Germany — Hundreds of American troops in Africa would be reassigned and
the number of Special Operations missions on the continent would be
wound down under plans submitted by a top military commander, a response
to the Trump administration’s strategy to increasingly focus on threats
from China and Russia.
Department officials said they expected most of the troop cuts and
scaled-back missions to come from Central and West Africa, where Special
Operations missions have focused on training African militaries to
combat the growing threat from extremist Islamist militant groups.
plan by Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of United States Africa
Command, follows an ambush in Niger last fall that killed four American
soldiers and an attack in southwestern Somalia that killed another in
In an interview with The New
York Times, General Waldhauser said his plan would help streamline the
military’s ability to combat threats around the world — but not retreat
“We’re not walking away,” General
Waldhauser said at his Germany headquarters last week, adding that the
United States would still “reserve the right to unilaterally return” to
protect American interests.
has increasingly become an emerging battlefield for the United States in
the fight against Islamist militant groups, including the Islamic
State, Boko Haram and others across the continent that have sworn
loyalty to Al Qaeda.
None of the offshoots of those groups
have directly attacked the United States from Africa. But the Pentagon
has for years sought to train local forces to deal with Islamist
extremists in Africa — in part to distance the United States from any
threats brewing on the continent.
F. Ham, a retired Army general who once led Africa Command, said he
agreed “in principle” with paying more attention to Russia and China —
the notion at the heart of a national defense strategy unveiled in January by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Mr. Ham said, “my concern in Africa is that with an already very modest
presence and level of engagement, reducing that will lessen the
likelihood for good outcomes across the continent.”
Africa receives a small portion of Pentagon investment compared with Germany, South Korea and Japan, for instance.
General Waldhauser said Africa Command was the first to be asked to submit a drawdown plan, as The Times initially reported in June.
But he said he expected other American combatant commands around the
world to do the same under the defense strategy to better position the
United States military against threats from Russia, China, Iran and
The strategy represented
a shift from fighting terrorism to countering state threats. When he
announced it in January, Mr. Mattis declared that “we will continue to
prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great power competition —
not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
drawdown in Africa, General Waldhauser said, will include the departure
of hundreds of Special Operations troops and their support forces. It
will begin in places like Cameroon, where American war planners believe
their efforts to train that country’s special operations forces have
been largely successful. The United States currently has about 300
troops in Cameroon.
Waldhauser said Cameroon’s security forces have improved to the point
where they no longer need Americans to accompany them on missions.
“They can do it on their own,” he said. “That would be an example of a country where we have worked ourselves out of a job.”
Defense Department official said that Nigerien forces are also
considered to be improving to the point where they may soon not need
But it was in
Niger last October where four American soldiers, their translator and
four Nigerien troops were killed when their convoy was attacked near the
border with Mali. A Pentagon investigation into the attack found a “general lack” of “command oversight at every echelon.”
Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council in Washington,
suggested that too many American Special Operations forces — especially
in places like Somalia — could lull local officials into complacency
and dependency, preventing them from getting their own soldiers up to
“Islamist terror threats are
indeed on the rise on the continent, but that doesn’t mean that every
Islamist terrorist needs to be hunted down by U.S. Special Forces,” Mr.
Still, he added, “great
power competition also happens in Africa,” and pointed to a recent
tussle between the United States and China, both of which have major
military bases in Djibouti. The United States complained in May that
Chinese nationals pointed lasers at American military aircraft near
Djibouti, a charge strongly disputed by Beijing.
than 7,300 Special Operations troops are working around the world, many
of them conducting shadow wars against terrorists in Yemen, Libya,
Somalia and other hot spots. About 1,200 of those troops are on missions
in Africa, and they are facing the most immediate drawdown.
part of the plan, the Africa Command was asked how it would conduct its
counterterrorism missions if the number of American commandos there was
cut by 25 percent over 18 months, and by 50 percent over three years.
that would leave about 700 troops — roughly the same number as in 2014,
according to data from Africa Command’s special operations branch. By
comparison, there were 70 Special Operations troops on the continent in
Waldhauser said the cuts, which top officials in Washington are now
reviewing, will not be that deep for Army Special Forces known as Green
Berets. But he declined to give specific figures, citing classification
Even before Mr.
Mattis’s directive, the Special Operations Command had begun to rely on
conventional troops to handle some of the missions it had taken on since
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In places where Special Operations troops
are frequently in combat, such as Afghanistan and Syria, regular
soldiers and Marines are sometimes attached to commando units as
additional security or firepower.
Waldhauser said that in Africa, state National Guard units — from
California, Michigan and Indiana — could be paired with African
militaries as Special Operations units draw down.