By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military will withdraw hundreds of troops focussed on counterterrorism operations in Africa over the next several years to support the Pentagon’s increased focus on countering threats from China and Russia, a U.S. official said on Thursday.
Earlier this year, the U.S. military put countering China and Russia at the centre of a new national defence strategy, the latest sign of shifting priorities after more than a decade and a half of focussing on the fight against Islamist militants.
“The reduction of military personnel is projected to be less than 10 percent of the 7,200 total military forces and will take place over the next several years,” Commander Candice Tresch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Reuters.
Tresch said the cuts would leave “counter-violent extremist organisation” activities largely untouched in several countries, including Somalia, Djibouti and Libya.
In other parts of the region, including West Africa, the emphasis would shift from “tactical assistance to advising, assisting, liaising, and sharing intelligence.”
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reduction of troops would likely take place over three years and could include countries like Kenya, Cameroon, and Mali.
The United States’ military role on the African continent has received increased attention after an ambush last year in Niger, carried out by a local Islamic State affiliate, which killed four U.S. soldiers.
The Pentagon move comes as China and Russia look to increase their influence in Africa.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union forged close military and diplomatic ties with many African countries. Russia is now trying to revive some of the relationships that lapsed after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Since Western nations sanctioned Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014, Moscow has signed 19 military cooperation deals in sub-Saharan Africa, including with Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, according to its foreign and defence ministries and state media.
China has long had a major economic presence in Africa but has shied away from military involvement. However, last year, it went a step further, opening its first military base outside China in Djibouti.
A congressionally mandated report by former U.S. officials released earlier this week said that the military did not have sufficient resources to fund the military’s needs and the goals set out by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis earlier this year.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Bernadette Baum)