On Thursday, U.S Army General Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) met with General Francois Lecointre, the French military’s Chief of Staff, and other senior French officials to discuss “continued U.S.-French cooperation in Africa,” according to a statement released by AFRICOM.
The meeting was held as questions remain over whether President Donald Trump will maintain American troop levels in Africa or reduce them as had previously been reported.
“France is the United States’ oldest ally and a leader in the counterterrorism fight in Africa,” said General Townsend. “We share common threats, mutual concerns, and a commitment to fighting violent extremist organizations.”
The United States has provided aerial refueling, intelligence, logistics, training, and drone support to France’s anti-terrorism campaign in West Africa.
AFRICOM noted that U.S. intelligence collection had “helped facilitate” French efforts in the Sahel, while commending the French operation that resulted in the killing of the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, in June.
The U.S. support to the French has been particularly significant in the former French colony of Mali where a Taureg rebellion in 2012 was taken over by al-Qaeda and Islamic State jihadists. The country is now plagued by the Islamist insurgency.
Complicating matters further, the leaders of the Malian military recently deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with the members of Mali’s military responsible for the coup. The meeting fueled rumors that Turkish officials could have influenced the coup due to the ongoing tension between France and Turkey.
The Trump administration has ordered the Pentagon to focus on near-peer rivals such as Russia and China. In such a context, Africa is seen as less of a direct threat and Washington feels that Africa should be left to France and the European Union. However, with both China and Russia vying for a larger African presence, the French are hoping the U.S. will change its policy.
Although some U.S. officials had indicated earlier this year that a troop drawdown was under consideration, no concrete moves have been announced and AFRICOM has stated that the United States will not abandon Africa.
“What’s going on in West Africa affects Africa, it affects Europe, and it affects America,” Townsend said in reference to the Sahel situation. “Continued French leadership and increased support from their European neighbors is key to helping the Africans change the trajectory and prevent the spread of violence in West Africa.”
France has more than 5,100 soldiers in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, its anti-jihadist operation in the region. It is also leading the E.U.-supported Takuba Special Operations Task Force which is working by, with, and through the military forces of the G5 Sahel.
The situation in the Sahel as well as “the necessary mobilization of European countries to fight the terrorist threat in the region,” was also discussed in the meeting, the French defense ministry said in a statement.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been pressing his E.U. allies to step up their contributions to the fight against Islamic insurgents and terrorist groups in the Sahel.
Finally, the two military leaders also discussed the near-peer power struggle between the U.S., China, and Russia, and the increasing presence of China and Russian in the region.