The Risks of Reducing U.S. Special Operations in Africa

Chadian soldiers take a break during Operation Flintlock, U.S.-led military exercises, in Diffa, Niger. Joe Penney/Reuters

The Pentagon plans to withdraw its special operations forces in Africa, but major cutbacks could threaten recent efforts to counter terrorism threats across the region.

September 13, 2018

Chadian soldiers take a break during Operation Flintlock, U.S.-led military exercises, in Diffa, Niger. Joe Penney/Reuters
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.


The U.S. military has in the past four years ramped up its special operations forces (SOF) across Africa to more than seven thousand to counter growing terrorist threats, from jihadist groups in the Sahel to Somalia. But following the release of a new national defense strategy, as well as a 2017 attack on American and Nigerien forces that prompted new concerns over U.S. involvement on the continent, the United States is moving to scale back its presence. There is a strong case for tightening U.S. special operations troops in Africa, says the RAND Corporation’s Linda Robinson, but too great a reduction poses security risks “we don’t even know how to measure.” Maintaining the right balance is critical if the United States wants to enable these countries to “take care of their own neighborhood,” she says.

What’s the extent of U.S. special operations in Africa?

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All told, SOF are deployed in some twenty countries in Africa. Special operations forces have been supporting partner forces in Africa since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. This effort was initially called the Pan Sahel Initiative, later renamed the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. It was an episodic effort to train and exercise with various African partner forces.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Military Operations

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

West Africa

East Africa

In recent years, this program has evolved into an array of advisory efforts authorized by Congress. U.S. SOF do not have combat roles under those programs, though they support the African partner forces who do conduct combat, and they aim to build African capability to address a wide array of terrorist threats on the continent: al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in Libya, Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, and a variety of groups in the Sahel, most notably al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and ISIS’s Grand Sahara affiliate. In addition, U.S. direct-action counterterrorism operations are authorized in Somalia and Libya.

The primary motivation for the increased SOF presence is the increased threat perception in Africa, which was compounded when the Islamic State was largely dislodged from Iraq and Syria in 2017. A lot of the foreign fighter population was flowing back to the countries in Africa where they came from. There’s a clear nexus with some of those communities and groups and their intent at least to attack Europe, if not the U.S.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) recently submitted plans to scale back its special operations missions on the continent. Do you think this reflects a broader shift in the U.S. approach in Africa?

Yes. It’s important to note that the overarching rationale for revisiting what we’re doing in Africa is due to the national defense strategy [PDF] this administration has issued. The national defense strategy comes out of the Pentagon but is nested under the national security strategy [PDF]. These two documents identify major state near-peer adversaries and potential adversaries, namely Russia, China, and Iran, and, of course, North Korea, as the primary focus of concern for the U.S. military and defense community.

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This represents a kind of downgrading of the threat perception vis-à-vis other types of threats. It is a judgment that the terrorist threat is less important and less acute now as opposed to these rising state challenges. There is room to debate that, but that is the current U.S. strategy and policy.

The U.S. undertaking an advisory approach to the Africa threat was, at the outset, a recognition that it wasn’t a top-tier threat. It was more of an incipient threat that could become a greater threat to Europe and, in the case of some groups, potentially come to threaten U.S. interests overseas. It was more a concern about the disruption to friends and allies in that region and the idea that these groups could grow. It was a way to try to address these threats while they were still more regional and locally focused.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Military Operations

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

West Africa

East Africa

What are the arguments for keeping U.S. special forces in Africa?

One is the very nature of this threat. It is extremely hard to predict where the next terrorist attack will come from. We have a very small body of water—the Mediterranean—that separates North Africa from Europe. There’s, of course, a very severe migrant crisis, born of both poverty and instability. These conditions can produce terrorist recruits, who are a very small number of individuals spread out among a highly vulnerable population. Terrorist groups represent a fraction of the population, so to find them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This kind of threat is so different from a state adversary where you can see them building up large forces, material weaponry, so forth.

Many African forces lack sufficient capability, and the span of territory to be secured is enormous.

