March 03, 2020
Jim Inhofe, a Republican, represents Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate and is chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
I just returned from West Africa, where I received a simple message from our African partners: The threat from radical Islamist terrorism is not only real but growing — and for our partners to win this fight, they need our help.
While there, I met with several of our key partners: Ghana, Mauritania and leaders from the Group of Five-Sahel, and their message to me was the clearest I’ve heard in my nearly 200 African country visits.
So far, the help we’ve been providing has been all about capacity building, and that’s the way it should be. Our African partners’ capabilities are improving, but what has most impressed me is their commitment. They own the fight, but they want our help to ensure they win.
Americans can’t afford for them to lose. Terrorists hate freedom everywhere, but they hate the United States the most. If they’re allowed to operate in failed states or ungoverned territory, they’ll be planning, training and launching terrorist attacks against our allies — and eventually us.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper made the smart decision to send the U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade to Africa — something I’ve been calling for since 2018. The SFAB’s capabilities are a perfect complement to what we’re already doing in West Africa with special operations and intelligence. But if the SFAB is intended to replace what we’re already doing, it will be a disaster for our partners and a significant reduction in capacity building.
Let’s look at our readjustments in terms of numbers compared to threats. We have more than 200,000 troops spread out between the Middle East, Europe and the Pacific at the same time the threat in Africa continues to grow rapidly in both strength and geographic reach. Compare that with U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which has just 6,000 service members training and advising our partners and conducting operations to counter dangerous terrorist organizations — all while facing mounting pressure from Russia and China. Think about it this way: AFRICOM has just 3 percent of the troops and resources to handle three of the National Defense Strategy’s top priorities, spread over an area that is larger geographically than China, India, the United States and most of Europe combined.
Our current presence isn’t just critical for our African partners; it also serves as a force multiplier and provides assurance to our European allies for their own counterterrorism partnerships in the region. While in Munich, the Europeans told me they want to increase their role in West Africa but can only do so if we stay.
The need to be involved in Africa is about more than just countering the terrorist threat. If we don’t maintain — or, frankly, even expand — our commitment there, we will cede influence and access across the continent to Russia and China. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping see what I see: the strategic importance of Africa. But as the United States is considering pulling back, Russia and China are surging in their investment.
While AFRICOM is continuously underresourced, our small presence there is meaningful and provides significant return on investment. Our partners there are grateful for our leadership, and our allies and partners around the world follow that lead. Downgrading our investment now would only increase our risk and make future competition or potential conflict costlier down the road.
The good news? I’m not the only one who sees this. At the annual Senate Armed Services Committee posture hearing for AFRICOM in January, many senators on both sides of the aisle spoke and asked questions that highlighted the importance of our presence in Africa. It was a welcome and stark contrast from just 10 years ago, when only a few of us were pushing to create AFRICOM or inquiring about our role in the region.
The defense secretary is right to take a tough look at where our troops are deployed around the world and how we can better align our forces to implement the National Defense Strategy with an eye to Russia and China. Esper also understands that Africa plays a key role in our national security — particularly when it comes to combating the growing threat of terrorism on the continent. So I hope it’s as plain to him as it is to me: A true “right sizing” of U.S. forces in Africa should result in an increase in personnel and support, not a decrease.