US Weighs Deep Cuts to Special Operations Forces in Africa

The U.S. military is likely to reduce the number of special operations commandos deployed in Africa, but no cuts have been finalized, VOA has confirmed.

Most U.S. elite forces in Africa fight terror groups and train soldiers from partner nations. The proposed reduction, first reported by the New York Times, could reduce 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 parameters of the reductions, no decisions are final, military sources told VOA.

The plans follow a Pentagon review of an incident last October in which four U.S. troops 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. is constantly assessing its allocation of forces across 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.”

Opposition to cuts

Others have questioned the timing and the reasoning behind the decision. Former commander of Special Operations Command Africa Donald Bolduc said the threats exemplified in the Niger attack prove that the U.S. needs 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 that it would host an inaugural China-Africa forum on defense and security this summer. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on a visit to Rwanda that the two countries were deepening cooperation on air defense systems, part of a broader partnership.

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

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