President Donald Trump has ordered most American troops to withdraw from Syria. He wants to bring home thousands more from Afghanistan. Now hundreds of U.S. 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 bombings, massacres, kidnappings and attacks on hotels frequented by Westerners. It is a region in which most Americans were unaware of U.S. military involvement until four Army soldiers were killed in a deadly 2017 ambush in Niger by Islamic State fighters.
What is emerging, critics said, is a glimpse of what happens when U.S. troops, especially Special Operations forces, pull back before insurgents are effectively subdued, leaving local or allied forces to fend off the Islamic State, al-Qaida 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 U.S. 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, Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
In one sign of the growing fear, a school in the Burkina Faso village of Bargo recently built a concrete wall around its buildings for greater protection. Just last month, two boys were kidnapped by extremists while they prayed at the nearby mosque, said Bonane Honore, the school’s headmaster.
“We are very scared,” said Christine Kabore Ouedraogo, a political leader in the village, a short drive from the training camp in Loumbila.
Barmou trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and the National Defense University in Washington. His comments — which were echoed by other African officers concerned about Washington’s commitment to fighting violent extremism — came during a counterterrorism exercise in Burkina Faso last week that drew 2,000 military personnel from more than 30 African and Western countries.
“The threat is gaining ground,” Foreign Minister Alpha Barry of Burkina Faso told a security conference in Munich in February. “It’s no longer just the Sahel, it’s coastal West Africa and the risk of spreading regionally.”
France, the former colonial power in West Africa, maintains 4,500 troops in the region to help battle insurgents in Niger, Chad and Mali, where it routed al-Qaida’s affiliate from the north in 2013. French officials said the Pentagon had assured them it would keep providing intelligence, logistics and aerial refueling in what Prime Minister Édouard Philippe called “a hard fight,” while visiting troops in Mali last week.
The U.S. military has a relatively light footprint across Africa, relying on European and African partners to carry out most counterterrorism missions from the Sahel to Somalia, with the Pentagon providing air power when needed. The United States already has conducted 24 airstrikes this year against al-Shabab targets in Somalia, compared with 47 all of 2018.
About 6,000 U.S. troops and 1,000 Defense Department civilians or contractors work throughout Africa, mainly training and conducting exercises with local forces.
The military’s Africa Command plans to cut 10 percent of those personnel by January 2022, including about 300 Special Operations forces from the roughly 1,200 commandos who were deployed across the continent last year.
American Green Berets from the Third Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., advise their African partners on planning and carrying out operations, but rarely join them on missions, said Col. Nathan Prussian, the group commander.
American commanders said the changes reflected the progress made by the African troops and denied that the United States was backing away from its commitment to the region.
“The notion that we’re leaving the Sahel is simply not true,” Maj. Gen. J. Marcus Hicks, the head of American Special Operations forces in Africa, said in an interview. “This is just a natural transition.”
The drawdown, however, comes amid a torrent of terrorist attacks. In Burkina Faso alone, Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates and splinter groups conducted 137 attacks last year, up from 12 in 2016, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
Armed groups have attacked government buildings and schools, threatened teachers, conducted brutal assaults on cafes and other gathering places, and executed those suspected of collaborating with authorities. Last March, fighters attacked the French Embassy and the national army headquarters in Ouagadougou, the capital, killing eight security guards.
Military analysts and human rights groups cited three main reasons for the spiraling violence in Burkina Faso and its neighbors: French-led counterterrorism operations in Mali have pushed the problem south, into Burkina Faso. Armed Islamic militants have effectively exploited grievances among local populations. Abuses by security forces have fueled jihadi recruiting.
“These are a series of small rural insurgencies that are spreading,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel project in Dakar, Senegal.
The violence has upended Burkina Faso, a poor, landlocked country of about 20 million people that is roughly the size of Colorado and was once a French colony known as Upper Volta. A popular uprising ousted its longtime strongman, President Blaise Compaoré, in 2014.
But weeks after a democratically elected government took office, al-Qaida militants in January 2016 carried out the most devastating terrorist attack in Burkina Faso’s history, killing 30 people at a luxury hotel and restaurant frequented by Westerners in Ouagadougou. In August 2017, Islamist extremists struck again, as gunmen stormed a popular cafe, leaving 18 dead.
Militants have largely outgunned the government of the current president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who recently named a new prime minister and chief of armed forces to put Burkina Faso more on a war footing.
The United States is scheduled to provide about $100 million in support — including vehicles, body armor, radios and night-vision goggles — to the 12,000-member Burkinabe military and paramilitary forces over the next two years. An embassy spokesman said that was 10 times what the Pentagon provided the previous Burkinabe government.
The Trump administration also is providing about $242 million in military aid to the so-called G5 Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. But the G5 force, ultimately set to grow to 5,000 troops, has been slow to halt the militants’ advance.
African commanders said they welcome Western assistance, but noted the equipment that is provided is not always effective. Four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers given by the United States, for example, lack armor to protect against increasingly powerful improvised roadside bombs.
“The terrorists have IEDs, so we need hardened vehicles,” said Capt. Amadou Koundy, a Nigerien special forces officer who trained in Senegal and at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.
Military officials and independent analysts stressed that American and other Western military aid may at best buy time for African allies to address poverty, lack of education, government corruption and other grievances that extremist groups seek to exploit.
“There are no fully military solutions here, just holding actions,” said Alice Hunt Friend, a former top Pentagon official for Africa and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
For now, though, African troops and their Western allies are racing to establish security.
At an army training range in Loumbila, 15 miles northeast of Ouagadougou, Malian and Burkinabe commandos practiced marksmanship with AK-47 rifles and Beretta pistols under the watchful eye of Czech and Polish trainers barking out instructions in French.
With temperatures nearing 100 degrees under a blazing sun, the African troops also rehearsed how to thwart militant ambushes and roadside bombs and clear militant-infested buildings.
The troops also honed their skills in the propaganda wars of winning hearts and minds. During the exercise, a four-man American civil affairs team accompanied Burkinabe army officers who rumbled over dusty, rutted dirt roads to visit the village of Bargo, bringing school supplies, soccer balls and goodwill from a government that still struggles to connect with its citizenry.
The village of 10,000 people lacks electricity and a working hospital, but Christians and Muslims live side by side in harmony. The village chief is Catholic. His younger brother is the village imam. “We are all one people,” said Mouni Ouedraobo, the imam.
Yet there are troubling signs, like the kidnapping of the two boys from the mosque, that peace may be imperiled as U.S. troops draw down.
“The U.S. refocus, which has taken resources away from Africa, is shortsighted and in contrast to the long game being used by abusive Islamist groups,” said Corinne Dufka, associate director for West Africa at Human Rights Watch in Washington, who spent two weeks in Burkina Faso in January.
“Provided the U.S. is working to improve rights, this is not the time to scale back.”