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US Ponders Cutting Forces in Africa    01/29 06:26

   DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- As extremist violence grows across Africa, the United 
States is considering reducing its military presence on the continent, a move 
that worries its international partners who are working to strengthen the fight 
in the tumultuous Sahel region.

   The timing is especially critical in the Sahel, the vast arid region south 
of the Sahara Desert, where militants with links to al-Qaida and the Islamic 
State group have carried out increased attacks in the past six months. In Niger 
and Mali, soldiers have been ambushed and at times overpowered by hundreds of 
extremist gunmen on motorcycles. More than 500,000 people have been displaced 
by violence in Burkina Faso.

   The pending decision is part of a worldwide review by Defense Secretary Mark 
Esper, who is looking for ways to tighten the focus on China and Russia.

   "My aim is to free up time, money and manpower around the globe, where we 
currently are, so that I can direct it" toward Asia or return forces to the 
United States to improve combat readiness, Esper said Monday after meeting with 
French Defense Minister Florence Parly, who traveled to Washington to urge the 
U.S. not to reduce forces in the Sahel.

   High-profile Republicans and Democrats have warned that such a decision 
would undermine national security. They argue that cuts in Africa could hand 
over influence on the booming continent of 1.2 billion people to China and 
Russia.

   The commander of U.S. forces in Africa, Gen. Stephen Townsend, is scheduled 
to testify Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the role of 
American forces in Africa.

   Talk of a possible troop reduction "is reinforcing a view in West Africa 
that the U.S. is not interested, that it does not see it as a strategic 
importance and that it is going to cut and run and abandon its African allies," 
Judd Devermont, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies 
Africa Program, told The Associated Press.

   The U.S. has about 6,000 personnel on the continent. In West Africa, the 
Africa Command's mandate is to advise and assist, whereas in East Africa, where 
most of the U.S. troops are located, forces also accompany African troops on 
missions.

   More than 1,000 U.S. personnel are currently in the Sahel. The U.S. has also 
constructed a $110 million drone base in northern Niger.

   Nigeria's information minister, Lai Mohammed, urged the U.S. not to cut 
back, citing an increase in terrorism in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Cameroon 
and Chad since the defeat of ISIS in Syria.

   "So I think what we need now is more support," Mohammed told the AP. "I'm 
not talking in terms of physical soldiers, American soldiers. But I think we 
need more support. Otherwise we will inadvertently be strengthening the hand of 
the terrorists."

   The looming U.S. decision comes as former colonizer France pledges more 
support than ever before to Sahel countries. France already has sent more than 
200 additional troops to reinforce its already 4,500-strong operation in the 
Sahel, and French Chief of Staff Franois Lecointre says he will request even 
more troops.

   The mission in the Sahel "is a classic case of burden sharing, where limited 
U.S. support leverages an immense effort carried out by France and Europe," 
Parly said, speaking alongside Esper on Monday at a Pentagon news conference.

   Parly joined top Portuguese, Swedish and Estonian military officials on a 
visit to Niger, Chad and Mali last week to discuss how to proceed with an 
international anti-terrorism coalition dubbed Takouba.

   At a summit with West African leaders this month, French President Emmanuel 
Macron said he hopes to convince U.S. President Donald Trump that the fight 
against global extremism "is also at stake in this region."

   West African leaders at the summit said they hoped the U.S. would maintain 
its military presence in West Africa.

   The heads of state for the G5 Sahel, a group that includes Niger, Mali, 
Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad, asked for a continuation of American and 
French military engagement in the region and "pleaded for a strengthening of 
the international presence alongside them," according to the closing statement 
for the summit.

   The U.S. footprint in West Africa, where the cuts would most likely happen, 
is light compared to other regions. But the effect of its force presence, 
training programs, development aid and military assistance is important, 
leaders say.

   Col. Thomas Geiser, deputy commander of special operations for the Africa 
Command, said the biggest risk is allowing al-Qaida affiliates and the Islamic 
State to expand "and potentially consolidate safe havens there."

   He emphasized the need for a strengthened regional and multi-national 
approach to the violence and for more broad support of communities, saying 
African partners must lead efforts. But a regional security force assembled by 
the G5 Sahel has struggled to fund its efforts and end the violence.

   The G5 Sahel force will now focus most of its efforts in the tri-border 
region between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, targeting Islamic State Grand 
Sahara, Parly said.

   However, progress in the Sahel has been minimal, and the problems there need 
to be solved by those regional governments, the assistant secretary for the 
U.S. State Department's African affairs division, Tibor Nagy, said Monday 
during a telephone press briefing.

   "The U.S. is actively involved through a number of programs in the Sahel 
region," Nagy said. "It takes political will to counter terrorism."

   It is unclear also how the newly constructed drone air base in northern 
Niger will be affected. Last week, the U.S. handed over a C-130 hangar at Niger 
Air Base 201 to the Nigerien Air Force.

   Col. Abdoul Kader Amirou, deputy chief of staff for the Nigerien Air Force, 
said the hangar will boost capabilities for the armed forces and "strengthen 
joint actions between the Nigerien and U.S. forces."


(KR)

 
 
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