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In Africa, US Sees Trainers as ‘Better Fit’ Than Combat Troops

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks at a news conference following a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 13, 2020.

The United States is trying to ease concerns about its decision to withdraw conventional troops from Africa and replace them with specialized military trainers.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday the move will leave “roughly the same number of troops on the continent,” while giving U.S. commanders the capability to bolster partner forces.

Speaking with reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Esper said the move to swap out combat troops for trainers is based on observations by U.S. Africa Command Commander, General Stephen Townsend.

“He [Townsend] thinks it’s a better fit than what we currently do,” Esper said. “The SFABs (Security Force Assistance Brigades) are specifically designed to do that train-and-assist mission, which we know partner countries there want.”

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it would start bringing home members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the coming weeks, the first of many moves expected to impact the 6,000 U.S. troops currently in Africa.

Officials have yet to announce how many conventional forces will be leaving, but Esper said Thursday they will be replaced by roughly a couple of hundred forces from the Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade.

The brigade has previous experience working with the Afghan military and building relationships there, something that defense officials hope will pay off as they begin their missions in Africa.

"We have some spotlight countries, as we call them, where we either want to build or sustain important relationships," Esper said.

Still, there are questions about how successful the trainers can be, stemming in part from their experience in Afghanistan.

"The U.S. Army continues to struggle with staffing these units with the required number of skilled personnel, and with keeping personnel assigned to these units long enough to create enduring partnerships with a foreign force," the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a June 2019 report.

The report also warned, "there still is not enough theater-specific training focused on the host nation’s security institutions, systems, processes and weapons."

Defense officials say they are aware of the criticisms but note that some of the concerns, like the turnover rate, apply equally to conventional forces like the ones currently in Africa. They also say the trainers will be better positioned to respond to the needs of individual partner nations.

U.S. military officials also contend that American military training available through the Security Force Assistance Brigade will continue to be superior to anything offered by Russia or China, especially in the fight against terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State.

"China and Russia do very little to help Africans combat the brutal terrorist networks plaguing them," Africa Command’s General Stephen Townsend said in a statement Thursday, following talks in Kenya and Somalia.

"U.S. training, equipment and advice directly support our African partners," he added.

But despite what Townsend and others view as a growing terror threat, Esper on Thursday ruled out sending more U.S. forces, particularly to West Africa and the Sahel.

"The Sahel is principally a CT [counterterror] mission," Esper said. "I'm not looking to put more troops in that fight."

"The French are," he said, adding that both France and the U.S. are urging European nations to do more.

During a visit to the Pentagon last month, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said that while she understood the U.S. need to reposition troops away from the region, some U.S. capabilities, such as intelligence and surveillance, were irreplaceable.