7 June 2018

Africa: U.S. Weighs Deep Cuts to Special Operations Forces in Africa

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Tentative plans to draw down the number of U.S. special operations commandos deployed in Africa are drawing mixed reactions from American military experts.

The New York Times first reported the plan this week, saying the reduction could decrease the number of commandos on the continent from about 1,200 to 700 over the next three years. Although Pentagon officials have agreed on the general outlines of the reductions, final decisions haven’t been made, military officials told VOA.

The proposal followed a Pentagon review of an incident last October in which four U.S. Green Berets were ambushed and killed while on patrol in Niger. Pentagon investigators found multiple failings, including inadequate training and oversight. The incident prompted calls from some in Congress to reduce the U.S. footprint in Africa’s Sahel region, one of the most volatile in the world.

In a statement to VOA, Major Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the U.S. was constantly assessing its allocation of forces around the globe and adjusting based on needs.

“The Joint Staff consistently reviews plans, operations and military investments across the globe to develop the best options that address the constantly evolving threat to U.S. national interests,” she said. “These periodic and holistic self-assessments of the U.S. military sustain our global military advantage and optimize the application of U.S. government resources. However, there has been no direction at this time to adjust force size in AFRICOM.”

Former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA via Skype that military officials were concerned that special forces were overstretched.

“It would be quite logical to look at Africa as a place where reductions might be possible,” he said, saying the gap could be filled by other military assets.

“I don’t really see the extent to which a large Special Forces presence in Africa can be transformative,” Campbell said. “The purpose of Special Forces in Africa has been to train indigenous African militaries to improve the capability of African states essentially to manage their own security. I think that type of training can and should be provided, but it doesn’t have to be provided by Special Forces.”

Opposition to cuts

But others have questioned the timing and the reasoning for the decision. Donald Bolduc, former commander of Special Operations Command Africa, said the threats exemplified in the Niger attack proved that the U.S. needed to maintain its presence in the region.

“Anybody that knows me knows that I would disagree with any downsizing in Africa. We are probably too small there to begin with,” Bolduc said. “My reasoning for that is we’re in 28 different countries doing 96 different missions with 886 associated tasks. And we can barely keep our finger on the pulse and assist our partners in disrupting, degrading and neutralizing the violent extremist organizations as it is.”

Bolduc said the sparsely populated and harsh landscapes occupied by extremist groups are the “quintessential special operations force environment,” and only elite units can operate there to secure the region for nongovernmental organizations, the U.N. and local partners.

“Without the presence that we have there now, we’re just going to increase the effectiveness of the violent extremist organizations over time, and we are going to lose trust and credibility in this area and destabilize it even further,” Bolduc said.

The move comes at a time when China and Russia are increasing their military presence on the African continent.

Last month, Beijing announced it would host an inaugural China-Africa forum on defense and security this summer, according to a report by China’s state-run news agency Xinhua. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on a visit to Rwanda that the two countries were deepening cooperation on air defense systems, part of a broader partnership, according to Xinhua.

VOA's Jeff Seldin and Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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