U.S. Africa Command has begun cutting up to 10 percent of its forces from the continent in response to U.S. security challenges elsewhere, the top U.S. commander for Africa told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.
There are approximately 6,000 U.S. troops and 1,000 DoD civilians or contractors based throughout Africa, who are primarily tasked with training and exercising with partner African forces, said AFRICOM commander U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser.
AFRICOM has been chronically under resourced despite a host of terror groups on the continent. Over the last two years, the U.S. has increased its efforts against the Islamic State, particularly in Somalia and Libya. However security gaps remain, highlighted by the 2012 fatal attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and again during the failed 2017 raid in Niger.
But AFRICOM will not be growing. Instead it has been tasked to cut its forces in order to shift resources to prepare for potential future conflicts against Russia or China.
"We all realize, you know, Africa, with regards to the prioritization of our national interests ... there's no doubt about the fact that that it's, you know, it's not number one on the list," Waldhauser said.
An internal Pentagon review determined that the terrorism threats rooted in Africa did not have the capability to impact the homeland, "so it was determined that ... we as the United States could perhaps accept some risk inside the continent with regards to our forces," he said.
A total of about 600 forces will be cut, in two phases, Waldhauser said. The first cuts will be complete by June 2020, the second by January 2022. AFRICOM has prioritized keeping medevac and ISR capabilities, and anticipates that about 300 will come from special forces and 300 from conventional forces.
They are also preparing the command to expect that the lean times for AFRICOM will continue, Waldhauser said.
"One of the things we have to combat [is the mindset] that we're probably never going to get any more, and we might get less. So we've got to stop whining and you just got to get on with it," he said.
Ironically, AFRICOM's cuts come as China ramps up its own presence on the continent. It is providing roughly 2,200 troops to the U.N. peace-keeping mission there. But its most obvious efforts are economic.
Through development loans, China already owns more than 80 percent of the foreign-owned debt in Djibouti, where both the U.S. and Chinese maintain military bases, Waldhauser said.
It has used a similar loan approach in Kenya, where the potential default on a soon-to-come-due balloon payment for a Chinese railroad loan there could mean China ends up taking over part of the Port of Mombasa.
Waldhauser stressed that the U.S. influence in the region is not carried by the military alone but by diplomatic engagement and U.S. investment. However he conceded that the draw down creates the need to reassure African partners that the U.S. is committed to them.
Waldhauser said their people would have to make their own judgement on how significant the cuts are.
"Is that a withdrawal from the continent? Is that going to allow the Chinese and Russians to have more influence?"
"Those are the questions you have to ask and our job, I think, is ... certainly in terms of the relationship-building, is to ensure our partners, through our actions, that, you know, we are not abandoning them."