The Trump administration has declared a new era of Great Power competition, shifting U.S. national security priorities from counterterrorism after almost two decades to long-term strategic threats from countries like Russia and China.
But in Africa — a contested battlefield where those adversaries are vying for strategic influence — policy experts warn that the U.S. hasn’t been playing the game. The Pentagon has escalated counterterrorism strikes and special operations missions across the continent in a quietly expanding mission. Some lawmakers and former officials for years have warned that the U.S. has relied too heavily on elite operators for short-term tactical missions that aren’t underpinned by an holistic strategy or complemented by non-military efforts and, in Africa, that dynamic is particularly stark.
Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, told a conference audience in Austin earlier this month that “there has been a realization that [Africa] is a great power competition area.” China in particular is expanding its military footprint on the continent, partly by leveraging its expanding economic activities via a sweeping infrastructure program called the Belt and Road Initiative, and partly by building on decades of financial and political involvement in several countries. Russia also has sought to gain a foothold across the continent with military cooperation agreements and arms deals, and in September announced an agreement to build a logistics base in Eritrea, on the Red Sea.
“Basically we are missing the boat in Africa,” said Mary Beth Long, a CIA veteran and former assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs. “We’re not even clear from an intelligence standpoint on what the underpinnings of a strategy would attempt to address and in part that’s because we have inadequate resources dedicated to the African continent.”
National Security Advisor John Bolton is scheduled to unveil the Trump administration’s new strategy for the continent in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation on Thursday. It is expected to focus on countering near-peer adversaries rather than counterterrorism. The White House is not expected to ask for more funding for diplomacy, intelligence gathering or foreign aid, according to NBC News.
The announcement comes just weeks after the Pentagon said it would be cutting 10 percent of its troop presence in Africa over the next several years, including half of the counterterrorism forces operating in West Africa. The Defense Department said in a statement that the goal was to “realign our counter-terrorism resources and forces operating in Africa over the next several years in order to maintain a competitive posture worldwide.”
The move raised some eyebrows in the policy community and on Capitol Hill. “A withdrawal by the United States is a win for China,” said Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a congressionally-funded Pentagon think tank.
“It’s a vitally important theater for [great power competition],” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, when asked about the troop cuts. “Alternatives should be looked at.”
But others say that the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Africa isn’t so directly linked to the broader strategy of competing against Russia and China. That bigger picture, they say, is more about sustained economic and policy engagement that is the purview of the State Department and USAID—agencies tasked with building sustained engagement with potential allies.
“What they’re attempting to do is rebalance their efforts on a worldwide basis and I don’t see it directly related to Chinese and Russian involvement, I see it related to terrorist involvement, trying to identify where they can be more effective,” said Sen. Jack Reed, R.I., the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Defense One this week.
For others, the drawdown is concerning from a counterterrorism perspective. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the planned drawdown in Africa “an incredibly bad move,” arguing that as Islamist extremists are defeated in the Mideast, they will reemerge in unstable places in Africa.
“I think the war’s moving to Africa,” he said. But: “If you have to pick and choose [between countering nation-state threats and countering terrorist threats], you’re making a mistake…. If you start picking and choosing, taking soldiers from counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and move them over, you’re basically putting yourself at risk.”
In some parts of Africa, the counterterrorism mission remains untouched. In Somalia, U.S. military and intelligence forces are battling al-Shabaab fighters with airstrikes and ground operations alongside and in support of Somali commandos. This year, there have been 37 U.S. airstrikes in Somalia — more than in any previous year, according to data maintained by The Long War Journal. U.S Africa Command, or AFRICOM, has announced seven major strikes in the past four weeks, each alleging to have killed multiple al-Shabaab members.
The total U.S. force presence in Africa is about 7,500 troops, AFRICOM head Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told Congress earlier this year. (It was about 6,000 in 2017). Most operate from Camp Lemonnier, a permanent and growing U.S. base in Djibouti, which is used as a staging ground and command center for special operations missions across the continent, and across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, in Yemen. Special Operations Command Africa has around 1,200 troops spread across about a dozen countries, advising local security forces combating extremist groups.
The death of four American soldiers in a deadly ambush in Niger last fall inflamed scrutiny on U.S. security operations in West Africa, where the presence of U.S. soldiers, though advertised on AFRICOM’s website, surprised many Americans.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been grappling broadly with the role of special forces under the new great power strategy. What is their job? Will they be diverted from or under-resourced for important counterterror missions? Lt. Gen. Rich Clarke, President Trump’s pick to succeed Thomas at SOCOM next year, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that SOCOM is positioned to be an important player under the new framework. By working with allies and partners that Russia and China do not have, he said, “we can counter some of their malign activities.” But he offered no specifics and the uncertainty continues to percolate.
“There’s this inherent tension in the [National Defense Strategy],” said Judd Devermont, who currently leads the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and who served as the national intelligence officer for Africa from 2015 to 2018. “The overall NDS talks about great power competition as a new focus, but if you look at the Africa elements on the NDS, combatting the malign influence — that’s the last piece of that entire paragraph. So I think AFRICOM is still making this transition, trying to adjust the way it thinks about the prioritization of terrorism versus great power competition.”
