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Washington CNN  — 

Citing Russian mercenaries, strategic Chinese investments, and the growing threat from terrorist groups linked to ISIS and al Qaeda, the top general overseeing US operations in Africa advocated for the US keeping a military presence in Africa as the Trump administration considers a major drawdown of troops from the continent in order to better focus on challenges posed by Russia and China.

“I have learned that small investments - a few troops and a few bucks - can go a long way and make a real difference in Africa,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of US Africa Command, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing.

“I think that in the past maybe we’ve been able to pay less attention to Africa and it be okay for America. I don’t believe that’s the case for the future,” he later added.

Townsend was asked repeatedly about an ongoing review by the Defense Department of the military’s combatant commands which many lawmakers believe could include cuts to US troops in Africa, especially forces engaged in counterterrorism efforts.

Several Republican and Democratic lawmakers have publicly pushed back any suggestion troops should be cut back on the continent.

Africa Command “provides an enormous value to the nation for an extremely modest level of investment,” Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement earlier this month.

“Despite this, I understand that DoD is reviewing our military presence in Africa and is considering significant cuts,” Inhofe added, later saying “Any drawdown of our troops would be short-sighted, could cripple AFRICOM’s ability to execute its mission and, as a result, would harm national security.”

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Thursday that the review would not necessarily lead to a reduction in troop levels but could lead to forces being re-tasked away from counter-terrorism operations.

“I know that the inclination is whenever somebody says review, the word that automatically pops up in their head is reduction,” Esper said at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday while stressing that no decision have been made.

“In some cases we will increase, in in some cases we won’t change, in some cases we will decrease,” Esper added while saying that the focus is on prioritizing “great power competition” with Beijing and Moscow.

Esper said that they are looking at adjusting the nature of the forces in Africa, focusing them more on countering Russia and China and “maybe less” on counterterrorism operations against the al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates there.

Esper later said “We’re not going to totally withdraw forces from Africa. Economy of force does not mean complete withdrawal.”

The Trump administration has already reduced the number of counterterrorism forces in Africa once, cutting about 10% of its Africa-based counter-terrorism force in 2018.

Further troop reduction being considered

Despite Esper’s comments, multiple defense officials tell CNN that of the several courses of action that are under consideration as part of the review, the majority of them involve at least some reduction of US troops in Africa. One official said that one of the proposals involves boosting US financial assistance to countries battling terrorist groups.

“I think the defense-wide review will potentially decrease the tasks that we have to do,” Townsend said Thursday.

Townsend said Thursday that the US has about 5,000 troops in Africa at present, in addition to some 1,000 Defense Department civilians and contractors. He also said that he faced a shortfall in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets under his command, saying that only about 25% of his needs were currently being met.

“What (Africa Command) accomplishes with a few people and a few dollars, on a continent 3 and half times the size of the continental United States, is a bargain for the American taxpayer and low cost insurance for America in that region,” Townsend said.

And while the Pentagon seeks to potentially shift the remaining forces in Africa away from counter-terrorism operations, the threat posed by African-based terrorist groups continue to mount, particularly in northwest Africa, an area known as the Sahel.

In a statement to the committee Townsend said that a “serious regional threat” from violent extremist organizations was “emanating from the Sahel” and that “security is deteriorating rapidly, with a 250% increase” in extremist violence since 2018 in Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger.

“That threat is very serious, and that threat is on the advance,” Townsend said Thursday.

International military efforts to combat terrorist groups in that region are currently being led by a contingent of some 4,500 French troops with the US largely involved in a supporting role by providing intelligence, surveillance aircraft and aerial refueling, support that France sees as critical to its operations there.

“Our friends in the Sahel are in a situation where our assistance is critical, and I have expressed the hope that both the United States and France will keep on supporting them. It’s a classic case of burden sharing, where limited US support leverages an immense effort carried out by France and Europe,” France’s Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.

She added that she had told Esper that “the US support is critical to our operations and that its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness against terrorists.”

“As we see the violent extremists advancing, if we were – if we were to withdraw support from the French precipitously, then that – that would not go in a good direction,” Townsend said.

Appearing alongside Parly on Tuesday, Esper praised France’s role in fighting terrorism while saying, “I think it’s time for other European allies to assist, as well, in the region, and that could – that could offset whatever changes we make as we consider next steps in Africa.”

Townsend said that while European allies could provide some of the aerial refueling and airlift support currently being provided by the US military, he said American technical intelligence collection is something that they would be unable to replicate.

Al Shabaab threat

Terrorist groups also pose a challenge in East Africa, with the Somalia-based affiliate al Shabaab recently managing to launch an attack on a US base in Kenya, killing three Americans and destroying several military aircraft.

Some 600 US military personnel are deployed to Somalia helping train Somali light infantry units while also carrying out airstrikes against al Shabaab targets.

Townsend said al Shabaab was the most capable terrorist group in Africa while also telling the committee that in the next six months he would “review US military operations in Somalia in detail to assess our progress and the way ahead.”

He also spoke about the challenges of increased Russian and Chinese activity on the continent.

“Russian private military companies have a highly destabilizing influence in Africa, as they are frequently employed to secure Russian investments at the expense of Africans, to prop up corrupt regimes and establish a broader Russian military footprint globally,” Townsend said in his written statement to the committee.

In Libya, Townsend told the committee that private military companies (PMCs), such as the Wagner Group with strong links to the Kremlin, are leading the fight for the self-styled “Libyan National Army” against the UN-backed and US-recognized Government of National Accord.”

He added that “a potential bad outcome for both the US and NATO is Russia gaining access to oil and military bases with long-range anti-access area denial capabilities on NATO’s southern flank,” referring to advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems.

Townsend also said that Russian mercenaries in Libya “almost certainly downed a US unarmed, unmanned aircraft in November using a sophisticated Russian air defense system.”

He also said Moscow had deployed those same Russian mercenaries to the Central African Republic where Russia was “extracting minerals and attempting to buy influence.”

The US assesses that Russia has also deployed about 160 military personnel to Caba Delgado area in northern Mozambique in late summer, a US defense official told CNN, a deployment that comes as Mozambique has struggled to deal with an Islamist insurgency in the country’s north.

“In Mozambique, Moscow provided second-rate counterterrorism assistance in the hopes of buying oil and gas concessions,” Townsend said.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained close ties and provided military support to several African countries as part of its standoff with the West including Mozambique.

Townsend said that in the last seven years, Russia has sold nearly $9 billion worth of arms to African nations. During that same period China sold more than $2 billion in arms to African countries.

He also said that “China is outpacing all of its competitors in Africa, where, with the construction of a military port and helicopter landing pads, it is converting its first overseas military base in Djibouti into a power projection platform. We know they seek to open more bases and their unprofitable seaport investments in East Africa and Southern Africa track closely with involvement by Chinese military forces. These Chinese seaports are not genuine commercial ports; these investments are geo-economic tools to increase” China’s “geopolitical influence.”

“If the US steps back from Africa too far, China and Russia will fill the void to our detriment. Violent extremist organizations will be able to grow unchecked, some will ultimately threaten the homeland, and we will lose opportunities for increased trade and investments with some of the fastest growing economies in the world,” Townsend said.