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Surprise! The Army is Now Using ISIS as an Excuse to Stay in Africa

The Pentagon makes one sane proposal to shift troops off the continent and the brass roils with resistance.

U.S. soldiers discuss tactics in Gabon, 2017. (US Army / Sgt. 1st Class Alexandra Hays)

When Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced he was considering a drawdown of American forces in Africa late last year, many establishment figures predictably cried foul. As is the case with so many of our other forever wars, these defenders of the status quo are badly misreading the threat to our country, and vastly overestimating what our tiny contingent of troops in Africa are capable of.

Just before Christmas last year, the Pentagon announced that Esper had established a study group to conduct a comprehensive reassessment of our military operations in Africa. His team was charged, according to a New York Times report, with assessing the overall value of the Africa mission in order to “scale back missions to counter militants who lack the demonstrated ability and intent to attack the United States on its own soil….”

Critically, the Times reported, none “of the terrorist groups operating in West Africa are said to meet this heightened assessment standard.” Yet the judgment that our military operations are neither defending American security interests nor diminishing threats to our country hasn’t stopped key members of Congress from threatening to block any attempts to end—or even reduce—the U.S. military footprint in Africa.

Part of the reason they’re doing this, it must be admitted, is because of what senior Pentagon generals are telling them in testimony. On Tuesday, the commander of Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, testified before members of the House Armed Services Committee to explain why Congress should continue supporting his operations.

“ISIS and al-Qaeda are on the march in West Africa,” General Townsend warned, focusing on the two terror groups Americans most recognize and fear. “They’re having success, and international efforts are not.”

Though Townsend never claimed these groups posed a direct threat to the United States, he routinely used the phrase “but if left unchecked,” implying that without perpetual U.S. military operations in Africa, one day they will. This oft-cited fear, however, is not substantiated by either evidence or experience.

I fought in combat operations and served in combat zones four times in my Army career, including everything from high intensity tank-on-tank engagements to training foreign military personnel, and also classic counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. During my wartime experience, I traveled a combined total of well over 10,000 miles through active combat zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait (and as a civilian through active and former combat zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa). There are two key reasons I can say with absolute certainty that General Townsend’s claims are wrong.

First, on a practical and operational level, the idea that a relative handful of U.S. troops in Africa can, in any meaningful way, defeat the many terror organizations reported to operate there (and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies estimates there are “now roughly two dozen active militant Islamist groups” in Africa, not just ISIS and al-Qaeda), is ludicrous.

We have approximately 6,000 U.S. military personnel deployed across the continent. That can’t even be considered “a drop in the bucket”—more like a microbe in the sea. Our troops could successfully conduct (or lead local troops) in kill/capture operations every day and never change the strategic situation on the ground.

The reason should be obvious to anyone who has conducted COIN operations or studied them since 2001. As we have seen vividly and consistently in all counterinsurgency operations involving American and allied troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, and dozens of other locations, tactical success never translates into changed operational environments.

But General Townsend is wrong for a second and more fundamental reason. Since 9/11, we have sought to transform foreign societies in warring states into ones benign and friendly to the United States. We have failed in 100 percent of the cases. And that unbroken list of failure goes back not just to 9/11, but to the 1953 coup we backed in Iran, the 1963 Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, and all of our efforts in Africa and the Middle East for the past three decades.

If America wants to strengthen its national security, what we need to do is shut down these pointless, unnecessary, and grotesquely expensive wars, and redeploy our troops back to their home bases. It is time to acknowledge reality and stop seeking the militarily unattainable.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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