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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The head of U.S. military forces in Africa argued Thursday against troop cuts on the vast and booming continent, saying strategic partnerships in combating a growing extremist threat and assertive Chinese and Russian influence cannot be sacrificed.
“A secure and stable Africa remains an enduring American interest,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “In the past, maybe we’ve been able to pay less attention to Africa and be OK in America. I don’t believe that’s the case for the future.”
It is not clear when Defense Secretary Mark Esper will decide on possible military cuts as part of a global review with the goal of tightening the focus on China and Russia. Esper on Thursday said that “we are not going to totally withdraw forces from Africa” and acknowledged the concerns that have included a rare bipartisan outcry in Congress.
The prospect of U.S. military cuts worries allies such as France, especially in the arid Sahel region of West Africa as fighters affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State group move into more populated areas. And in East Africa, three Americans were killed this month in the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab's first attack against U.S. forces in Kenya, with several U.S. aircraft destroyed.
It's “obvious we were not as prepared there at Manda Bay as we needed to be," he said of the airfield that was attacked.
“We cannot take pressure off major terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS,” Townsend added. "These groups and many others remain an inconvenient reality in Africa.”
Some of the groups threaten the U.S. homeland, the U.S. Africa Command chief warned, including the Somalia-based al-Shabab.
The U.S. military currently has about 6,000 personnel across Africa, with about 4,000 located at the only U.S. permanent military base on the continent in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti — a short distance from China's first overseas military base. Another nearly 1,300 U.S. personnel are in the Sahel, the vast region just south of the Sahara Desert.
France's military is leading efforts in the Sahel and recently committed another 220 troops to its existing force of 4,500. While France is pressing the U.S. not to reduce its presence in Africa, Townsend again called on other European nations to step up.
“That’s something they can and should do,” he said, saying European countries could take on some of the current U.S. support efforts such as airlifts and air refueling for French fighter aircraft. But he said not a lot of the countries have the “exquisite” level of technological intelligence available to U.S. forces.
Townsend warned, however, that "if we were to withdraw our support from the French precipitously, then that would not go in a good direction.”
He also stressed that U.S. interest in Africa goes beyond the fight against extremism, highlighting the continent's economic potential, burgeoning population, vast amount of natural resources including rare minerals and its strategic position overlooking a “global crossroads.”
Africa is key terrain for competition with China and Russia “who are aggressively using economic and military means to expand their access and influence," Townsend said.
He also pointed out the “first visible sign of cooperation we've seen” in Africa between the militaries of China and Russia, who participated in a joint naval exercise off the coast of South Africa last year.
“China and Russia are seeking to counter the strategic access that we need for American security and American prosperity,” he said.
Russia has been pursuing extractive ventures in the continent's rich mineral resources, while China is offering African countries “smart cities” technology equipped with facial recognition technology. “Of course we know they are reporting back to China first, before the country where it's established,” Townsend asserted.
He also acknowledged the worries of African countries as the possible U.S. troop cuts are considered in Washington.
“The thing they always looking for is, can we count on you as a partner?” he said.
Anna reported from Johannesburg. Robert Burns in Washington contributed.