U.S. Africa Command wants to pull hundreds of troops from Africa and downsize special operations missions there in a move that coincides with the Pentagon's shift to threats posed by Russia and China.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, in an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, said the potential drawdown doesn't amount to a retreat from Africa, but that it would help the military better deal with other threats around the world.
"We're not walking away," Waldhauser said, adding that the U.S. will "reserve the right to unilaterally return."
Waldhauser's recommendation is now under review by senior officials.
In the wake of an October ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers, military missions in Africa have been under greater scrutiny. American commanders have acknowledged that extremists operating in places like Niger don't pose a direct threat to the United States, which has prompted questions over whether U.S. forces are taking unnecessary risks in the region.
AFRICOM has about 6,000 troops throughout Africa. Roughly 4,000 of them are based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The second largest contingent is in Niger, where there are about 800 personnel.
Roughly 1,200 special operations troops are on missions in Africa. As part of Waldhauser's plan, those numbers would be cut by 25 percent over 18 months and 50 percent over three years, the Times reported. That would leave 700 special operators in on the continent.
Most of the cuts are expected to come from Central and West Africa.
In West Africa, Niger has been a focal point. Earlier this year, the U.S. began conducting armed unmanned surveillance flights in that country. A new $110 million new drone base also is under construction in Niger.
In places like Cameroon, training missions led by U.S. special operators have achieved their main objective: building a capable indigenous force, Waldhauser said.
"That would be an example of a country where we have worked ourselves out of a job," Waldhauser said.
AFRICOM's main effort is along the eastern Horn of Africa in Somalia, where special operations troops have worked for the past several years in a campaign to assist indigenous forces in their fight against the Al-Shabab extremist group.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon released a new defense strategy that shifts attention from counterterrorism missions that have absorbed the military's attention for more than a decade to dealing with great power competition.