US cuts troops in Africa to shift anti-terrorism responsibilities and risks to its African partners

China Military Online
Yao Jianing

By Mu Xiaoming

The US unveiled its new Africa strategy on December 13, which shifts the focus on three fields: strengthening economic and trade cooperation with African countries, continuing to crack down on activities in Africa of extremist organizations such as the Islamic State (IS) and promoting more effective utilization of US aid funds to Africa.

It is noteworthy that the Pentagon just announced a plan last month to scale down its troops in Africa by about 10 percent, in order to better counter “threats” from countries like China and Russia.

Military intervention has long been an indispensable measure taken by the US to safeguard its interests in Africa. Currently, about 7,200 US military personnel are deployed in dozens of African nations, with notable footprints in places like Somalia, Nigeria and Libya.

Prior to the promulgation of the US new Africa strategy, the Pentagon announced the plan to cut its troops in Africa. However, this doesn’t mean that the Trump administration intends to decrease its military presence on the continent, but it is a sign of strategic shift in the US’ approach of using armed forces in Africa.

Strategic consideration behind US military intervention in Africa

After the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration launched the militarization of its policy toward Africa. Afterwards, the Obama government not only strengthened the functions of the US Africa Command, but also took further steps to deploy combat units in Africa. Soon after Donald Trump took the power, the US increased its troops on the continent. All of those moves are attributed to the US strategic consideration both globally and regionally – a factor determining the depth of its military intervention in Africa.

Both the George W. Bush administration and the Obama government considered terrorism and its proponents the biggest threat to America’s homeland and global interests. In the 2002 report on the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, President George W. Bush called for “fighting a war against terrorists of global reach,” which eyed on using all sorts of resources including military power to hunt down terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida around the world.

The Obama government pointed out in the US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, released in 2012, that “consistent with the National Strategy for Counterterrorism, we will concentrate our efforts on disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating al-Qaida and its affiliates and adherents in Africa to ensure the security of our citizens and our partners.”

In the National Security Strategy released in December 2017 and the National Defense Strategy in January 2018, the Trump administration reoriented the focus of the US global strategy toward “great-power competition” with Russia and China. This explains why the US reduces its troops in Africa.

A major reason of the US military invention in Africa targets at the so-called “fragile states” or “failed states,” which the US considers the cradle of terrorism and a “paradise” sheltering terrorists. The violent public turmoil and terrorist attacks arising from this have significantly threatened the US’ security interests in Africa.

The US government believes that not only the personal safety of American citizens and diplomats and the country’s economic interests in Africa but also the strategic security of its homeland will be under threat if terrorist organizations in Africa are not cracked down.

A series of attacks against the US embassies in African countries solidified the US’ awareness of the urgency of counterterrorism on the continent. In this context, the US quickened its pace of military deployment in Africa.

Besides the need for anti-terrorism, the US also expands its military intervention in Africa for economic, trade and energy benefits. In recent years, the African economy has witnessed constant growth, increasing the continent’s strategic value as one of the major export markets and investment destinations of the US. Washington believes that Africa will become the world’s most economically dynamic region with the greatest economic returns for the next 30 years.

In addition, the US thinks it has enormous political risks if its external oil supply depends on a single region (especially the Gulf area), and thus needs to adopt a strategy to diversify its international energy supply sources. In this context, the US accelerated its pace of military deployment in Africa. Unless its global strategy sees significant adjustments, the US will never withdraw its military presentence in Africa.

Major means of US military intervention in Africa

Fighting terrorism is a major means of the US military intervention in Africa. In recent years, the US has to some extent constrained and weakened African terrorist organizations through a series of measures such as establishing the US Africa Command, setting up military bases, putting forward counterterrorism initiatives, forging an anti-terrorism alliance and deploying combat units.

First, establishing the US Africa Command. After the 9/11 attacks, with the adjustment of the US national security strategy and the rise of Africa’s strategic importance, it became necessary for the Pentagon to set up an Africa Command to coordinate the US troops’ operations in Africa.

On February 6, 2007, President George W. Bush announced the establishment of the US Africa Command, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. The US Africa Command began operation on October 1 of that year, and transitioned to independent unified command status in 2008, with counterterrorism as its main mission. The establishment of the US Africa Command marked the most significant change of the US military policy toward Africa in the past half century.

Second, setting up various types of military bases or quasi-bases. After the 9/11 attacks, the US rented Camp Lemonnier as its military base in Djibouti. Camp Lemonnier is stationed with about 5,000 US troops and can accommodate 46 warplanes, and has played an important role in counterterrorism, fighting pirates, and intervening in African and Middle East affairs.

Through the Lily-Pad Strategy launched in the time of the George W. Bush government, the US has set up a number of small bases including barracks, outposts, harbor facilities, and resupply points in eastern, western and southern parts of Africa, forming a military network covering the entire African continent. The 60-plus small bases, including 11 “cooperative security locations,” are scattered around 34 African countries.

With the help of those bases, the US troops can reach American diplomatic agencies under threat within four hours to guarantee their safety. Those bases can also serve as “springboards” for global operations as well as rotation camps and military supply points for combat units.

