When four U.S. soldiers were killed in the west African country of Niger last year, many in the American public — and even some lawmakers who serve on foreign-policy committees — were surprised to discover the United States had troops there. In fact, more than 6,000 American troops are currently scattered across the African continent. None, however, are permanently assigned to U.S. Africa Command.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee in Sen. John McCain’s absence, says it’s time for that to change. And Inhofe has an idea of who should be there: one of the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades.
The new SFABs, of which there will eventually be six, will be the Army’s forces dedicated to building partner capacity. Inhofe says that makes them ideally suited to Africa, a continent where the U.S. isn’t running long-standing wars like in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does conduct airstrikes, accompany partner forces on operations, and conduct myriad train-advise-and-assist operations. So on Monday, Inhofe wrote to Army Sec. Mark Esper requesting his views on “the feasibility and suitability” of assigning one of the future SFABs to AFRICOM.
AFRICOM is by no means the deciding party on where the Army’s new advising brigades will be stationed, but they’d “welcome forces with the capabilities a SFAB is designed to provide,” said a spokesman for the command.
Does AFRICOM need assigned forces?
Many of the 6,000 U.S. troops in Africa are supporting operations out of Djibouti. Others are rotating through as part of a regionally aligned brigade or other operations. AFRICOM gets allocated those forces who deploy through on a temporary basis, but unlike, say, Pacific Command, it doesn’t have any permanently stationed forces.
That allocation-vs.-assignment distinction can be something of a “red herring,” said Steve Bucci, a retired Special Forces officer now at the Heritage Foundation: “If a combatant command needs the forces, they get them.” But others have said it’s not totally without merit; there’s something to having permanent forces who can build regional expertise and relationships.
And as AFRICOM’s commander, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, told lawmakers last month in an annual posture hearing, there’s always a concern he won’t be able to count on allocated forces.
AFRICOM has an ally of growing importance in its corner when it comes to getting more troops: Inhofe, who has made 156 country visits on the continent his staff says — more than any current senator.
“I’d like to see forces assigned to AFRICOM, and that is something I am working on to see if it can be done,” Inhofe told Defense One last month. “There are a lot of threats around the world, and as we continue to grow the force and rebuild the military under President [Donald] Trump, I will continue to make sure the strategic needs of AFRICOM are fully represented in our upcoming [National Defense Authorization Act] discussions.”
The Pentagon has been talking about the spread of violent extremism into north and western Africa, something that might merit sending an SFAB or other forces there permanently. But a decision to do so would have to take into more into account: there are political and logistical concerns, too.
Where would they go?
Unlike eastern European nations asking for permanent U.S. forces to help deter Russian action, many African countries aren’t thrilled by the idea of American troops on their soil — and haven’t been since AFRICOM was created a decade ago, Inhofe said in a hearing.
When AFRICOM was stood up, Bucci added, “the countries in the theater were very nervous about having an American headquarters there, because they did not want to be seen as being colonized again, or see America as a force that was invading or occupying them.”
The U.S. has 4,000 soldiers in the eastern African country of Djibouti, but many there support operations in U.S. Central Command. Reshuffling who’s there could be a conversation worth having, but it’d be a complicated one, said Alice Hunt Friend, a former director for African affairs in the Pentagon’s policy shop. Then there are other expanding U.S. military sites across the continent, like a new drone base in Agadez, Niger, but actually stationing forces would be a much more visible commitment.
Right now, “nothing about our presence or policy toward the continent lends itself to a large assignment of permanent forces,” said Friend, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
All the countries in western and central Africa, where military leaders say ISIS is expanding, “have some constantly shifting domestic political dynamics that the United States should be sensitive to and aware of, a) from a don’t disturb domestic politics perspective," she said, "but also b) a durability of your presence perspective.”
Domestic political opposition recently forced the Ghanaian and American governments to clarify that the U.S. would not be building a military base there after the two countries signed a new defense cooperation agreement.
Would an SFAB be the right fit?
But if those feasibility concerns could be worked out, an SFAB would be the perfect fit to help AFRICOM build partner capacity across the region without relying on a brigade combat team that could be better utilized elsewhere, Inhofe said in the letter.
“The new SFABs are designed specifically for this type of mission and are manned appropriately, without the need to leave most of the BCT at home station and deploying only the senior leadership of the BCT,” he said.
The first two SFABs are assigned to U.S. bases, with the first deployed to Afghanistan right now, but eventually the Army envisions aligning the six units regionally. And although the Army hopes to assign the third brigade by this summer, it would be “premature” to assign the still unproven groups to Africa now, Bucci said.
Longer term, it makes a lot of sense, experts said.
“Building partner capacity is our decisive effort to help our African partners address security issues organically,” AFRICOM spokesperson Col. Mark Cheadle said.
An SFAB wouldn’t be a panacea for the security in the region. If the U.S. continues to expand its operations on the continent, it will have to reckon with other issues posed by its comparatively light footprint. As the Niger incident demonstrated, troops out accompanying partners on missions in Africa do so without the close-air support and medevac teams they might expect in Iraq or Afghanistan, Friend said. But a permanently assigned SFAB "enables the strategy pretty well," she said.
“To the extent that there’s real resourcing, particularly from the Army, behind the partner capability and capacity building that AFRICOM does all the time, that’s only a good thing it can only improve matters."