The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley was in Brussels to speak at a gathering of NATO commanders. There he said that the U.S. wants to reduce its footprint in Africa. Meanwhile, France’s President Emmanuel Macron was hosting a conference of the G5 nations (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) urging the Trump administration to maintain its presence in the region.
General Milley’s remarks echo the shifting of focus that the United States has been exhibiting now for several months, i.e. from counter-terrorism to combat with near-peer potential adversaries China and Russia.
Milley, in speaking with other NATO commanders said resources “could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase the readiness of the force in the continental U.S. or shifted to the Pacific.”
President Macron’s summit conference with the members of the G5 Sahel coalition was looking for more support. Macron said, “If the U.S. decided to withdraw from Africa, it would be bad news for us,” in regard to the group that France has put together to stomp out the Islamic jihadist violence plaguing the region.
“I would like to be able to convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism, to which he is deeply committed, is playing out also in this region,” Macron added.
Stuck in the middle between what the administration is proposing and what our allies are requesting from the U.S. is Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He’s trying to juggle two conflicting scenarios and hasn’t come up with a firm plan yet.
But Milley said that his remarks don’t mean that the U.S. would completely withdraw from Africa. “We’re developing options for the secretary to consider, and we are developing those options in coordination with our allies and partners,” Milley said in Brussels. “Economy of forces doesn’t mean zero.”
The Trump administration wants the European Union to provide more support for the ongoing fight in the Middle East, mainly in Iraq, and for the French to take on more responsibility for the fight in Africa.
Currently, there are about 7,000 Special Operations troops spread across Africa and involved in the fight against the jihadists, mainly in Somalia. Another 2,000 troops are involved with the training of African military forces in 40 countries; they also provide logistical support to the French-led coalition in the Sahel.
France has led the way with a coalition of troops from the G5, deploying 4,500 soldiers in 2014. Macron said at the G5 conference, that France will be deploying 220 more. The U.N. also has 13,000 peace-keeping troops in the region, mostly in Mali where the violence began.
The United States operates a drone base in Agadez, in northern Niger. The base gives both the U.S. and the French-led coalition a very valuable surveillance platform to monitor the movements of the jihadists. The U.S. also conducts air-to-air refueling operations for the G5 forces. The U.S. base in Niger which was just recently completed with a cost of $100 million, may be on the block for closure.
The French are worried that a U.S. withdrawal from Africa would leave them dangerously exposed, particularly in the area of intelligence that is provided by the drones based in Niger. One aide to President Macron called the U.S. support for the G5 “irreplaceable.”
The jihadist groups, including ones that have pledged loyalty to or are loosely aligned with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, have been gaining ground as attacks are increasing and getting deadlier.
Last week an attack on a military base in Niger killed 89 troops, prompting the head of Niger’s military to be sacked. Civilian deaths in the region were reported to be over 4,000 in 2019 — a tremendous increase from just 770 in 2016.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the special representative and head of the United Nations Office for West Africa, spoke to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday saying that attacks have increased significantly in frequency as the violence has spread to the other G5 nations particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger since 2016.