Third, putting forward a series of counterterrorism initiatives targeting at Africa, a “hotbed” of terrorist organizations. In 2002, to fight terrorist organizations including Al-Shabaab, President George W. Bush established the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in the region known as the Greater Horn of Africa, the primary counterterrorism battlefield for the US in Africa.

In 2009, the Obama administration launched the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (PREACT), which not only covers countries in the Greater Horn of Africa such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya but also radiates to Rwanda, Burundi and even island countries such as Seychelles and Comoros.

Fourth, forging a regional counterterrorism alliance of African countries. The US encourages and supports African countries to strengthen cooperation and forge a united armed force to combat terrorist organizations.

Since 2007, the US has invested US$500 million to equip and train more than 18,000 troops of the African Union. To tackle challenges brought by Boko Haram for regional security in West Africa and the Sahel, it supported Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria in establishing the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to strengthen the fight against Boko Haram.

Moreover, with the support of the US government, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda jointly formed the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to maintain high pressure on Al-Shabaab.

Fifth, deploying combat units. Enhancing the deployment of military personnel in Africa is a major measure taken by the US to solidify the fight against African terrorist organizations. In December 2012, President Obama announced a plan to send a 100-member combat unit to each of 35 African countries, with a total number of 3,500. In April 2017, about 40 soldiers of the US 101st Airborne Division were dispatched to Somalia to train Somali troops and African Union troops in Somalia.

Whether will the US cut its military presence in Africa?

After President Trump took the power, the US increased its troops deployed to counter terrorism in Africa. According to the Memorandum on the Plan to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria signed by Trump, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis put forward an action plan that aims to quickly defeat IS and other terrorist and extremist organizations on February 27, 2017. The same year, on March 29, President Trump approved the Pentagon’s plan to expand military operations in Somalia, not only relaxing the rules of engagement for US military strikes in Somalia but also granting frontier commanders more authorities.

In 2017, the US counterterrorism operations witnessed an obvious increase. In addition to airstrikes and special-force raids, the US also enhanced its efforts to fight terrorism in Africa through measures such as deploying more troops to Somalia, supporting the five Sahel states to establish specialized counterterrorism forces, setting up a drone base in Niger, and providing military supplies and training for some African countries.

However, the Trump administration adopts a policy to mainly depend on military means to fight terrorism in Africa, which has caused terrorism to become prevalent in some parts of the continent instead of eradicating terrorism.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has acknowledged that Boko Haram terrorists have started using drones to carry out reconnaissance and raids. In November 2018, a total of 39 Nigerian military personnel were killed and another 43 injured. In October 2017, four soldiers of the US special operations forces died in a counterterrorism mission in Niger, resulting in the Pentagon’s decision to reduce troops in Africa.

The two core factors that the US considers in its engagement in African affairs are seeking interests and controlling risks. On the surface, the highly dispersive deployment of the US special operations forces in Africa can easily cause chaotic commanding coordination in military operations, increasing the risks of American troops on the continent. But in nature, returning to “great-power competition” is the fundamental reason why the US scales down its troops in Africa.

Washington is clearly aware that Africa’s counterterrorism situation is even more complicated than the Middle East, which cannot be settled in a short time through measures such as strengthening anti-terrorism operations, increasing counterterrorism aid, and expanding counterterrorism scales. In December 2017, US Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy David J. Trachtenberg said that the US would work alongside its African partners to find solutions to African problems, with armed forces of host countries mainly responsible for military operations against terrorism, and the US will provide training, equipment and consulting for those partners to help them enhance combat capacity and effectiveness.

This indicates that cutting troops doesn’t mean the US will decrease its military presence in Africa, but merely change its ways of using armed forces. Through this move, the US will shift its counterterrorism responsibilities and risks to its African partners and mitigate the shortage of troops by means of providing equipment, training and funds or resorting in-turn deployment, so as to maintain its military presence in Africa. From this perspective, the Trump administration’s reduction of US troops in Africa is essentially identical to the Obama government’s move to scale down its troops in Afghanistan in 2014. Once the situation changes, the Pentagon may once again increase its troops in Africa.

Pentagon spokeswoman Candice Tresch said that the cuts would leave “counter-violent extremist organization” activities largely untouched in several countries, including Somalia, Djibouti and Libya.

Major General Roger Cloutier, head of the US Army Africa Command, also expressed that the reduction will not affect the US military missions in the region. But in fact, apart from military involvement, President Trump pays little attention to other African affairs.

Not only has Trump never visited Africa since he took office, but he also intends to cut aid to Africa by a large margin. The US new Africa strategy aims to take advantage of the continent’s great potential of development to seek selfish gains. This strategy lacks authorization of legislature and financial support domestically, and meanwhile it is hardly to win recognition from African countries for preset conditions. Thus, a major question mark hangs over whether the strategy can help achieve the “America First” goal.

Disclaimer: The author is Mu Xiaoming from the College of Politics of the National Defense University of the Chinese PLA. The article was published on the China Youth Daily and translated from Chinese into English and edited by China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.



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