Casualties, both military and civilian, are only likely to increase as AFRICOM continues its operations. It is time for the United States to review its presence not only in Africa but around the world and assess whether it is operating in a capacity that is beneficial not only to its own interests but to that of the regions where it is hosted.