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Why Proposed US Troop Cuts in Africa Cause Concern

2020-1-30

United States military officials warn that Islamic militants are using news of possible American military cuts in Africa to call for more attacks against U.S. interests.

Earlier this month, the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab killed three Americans in an attack that destroyed U.S. military aircraft in Kenya.

It was the deadliest attack against the U.S. military in Africa since 2017. After the attack, al-Shabab sent a message to African soldiers. The group claimed that the U.S. would abandon them like it abandoned the Kurds in Syria.

This has caused a rare moment of agreement between both major American political parties. Lawmakers are criticizing the cuts. They argue there is an urgent need to oppose China and Russia in the area and contain the growing threat from groups linked to Islamic State, or IS, militants.

A member of Kenya's security forces walks past a damaged police post after an attack by al-Shabab extremists in the settlement of Kamuthe in Garissa county, Kenya Monday, Jan. 13, 2020
A member of Kenya's security forces walks past a damaged police post after an attack by al-Shabab extremists in the settlement of Kamuthe in Garissa county, Kenya Monday, Jan. 13, 2020

Experts say it is not a good time to reduce the U.S. military presence in Africa. In a new report, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies said extremist groups increased their activity in 2019. It reported an estimated 10,400 killings linked to militant Islamists took place last year. Researchers added that increase is two times higher than in 2013.

The U.S. Africa Command has signaled that it is concerned about the proposed cuts. It said leaders of al-Shabab have called on followers to attack Americans wherever they are.

The command recently told reporters that neither China nor Russia are doing a lot to fight Africa’s extremist groups.

The U.S. Defense Department’s possible reduction of U.S. troops in Africa is part of a worldwide reexamination by Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He wants defense officials to pay more attention to China and Russia. It is not known when a decision will be announced. But officials say Esper has made clear that the U.S. will not withdraw from Africa completely.

The U.S. has about 5,200 Africa Command members, troops and others, on the continent, and about 800 other Department of Defense workers.

France warns about withdrawal

French President Emanuel Macron held a conference with West African leaders in Pau, France, this month about the issue. Attendees discussed measures against Islamic extremism. The group confirmed the need for U.S. military support in the Sahel, the area south of the Sahara Desert. Groups linked to al-Qaida and IS, have already moved closer to heavily populated coastal cities there in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

The French are increasing their military support in West Africa. This month France announced that it is adding to its 4,500 troops in the Sahel. Last month, France also carried out its first armed drone attack there.

“If the Americans were to decide to withdraw from Africa, it would be bad news for us. I confirm it,” French President Emmanuel Macron said at the conference.

The U.S. considers the French military very important in the Sahel. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that the Sahel is the next area of importance for the global coalition against IS.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have warned the Trump administration against cutting U.S. military support in Africa. They argue it would give too much influence to China and Russia.

Lawmakers noted the recent establishment of China’s first overseas military base in the East African country of Djibouti. It is a short distance from the U.S. military’s only permanent base in Africa. Russia also is increasing its influence in the area by using mercenaries and forming military cooperation deals.

“Any withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond,” senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Coons wrote to the defense secretary last week.

The al-Shabab attack in Kenya got little international attention because it took place around the time that the U.S. killed the military commander of Iran’s Quds Force. But the January fifth attack was notable as al-Shabab’s first against U.S. forces in Kenya, East Africa’s economic center.

The U.S. has identified the Americans killed as U.S. Army soldier Henry J. Mayfield, Jr and U.S. contractors Bruce Triplett and Dustin Harrison. A statement said an investigation is continuing and additional troop protection has been put in place.

William Gayler is the U.S. Africa Command director of operations. Recently, he told reporters that a very small U.S. force was able to defend against the al-Shabab attackers and move them away from the airfield. But the extremist group declared its attack a victory, releasing images of masked fighters standing next to burning aircraft.

The Trump administration has increased U.S. attention on al-Shabab in Somalia. The military said it carried out 63 airstrikes against the group last year and killed more than 320 fighters.

U.S. officials, however, have expressed concern about another possible military withdrawal that could affect East Africa. That is the planned withdrawal of nearly 20,000 African Union forces from Somalia by next year. Somali forces are meant to take over security but are widely seen as not ready.

I’m -Dorothy Gundy.

And I’m Pete Musto.

The Associated Press reported this story. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

abandon –v. to leave and never return to someone who needs protection or help

continent –n.one of the great divisions of land, such as North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, or Antarctica, of the Earth

drone –n. a type of small aircraft that flies without a pilot

global –adj. involving the entire world

mercenaries –n. soldiers who will fight for any group or country that hires them

cooperationn. a situation in which people work together to do something

surge –n. a sudden, large increase