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With a new military focus on China and Russia, the US is planning to reduce its number of troops in Africa. Experts say that the move is no surprise, but there might be more to come.
When the top US military man for Africa addressed Congress in March this year, he almost beseeched members on Capitol Hill that his country should remain committed to the continent.
"In the long term, US interests in Africa are best served by stable nations with effective, accountable governments, well-trained and disciplined militaries and growing economies,” General Thomas Waldhauser said. "The US must remain in Africa."
But the US government seems to be moving in a different direction, at least in part. Last week, the Pentagon announced that it would reduce its military presence in Africa by 10 percent over the next years. The US currently has some 7,200 soldiers and civilian personnel on the continent.
Focus on China and Russia
"National defense strategy was rewritten in 2017 and an element of it was shifting military focus towards countries like China, Russia and others," Pentagon spokeswoman Candice Tresch told DW from Washington.
The new policy document, published in January, places more emphasis on what it calls the re-emergence of stratetic competition with China and Russia. Threats from extremist groups, which are the main focus of US military involvement in Africa, are still considered to be significant, but are no longer the first priority. Under the new strategy, all US regional military commands will be weighing the possibility of cuts.
Read more: What is the US up to in Africa?
Officials at the Pentagon are trying hard to downplay the effects of the proposed reductions in Africa. "We will still work to disrupt and degrade violent extremist organizations. There won't be any areas where we are not leaving capacity behind, it is just about shifting focus," Tresch said. She declined to say where the reductions would take place.The US maintains a military base in Djibouti, but forces operate in various countries including Somalia, Nigeria or Niger.
But besides reducing the number of troops in Africa, the US also appears to be changing its tactics. In September, the New York Times reported that the US was considering to pull nearly all its counterterrorism units from Africa. In his statement to the US Congress, Africa Command's General Waldhauser also emphasized that the main role of US troops in Africa was training and assistance.
More than just a change in numbers
"This is a strategic approach that emphasizes US military capabilities employed in a supporting role, not as principal participants in conflict. Security operations are almost exclusively by the partnered security forces," Waldhauser said. Tresch told DW that the forces on the ground would change from "tactical advisory to an overarching strategy where we are sharing intelligence or providing training."
US forces have suffered casualties in Africa, including in Niger in October 2017, where four US soldiers were killed in an ambush. The attack threw US military involvement into the spotlight and led to a public outcry at home.
The plans by the Trump administration do not come as a surprise to security analysts on the continent. "Given the 'America first' strategy, it's clear that the US would take up a position to move its troops to focus on threats it considers to be more important," Fonteh Akum, senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Dakar, told DW.
Limited effectiveness of US presence in Africa
US military involvement in Africa has been of "checkered effectiveness," Akum said. "If you listen to American defense officials, you can hear them saying that they have not succeeded in some countries to train troops to a level where they would be able to carry themselves on the battle field. They would equally point to their role in Somalia. They have led actions against al-Shabaab in Somalia and yet al-Shabaab lives on."
Akum said that it was still too early to judge the effects of the US plan to reduce its troops, but warned that there could be more to come. "If you take 10 percent of US personnel in Africa – that's about 720 people – and you realigne them for Russia, China, Iran or North Korea, you have to ask yourself the question if that responds to the kind of threat the US might face from these countries. I am not sure. So we can prepare for many more cuts in the future if you ask me."
Kabir Isa Jikamshi in Nigeria contributed to this report.