Parly is the latest of a steady stream of French officials to visit in recent weeks, as the Pentagon moves toward a decision as early as the end of next month.
France has said that a reduction in the U.S. contribution could seriously undercut the overall French effort. “If the U.S. decided to withdraw from Africa, it would be bad news for us,” President Emmanuel Macron said this month at a summit with leaders of five African countries in the region.
As counterterrorism has moved further down the list of priorities, President Trump has also called for an end to “endless wars,” particularly in places where he has deemed conflict to be “tribal” and not directly affecting the United States.
Allies operating in the parts of the world most immediately affected by potential U.S. withdrawals, in the Middle East and Africa, have said they are willing to increase their contributions in those areas but expect the United States to continue its own involvement.
Although he has recently deployed thousands more troops to the Middle East, Trump has called for Europe and NATO to pick up more of the burden.
“France is okay with a larger European role in the Middle East,” Parly said, “provided this means an enduring U.S. commitment.” European countries that are part of a NATO training mission in Iraq, and which deployed troops as part of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, depend on the United States for key “enablers” that allow them to operate, including intelligence and logistical support.
The United States has by far the largest presence in both countries, although Trump has cut the U.S. presence in Syria by about half, down to around 1,000 troops. In Iraq, U.S. deployments have increased, from about 5,000, to provide greater security after the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike there that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. European troops number in the hundreds.
Defense ministers from the dozen or so countries most involved in the campaign against the Islamic State plan to meet in Brussels in mid-February to discuss matters including how to address Iraqi calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops after the killing of Soleimani.
Overall, Parly said, while France and the United States have had their differences, “on defense, we tend to see eye to eye. . . . We stick together when the going gets tough.”
In the sub-Saharan region of West Africa known as the Sahel, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have a significant presence. It is the one area where the United States military plays the kind of subordinate role that Trump has advocated.
France has the counterterrorism lead, with about 4,500 troops. About 1,400 U.S. troops are there, primarily in Niger, where they operate a newly built drone base.
But French officials have said U.S. support, including intelligence, surveillance and logistical support, is crucial to their own operations. “If we lose support capacities from the U.S. side, if we don’t have more international partners joining the fight, then obviously our capacity to make a difference in the next three to six months will be less,” one senior French official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly.
Macron held his summit with the leaders of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania this month after 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter collision during operations in Mali to stem a new surge in attacks by Islamic State-linked extremists.
As it has appealed for a continuation of U.S. involvement in the region, France has argued that Russia and China are seeking to supplant Western influence, and that the fight against terrorism is an important one.
“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 said after the meeting.
The appeal has significant bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, where Parly also held meetings this week.
“We are concerned over reports that the Department of Defense is significantly reducing our military presence in Africa,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael T. McCaul (Tex.), wrote last week in a letter to Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“While we agree there is a need to regularly review our force posture overseas to ensure efficiency and effectiveness, we strongly urge that any overall drawdown plans at Africa Command maintain robust support for our counterterrorism and host nation capacity building,” they said.
Parly, in a speech late Tuesday at the Harvard Kennedy School, said that “the French military are bearing the brunt” of the fight in West Africa, but can only do so “thanks to U.S. assistance.”
“As America is currently rethinking its relation to the world,” she said, “I have a simple message: America is needed. America is needed in the Sahel. America is needed in the Near East. And alliances are to be treasured: not as burdensome relics, or as commercial endeavors, but as a web of bonds, of values of influence, whose collective value far exceeds that of each part.”