Concern in Congress and around the government has grown in recent months about Esper’s review of U.S. troop levels worldwide, which fits into President Trump’s campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from abroad and save money by doing it. In the U.S. command in Africa, the first theater to be examined, Esper is reportedly planning to recommend a sweeping drawdown that could include ending U.S. military support for French forces fighting terrorism in Mali and closing down a new drone base in Niger.
There are 800 to 1,000 U.S. forces providing airlift, refueling and intelligence support to French ground troops fighting terrorists all over the Sahel region, according to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). French President Emmanuel Macron met with him on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last weekend and requested the Americans stay.
“He said, please tell [President Trump] that we are committed to fighting terrorism, we’ll do the on-the-ground work, we just need your airlift and your intelligence. It makes us effective. Without your help, we can’t be effective,” Graham told me. “The president of France is asking us to continue a support mission that has them deployed five to one and keeps terrorists at bay. That’s a good deal.”
Graham and other senators raised this issue with Esper in a separate Munich meeting. Graham denied an NBC report that he had told the defense secretary that he would “make his life hell” if Esper ordered the drawdown. Graham supports the review process but told Esper that cost-savings can’t be the only consideration.
The Trump administration has demanded European allies increase burden-sharing, and France has stepped up. The cost for the United States is low. We’ve suffered no casualties. Pulling the rug out from under the French after they deployed forces at our request undermines the entire narrative.
“If we want allies to respond in a positive way to those kinds of encouragements, you’ve set a rotten precedent if once they’ve done so, you bail out on them,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who also pressed Esper on the issue. “Plus, it’s the right thing to do,” he told me.
Asked about this in public in Munich, Esper praised the French for leading in the Sahel but didn’t reveal his thinking about the future of the U.S. support mission. “They’ve been reaching out aggressively to get more European partners on board, with mixed success, and I fully support that effort,” he said.
There’s also concern Esper will recommend drastic drawdowns of U.S. troops in East Africa. The U.S. base in Djibouti hosts about 4,000 U.S. and allied forces supporting counterterrorism missions against al-Shabab, counterpiracy efforts and several other missions. China has a huge base nearby.
The review is meant to shift resources to Asia to fulfill the National Defense Strategy’s call for increased focus on great-power competition with China. But that same strategy also promises to bolster partnerships in Africa to “address significant terrorist threats that threaten U.S. interests . . . and limit the malign influence of non-African powers.”
Inside the administration, there’s concern Esper’s Pentagon-centered process has resulted in non-military considerations being given short shrift. U.S. diplomats, aid workers and spies in Africa depend on the security U.S. forces provide. An emergency rescue task force established after the 2012 Benghazi attacks is being looked at for cuts.
Officials who support the review caution it is not final and is only a first step. They say it’s past time to examine the rationale and efficiency of a U.S. troop footprint in Africa that has grown steadily in recent years, bringing massive support costs along with it.
As for the French support mission, officials disagree over whether the terrorists it targets have the capability and intent to threaten the U.S. homeland. They also disagree over whether we should end our support if they don’t.
We may not have the right forces in the right places doing the right things in Africa. Perhaps some training missions could be moved without harm. It’s true U.S. troops in the Sinai aren’t doing what they were sent there to do in 1982. Mission creep is a real thing. It’s a debate worth having.
But everyone also knows how the president wants the review to turn out. Lawmakers will surely challenge Esper on whether political considerations are influencing national security concerns when he testifies before Congress next week.
Trump wants to save money and campaign on bringing troops home from abroad. But Africa is the wrong place to start. Pompeo can promise commitment, but the region is watching as we threaten to pack up and leave. If we do, Beijing will not be able to believe its luck.