“I think it’s an open question. What does combating China and Russia mean in Africa?”
Trump’s new Africa strategy is a clear effort to address that tension. It is expected to call for strengthening ties with countries that are likely targets for U.S. competitors and adversaries, and countering the ability of those countries to gain footholds in unstable areas through economic investment. Although the strategy will call for continuing key counterterror partnerships, like with Somali forces, according to NBC News, the focus is shifting away from countering extremist groups to long-term, strategic nation-state threats. But it’s difficult to see what the U.S. might do differently, at least from a military perspective, without more resources, policy experts say. The Trump administration already is building partnerships with African governments and experts say trying to counter Russia and China’s individual engagements would create opportunities for host countries to play the powers off of one another.
“I don’t know what you would actually do to shift your focus in Africa beyond what we’re already doing,” Devermont said.
The impact of the planned 10-percent U.S. troop reduction in Africa is also difficult to assess. According to the Defense Department, the emphasis in West Africa would shift from “tactical assistance to advising, assisting, liaising and sharing intelligence.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the incoming chairman on the House Armed Services Committee, suggested that French troops in West Africa could mitigate the risk that a peer competitor could backfill U.S. troop withdrawals.
“In West Africa, the French have been helpful [and] we’re beginning to shore up some of the governments in that part of the world, [like] Mali and Niger,” Smith said, during a roundtable with defense reporters on Wednesday. “So if we’re reducing the number of troops in West Africa because we have partners that are able to meet our mission, that’s great.”
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., argued that Africa’s sheer size makes small, individual deployments like the kinds that are being cut inefficient anyway. He is pushing for the permanent stationing of a Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, that he says would offer flexibility of mobility on a continent that is so geographically enormous and culturally and politically diverse.
“You don’t know if it’s going to be a Zimbabwe problem or an Ethiopia problem, but wherever it is, it’s going to be a long way from the last one, so if you have a dedicated troop ready to spring that could actually get people there better—if you can respond by quicker by using that method, it could be an improvement,” he said.
Broadly, some see a link between combating extremist groups and countering nation-state competitors.
“You have indigenous movements that are not threatening to the United States per se, but continue to destabilize a region that makes them susceptible to other large power plays,” said Long.
In the center of Africa, in nations that are struggling with indigenous conflict, “the Chinese are heavily engaged in influencing operations, but also locking in [natural] resources that we need and other developing nations need access to in order to continue to feed our technology development,” she said.
But, she said, if the de-emphasis on the counterterror mission is in exchange for more support to stabilization efforts like focused investment or boosted support for diplomatic initiatives, the drawdown might square with the overall strategy.
Chinese military, financial, and diplomatic engagement on the continent has been steadily rising for decades, experts say. The Belt and Road Initiative has “very clear security and military underpinnings that has lead to an expansion of China’s military footprint on the continent,” said Nantulya. In 2015, Beijing passed a law allowing for the foreign deployment of the Chinese Army and other security institutions outside of its national borders. In 2017, China opened a military base just miles from the U.S. base at Djibouti and is exploring others across the continent. China also has several commercial ports on the African coast that experts say could help Beijing towards its strategic goal of a blue water Navy. China also is increasing its support for the UN-approved African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, providing communications, unmanned aerial vehicles and other technical support. Perhaps most interestly, Nantulya says, China is providing combat medicine personnel to countries like Ethiopia and Sudan—suggesting an increasing militarization of its role on the continent.
“The fact that they’re going into combat medicine, they’re sending medical orderlies into these different countries to conduct managing casualties—they’re doing much more than just evacuations [of Chinese nationals] and humanitarian assistance,” Nantulya said.
Russia’s investment in Africa is far less sustained. Devermont suggested that Moscow is “looking for opportunities where the U.S. is leaving or not there and selling themselves as a more reliable partner,” offering arms sales and military advisors. In the resource-rich but unstable Central African Republic, Russia is helping train local security forces. The paramilitary firm Wagner Group, believed to have ties to the Kremlin, operates in CAR and Sudan. Moscow’s bid for influence is of particular concern in war-torn Libya, Long said, where Moscow has forged close relations with warlord Khalifa Hifter and signed oil deals with the U.N.-backed government.
Experts are quick to caution that just like in the United States, Africa is not at the top of the priority list for China and Russia. But for Africans, Devermont noted, the return of great power competition isn’t a negative thing. Nor, he says, are Russia and China the only game in town. The UAE, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and other nations are engaging in Africa.
“[Africans] don’t see this as zero-sum,” he said. “It provides new resources, gives them new leverage, lessens dependence. It’s very difficult for us to talk to the Africans about ‘you’re with us’ or ‘you’re with them’—that’s not the paradigm the Africans are going to subscribe to.
“We’re talking with one set of talking points and the Africans have very different ones.”