Pompeo Seeks to Assure African Partners as U.S. Weighs Troop Cuts
Security concerns have been a key focus of Pompeo’s trip this week to Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia, his first visit to the continent as secretary of state. He acknowledged that a troop review is under way but said the U.S. would work with partners and explain its decision -- comments that suggested the U.S. is indeed planning a pullback.
“We’ll make sure that we get it right,” Pompeo said in response to a question during a briefing with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew in Addis Ababa on Tuesday. “I’m confident that we can get the right force posture, the right risk for the United States, and still deliver on peace and security that is important for the region.”
African officials have voiced concerns about the possibility that the U.S. will pull out its troops even as militants gain ground in the Sahel region and the al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab group stages deadly attacks in Somalia and Kenya. Among the most vocal leaders urging the U.S. to stay has been Senegal’s President Macky Sall, whom Pompeo met Feb. 16. In a briefing alongside Pompeo that day, Senegal’s Foreign Minister Amadou Ba said the two sides have “talked about the need to be present in the area.”
The U.S. has about 6,000 troops in Africa, according to a defense official, including those guarding diplomatic facilities. The biggest contingent is based at a U.S. facility in Djibouti.
In late January, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. wouldn’t withdraw all its troops from Africa but acknowledged a review is under way to account for a new strategy that makes countering Russia and China the priority.
General Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, last month testified that the U.S. would have to coordinate with the French and other European allies on any change in the American troop posture. He said that the terrorist threat in Africa “is very serious” and “on the advance.”
Pompeo’s reassurances in the face of expected cuts constituted one of a few dissonant notes during his trip to Africa, the first by such a senior Cabinet-level official since Rex Tillerson criss-crossed the continent in early 2018 days before he was fired. That time, Tillerson had to do cleanup after reports circulated that President Donald Trump had denigrated African nations.
This time, Pompeo traveled to Africa shortly after the administration added four African countries -- Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Eritrea -- to a list of countries subject to severe visa restrictions, in a move that the Nigerian foreign minister said “blindsided” his government. Also last week, the administration proposed a budget that would slash the State Department’s funding by more than 20%, with heavy cuts to disaster relief and bilateral aid.
Pompeo defended the travel restrictions during a stop in Angola, arguing it was a security matter that “in no way conflicts with America’s deep desire to increase our contact.” And in Ethiopia, he announced $8 million in aid to address fallout from massive locust swarms that have devastated crops.
Instead, Pompeo has focused on boosting the private sector and ties between American and African businesses. Pompeo is seeking to contrast that approach to the Chinese model in which countries go deep into debt to finance Chinese infrastructure projects such as roads and stadiums.
That theme has given his visit to the three African countries a different flavor than his other trips abroad. Pompeo’s stops in Senegal and Angola included meetings with entrepreneurs and business leaders, and he’s repeatedly warned against the perils of corruption and the power of economic cooperation to fuel growth. As a sign of that commitment, Jim Richardson, the State Department’s director for foreign assistance, has accompanied Pompeo on each of his stops.
Pompeo chose the three countries he’s visited on this trip to lend support for what the State Department calls dynamic leaders who are reliable partners committed to battling corruption and reforming their economies. On Wednesday, he’ll give a speech to the African Union that’s expected to emphasize those themes.