The counterterrorism community has always argued that it’s better to try to have a presence on the ground and look at how these groups are evolving and try to get ahead of the curve. It’s a question of whether small numbers of special operations forces in some of these key areas can be useful in blunting a threat before it becomes acute.

There has been a very large investment in Somalia and surrounding countries, particularly Kenya, over the last decade. Uganda was also very important to East Africa security operations. It would be extremely important to continue this investment but refocus it much more on building the Somali national army and developing a competent national security force in what was, for twenty-five years, considered the world’s emblematic failed state. Somalia has made progress, but it really needs help from the community of nations in building up adequate defenses to address what is still a pretty significant threat.

What could the reduction in special forces mean for countries where U.S. forces have been operating?

Some of these countries in the Sahel and elsewhere are quite eager to have U.S. support, and they have an ability, as well as will, to conduct counterterrorism operations; Niger is one of those. If we were to just simply pull out of there after they have really welcomed in SOF cooperation and support from the U.S. at the national level, the threat would likely grow, and the partner forces and Nigerien government would be less capable of gaining the competence to address the threat on their own. While France has been the lead ally in the Sahel region, the U.S. supporting role is an important assisting effort, considering that many African forces lack sufficient capability, and the span of territory to be secured is enormous. It’s important to build bridges to these countries if the ultimate goal is to enable them to take care of their own neighborhood.

Can the United States make these reductions without increasing national security risks?

If the reduction is too great, that will leave open the possibility of growing risk that we don’t even know how to measure. There will be too few eyeballs on the ground to understand the complex metastasis of these groups and how they may or may not be gaining strength in destabilizing some of these weaker countries. Counterterrorism experts consider Africa to be one of the growth areas for terrorist groups. Over the middle and longer run, Africa will play a very large role on the global stage. By 2050, one quarter of the world’s population will be African.

If the reduction is too great, that will leave open the possibility of growing risk.

It’s certainly important to balance needs elsewhere with needs in Africa, particularly given commitments that the U.S. government has made, for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria. There’s a strong case for tightening up on the numbers in Africa. But it’s not just a matter of preventing attacks on the U.S. homeland. If that is the only metric of U.S. national interests, that’s really kind of a Fortress America view that resigns us to only addressing threats once they’re already at our doorstep. That was the big wake-up call with 9/11—people understood that there had to be a broader approach to this phenomenon.

It’s important to decide which of these countries to focus on and to not sprinkle special operation forces willy-nilly across Africa, which is vast. I would not conflate this with an existential threat. It’s important, and it’s a mission to continue, but it has to be very measured.

What kind of oversight exists for these operations? Are there authorities in Congress or elsewhere in the U.S. government who evaluate them?

Military programs are briefed to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and regular written reports and oral briefings are delivered to those committees about the forces out there and the programs that they’re authorized under to carry out these activities. There’s a whole kind of laundry list of authorities for these advisory missions, as well as a set of presidential counterterrorism authorizations. Those are secret authorizations, but people with the need to know can get access to that information about particular missions. There is also annual public testimony given by the AFRICOM commanding general that is on the record. Recent press reports quoted members of Congress as being surprised to learn that SOF was operating in such numbers in Africa in so many places. These legislators did have means to access that information.

Has oversight been insufficient in Africa?

The official AFRICOM investigation conducted after the Niger incident that led to four U.S. soldiers’ deaths found flaws in the process to obtain approval for that operation. The regular assessments have not resulted in a more comprehensive process to determine if these counterterrorism missions are bearing fruit. There is also a chronic issue of shortage of air mobility, unmanned aerial surveillance, and emergency evacuation and medical care for these small elements of highly dispersed troops. West Africa alone is the size of the entire continental United States, and the logistical demands of operating there are enormous. The Pentagon appears to be leaning toward restricting the counterterrorism advisory mission rather than increasing the assets to conduct them and ensure the safety of personnel. It is important to note, however: All these missions do carry risk, and that cannot be reduced to zero.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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