BRUSSELS – A Pentagon proposal to greatly reduce U.S. forces in West Africa faced criticism from allies Tuesday, with French officials arguing that removing U.S. intelligence assets in the region could stymie the fight against extremist groups.
U.S. officials said they were proceeding nonetheless.
While no final decision has been made on how many troops will be transferred from Africa and the Middle East as the Pentagon refocuses its priorities to confront “great powers” like Russia and China, America’s top military officer said the U.S. needed to shift its forces to better counter China in particular.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the proposal was “causing some anxiety.” But he said that the U.S. needed to seriously re-examine its military footprint in Africa, and the Middle East and Latin America after that, given the heightened focus on China.
Milley’s comments came ahead of a NATO military chiefs’ meeting in Brussels, where he also sought to lay out the U.S. rationale for killing Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The killing of Soleimani has raised questions from America’s military allies about whether commanders of sovereign countries are now fair game for drone strikes.
The Pentagon is also asking Europe to do more in the Middle East. After the killing of Soleimani, President Donald Trump called for NATO to step up efforts to train Iraqi forces to fight ISIS — a point that Milley elaborated on at the NATO meeting Tuesday.
One way European allies could help in Iraq, he said, was to provide ballistic missile defense systems at bases that house troops from the U.S.-led coalition that has been fighting ISIS. Iran fired several ballistic missiles at two such bases in Iraq last week, though no one was killed.
In Africa, the Trump administration wants European allies, particularly the French, to pick up a bigger share of the battle against extremist Islamist organizations such as ISIS, al-Qaida in the Maghreb and Boko Haram.
The Pentagon’s discussions of a large-scale pullback from West Africa include abandoning a recently built $110 million drone base in Niger and ending assistance to French forces battling militants in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in his own meeting with leaders of five West and Central African nations Monday, pledged to send 220 French troops to the region, supplementing the 4,500 who are already there. Macron had called the meeting in an effort to persuade the African leaders to make clear publicly that they wanted the French forces to remain.
With the Pentagon expected to make its initial decision about Africa this month, the U.S. plans have already drawn criticism from lawmakers, allies and military officials, and could eventually affect most global missions. About 200,000 U.S. forces are stationed abroad, a similar number to when Trump took office with a promise to conclude the nation’s “endless wars.”
Responding to Milley’s comments Monday, an aide to Macron told the news agency Agence France-Presse that U.S. contributions to the fight against Islamic extremist groups in West Africa were “irreplaceable.”