US Army soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), board a transport plane in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti January 5 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ US AIR FORCE/ DANIEL HERNANDEZ
US Army soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), board a transport plane in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti January 5 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ US AIR FORCE/ DANIEL HERNANDEZ

The US wants to reduce its military presence in Africa, says Washington’s top military officer, as France hosts Sahel leaders seeking to bolster the fight against jihadists in the region.

The chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, said resources “could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase readiness of the force in the continental US or shifted” to the Pacific.

As he flew in for talks with Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) counterparts in Brussels, Milley said defence secretary Mark Esper had not made up his mind what changes to make.

“We’re developing options for the secretary to consider, and we are developing those options in co-ordination with our allies and partners,” he said.

The announcement follows President Donald Trump’s call last week for Nato to do more in the Middle East and comes just as French President Emmanuel Macron gathers with his counterparts from Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

France and its five Sahel partners agreed on Monday to step up military co-operation to combat the jihadist insurgency, leaders said after a summit in Pau, southwest France.

The Sahel countries also said they hoped Washington would maintain its “crucial support” in combating the Islamist extremists.

“If the Americans decided to leave Africa, this would be very bad news for us,” Macron commented. “I hope to convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism is playing out in this region as well.”

After 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter collision in Mali in December 2019, Macron also won public support from the Sahel leaders for France’s 4,500-strong military presence, after local demonstrations against it. He pledged to send another 200 soldiers to the Sahel.

The US wants to reduce the number of its troops deployed across Africa over the next few years to focus more on responding to the threats posed by Russia and China.

Washington has about 7,000 special forces on rotation in Africa carrying out joint operations with national forces against jihadists, particularly in Somalia.

Another 2,000 soldiers are conducting training missions in about 40 African countries and taking part in co-operative operations, in particular with France’s Operation Barkhane in Mali, to which they provide mainly logistical assistance. 

One option would be to close a drone base in Agadez, northern Niger, which gives the US a major surveillance platform in the Sahel but has been estimated to cost about $100m. 

Milley said no decisions had been made yet and insisted Washington was not pulling out of Africa completely. “Economy of forces does not mean zero,” he said.

French officials are nevertheless alarmed, with a presidency source saying the US made “irreplaceable” contributions to Sahel operations, particularly in surveillance and air-to-air refuelling.

“We would not be able to get these from other partners, especially when it comes to intelligence,” the presidency official said. Paris would be sharing its concerns with the US “at all levels”, the source added.

Nato military chiefs will use this week’s meeting to debate the future of the alliance’s training mission in Iraq, suspended over security fears after the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad.

The Iraqi parliament voted on January 5 to oust foreign forces, including about 5,200 American troops, who have helped local troops beat back the Islamic State group, angering Trump and throwing international operations there in doubt.

“I can’t guarantee anything about the future and I don’t make the policy decisions,” Milley said.

“I can just say what our current policy is and what our current plans are. And my current guidance from the secretary of defence and the president is that we will stay in Iraq.”