The News York Times reported that President Trump has ordered most American troops to withdraw from Syria. He wants to bring home thousands more from Afghanistan. Now hundreds of United States commandos and other forces are leaving West Africa -despite an onslaught of attacks from an increasingly deadly matrix of Islamist fighters.
The shift has unnerved African commanders in Burkina Faso and neighboring nations in the Sahel, a vast sub-Saharan scrubland increasingly racked by Islamist bombings, massacres, kidnappings and attacks on hotels frequented by Westerners. It is a region in which most Americans were unaware of United States military involvement until four Army soldiers were killed in a deadly 2017 ambush in Nigerby Islamic State fighters.
What is emerging, critics said, is a glimpse of what happens when American troops, especially Special Operations forces, pull back before insurgents are effectively subdued, leaving local or allied forces to fend off the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or their offshoots.
“It’s a real problem,” Col. Maj. Moussa Salaou Barmou, commander of Niger’s Special Operations forces, said of the drawdown and the closing of seven of eight American elite counterterrorism units operating in Africa.
Under the Trump administration’s military strategy, the Pentagon has pivoted from focusing on counterterrorism operations to potential threats from China and Russia. In December, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 American troops from Syria, although he since has softened it to allow at least 400 remain. A new Pentagon plan also would pull all 14,000 American troops from Afghanistan over the next five years — and as many as 7,000 in coming months — as part of continuing peace talks with the Taliban.
The American military is scaling back its commandos in Africa by about 25 percent, mainly in the continent’s west. At the same time, insurgents are attacking northern Burkina Faso and pushing south along the border with Niger toward areas previously untouched by extremist violence, including the Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Ghana, where the Pentagon has a logistics hub.