Commanders Push Back Against Efforts to Reduce US Troops in Africa, Latin America

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U.S. Army Lt. Col. Eldridge Singleton interact with students near Orange Walk, Belize
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Eldridge Singleton, seated left, the security cooperation officer with U.S. Embassy Belize, and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Erich Bergiel, seated right, the executive officer of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Southern Command (SPMAGTF-SC), interact with students before a project completion closing ceremony, Sept. 28, 2018, near Orange Walk, Belize. (Justin M. Smith/U.S. Marine Corps)

Combatant commanders for Africa and Latin America made the case Thursday for more U.S. military, diplomatic and economic involvement in their regions, even as the Defense Department mulls troop drawdowns.

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, and Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, received bipartisan support for their positions at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the committee's chairman and a close ally of President Donald Trump, said that AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM "have never been adequately resourced."

A drawdown in either region to free up more troops to counter Russia and China makes no sense when both Russia and China are aggressively expanding their influence in Africa and Central and South America, Inhofe said.

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Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the committee's ranking member, made similar arguments at the hearing, pushing back against the possibility that an ongoing Pentagon review of the U.S. force posture worldwide might lead to withdrawals.

"While it is wise, and in fact necessary, to take a hard and methodical look at our investments and military activities around the globe, it would be strategically unwise to disengage from either Africa or Latin America in an effort to generate small, near-term budgetary gains," Reed said.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the force posture review could result in withdrawals in some regions to either send troops home or reposition them as part of the National Defense Strategy to counter China and Russia.

He said in December that decisions would be made "in the coming weeks" on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, but no announcements have been made.

While Townsend and Faller were testifying Thursday, Esper held a Pentagon news conference at which he skirted questions on which regions could face a drawdown.

"I know the inclination is whenever someone says 'review,' the word that automatically pops up in their head is 'reduction.' It is a rebalancing," Esper said.

"In some cases, we will increase; in some cases, we won't change; and in some cases, we will decrease," he said but gave no details.

In an unusually lengthy and detailed presentation to the committee, Townsend made the traditional request of all combatant commanders for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and argued that small investments of troops and assistance go a long way on the continent.

He backed up his case with an 18-page prepared statement, presented graphics showing Russia and China's advances in Africa, and focused particularly on China's so-called "debt diplomacy," in which it puts African nations in hock with the promise of building roads, ports and infrastructure.

"I have learned that small investments in Africa go a long way," Townsend said in the prepared statement. "A few bucks and a few troops can make a significant difference and have proven to be the cornerstone of multinational efforts in the region.

"What U.S. Africa Command accomplishes with relatively few people and few dollars, on a continent 3.5 times the size of the continental United States, is a bargain for the American taxpayer," he said.

Townsend also appeared to be sending a message to the Pentagon that a drawdown in Africa would free up only a relatively small number of troops for repositioning to the Indo-Pacific region to counter China.

The troop estimate for AFRICOM has usually been given as 6,000, but Townsend, possibly for the first time in public, gave a breakdown. There are 5,100 US troops and about 1,000 Defense Department contractors in the region, he said.

Faller echoed Townsend in calling for more attention to the inroads made by Russia and China in Latin America, and called for more investments by the U.S. in addition to more assets for SOUTHCOM.

China and Russia are propping up Nicolas Maduro's dictatorship in Venezuela, where an estimated five million refugees have fled the regime to neighboring countries, he said.

The region has also been exploited by a "vicious circle of threats" from trans-national criminal organizations thriving on drug trafficking, said Faller, whose command has about 1,200 assigned military and civilian personnel and is bolstered by rotational troop and naval assets.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, noted that there were an estimated 67,000 deaths in the U.S. last year attributed to drugs, adding that SOUTHCOM has the capacity to detect only about 25% of the drug shipments coming to the U.S. from Latin America.

"We detect 25%," Faller said in response, but "we only interdict 9%" due to the lack of Navy and Coast Guard ships to intercept the drug runners.

King asked, "Who do we need to talk to get those assets? We are woefully falling down on this responsibility."

In his opening remarks and questions, Inhofe questioned how much would be contributed to the National Defense Strategy by withdrawing the relatively small number of troops now assigned to AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM.

"You're talking about two areas where there aren't enough people to reposition," he said.

Much of the hearing was devoted to examining China's efforts to build up debt and dependence across Africa through investments in infrastructure.

Townsend called China's investments "debt trap loans -- that is exactly what we're seeing. Most African leaders are wise to it," he said, but they are susceptible to money up front.

"They build not just debt but dependence," he said of the Chinese.

The Chinese policy in Africa was likened to "payday loans" by Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Africa specialist, was referring to the high-interest instruments that trap many troops in mounting debt.

"African leaders are not stupid," she said in a phone interview. "They know what deals they're making" with the Chinese, but many are reluctantly willing to trade long-term dependence for immediate assistance.

She contrasted the Chinese approach to U.S. policy on assistance and aid, which often comes with requirements for long-term development plans and delays in delivery.

"When you're drowning, you accept any help," Zimmerman said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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