Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., on Tuesday will introduce legislation limiting President Trump’s ability to remove U.S. troops from Africa, the latest salvo in broad congressional opposition to rumored withdrawals from the continent.
According to a copy obtained by Defense One, the bill would prevent the administration from using any money in 2020 to “reduce the total number of United States Armed Forces” deployed to Africa until officials produce a series of unclassified reports to Capitol Hill. The reports would cover everything from the impact of the withdrawal on efforts to combat violent extremist groups on the continent to its effects on growing Russian and Chinese influence there.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been carrying out what he terms a “blank slate review” of U.S. forces in Africa — currently around 5,200 troops who are primarily working on counterterrorism missions. Last week, Esper confirmed to lawmakers that he was weighing deep cuts to the region. In testimony before the House Armed Services, he said the options he is considering are “predominantly to reduce presence” as part of an effort to refocus department efforts on threats from China and Russia.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pushed back, arguing that pulling back from the region will allow terrorist groups to flourish and give Russia and China room to expand their influence.
Still, it’s not clear whether the Panetta legislation will see the floor. Limiting a president’s ability to move troops raises constitutional concerns — Article II gives the commander-in-chief broad authority over the armed forces — and enforcing the bill’s strictures could prove tricky. Still, lawmakers could push the legislation as a way to persuade the Defense Department to reconsider. The bill has already attracted at least one Republican co-sponsor, according to Panetta’s office: Rep. Richard Hudson, N.C., whose district includes Fort Bragg, home to many of the special operators now in Africa. (Reps. Jason Crow, D-Colo., and Anthony Brown, D-Md., are also original cosponsors, the office said.)
And there is some precedent. In the 2019 defense policy bill, lawmakers voted to prohibit the Defense Department from using funds to reduce the number of troops in South Korea below 22,000. President Trump signed the legislation, although he issued a signing statement objecting the provision based on “the longstanding understanding of the executive branch that these types of provisions encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs.”
Esper is expected to concentrate troops cuts on West Africa, where French counterterrorism troops are the primary force fighting terror groups such as ISIS-West Africa and Boko Haram.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of Trump’s, urged Esper on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February to maintain American troops in the west.
“Our European partners, such as France, rely on our intelligence and logistic support for operations within West Africa,” Graham wrote in a January letter to Esper, in which he opposed the rumored cuts. The letter, co-signed by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., added that “Any withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond as well as increase the geopolitical influence of competitors like Russia and China.”
The Panetta legislation would leave the Pentagon an emergency out to withdraw forces without submitting the reports if “upon advice of the relevant military commanders, the Secretary determines that the waiver is necessary due to an imminent and extraordinary threat to members of the United States Armed Forces in the AFRICOM AOR.”
The effort inverts the narrative of other congressional efforts to constrain Trump’s use of the military. In Iran and Yemen, Democratic lawmakers — along with a small handful of libertarian-minded Republicans — have sought to constrain, not maintain, the use of military force.
Opposition to the Africa cuts is also unique in the broad coalition of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle that it has drawn together. In the House, 11 lawmakers led by Armed Services Committee member Anthony Brown, D-Md., sent a letter to Esper raising concerns about the rumored drawdown and warning that “the execution of stability operations in Africa and meeting China and Russia in great power competition are not mutually exclusive.” In the Senate, in addition to Graham and Coons, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., gave a floor speech opposing the cuts.
“Any drawdown of our troops would be short-sighted, could cripple AFRICOM’s ability to execute its mission and, as a result, would harm national security,” said Inhofe, who leads the Armed Services Committee and is a staunch Trump ally.
Esper has sought to frame the review as “right-sizing” the force in Africa. He has ordered “elements” of a brigade designed to train partner forces in counterinsurgency sent to Africa to replace infantry troops from the 101st Airborne, but questions remain about whether the overall numbers will go down. AFRICOM, which operates on what is known as an “economy of force” footing, is famously under-resourced — raising questions about the utility of making cuts from a command whose cost is little more than a rounding error in the Pentagon’s $750 billion budget.
Esper has sought to reassure jumpy lawmakers, telling the House Armed Services Committee last week, “There are no plans to completely withdraw all forces from Africa.”