By Phil Stewart and Tangi Salaün
WASHINGTON/PARIS (Reuters) – France delivered a stern warning on Monday against possible U.S. troop cuts in West Africa, where groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State are expanding their foothold.
The Pentagon is considering withdrawing the personnel as part of a global troop review meant to free up more resources to address challenges from China’s military, after nearly two decades of prioritizing counter-terrorism operations around the world.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly said she warned her U.S. counterpart during a visit to the Pentagon that joint counterterrorism efforts in West Africa would be harmed by cuts to U.S. military assistance.
“I had the opportunity to (say) again, to mention again, that the U.S. support is critical to our operations and its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness against terrorists,” Parly said at a joint news conference, standing alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Esper, who is spearheading the review, said no decisions had been made. But he did not suggest any reconsideration of potential cuts to U.S. forces in the region.
The possibility of cuts has alarmed France, which relies on U.S. intelligence and logistics for its 4,500-strong mission in the Sahel. The deaths of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Mali in November increased France’s determination to secure more support in the zone.
France believes it is time to increase, not ease, pressure on militants to prevent “Islamic State from rebuilding in the Sahel,” a senior French defense ministry official told Reuters.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had said ahead of the Pentagon talks to reporters that he hoped Washington “will be rational to keep this partnership … and that good sense will prevail.”
The U.S. currently has around 6,000 military personnel in Africa. Although some experts say a repositioning of forces is overdue, many U.S. officials share French concerns about relieving pressure on militants in Africa.
“Any withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Coons wrote in a letter to Esper this month.
Former colonial power France intervened in 2013 to drive back militants who had seized northern Mali the previous year. Fighters have since regrouped and spread. Over the past year, militants have stepped up attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Although groups in the Sahel are believed to have the intent to carry out attacks against the United States, they are not currently believed to have the capacity to do so, officials say.
General Francois Lecointre, chief of staff of the French armed forces, told Reuters that the loss of U.S. intelligence from intercepted communications would be the “biggest setback”.
“I’m doing my utmost to prevent this from happening,” he said, adding that French drone-based spying systems would not be operational until year-end.
France said this month it would deploy 220 additional troops to the region, despite rising anti-French sentiment in some countries and criticism at home that its forces are bogged down.
Parly recently visited the Sahel with counterparts from Portugal, Sweden and Estonia to press European allies to do more, especially by contributing special forces to a new French-led unit due to be set up this year.
One of the main aims of the outfit, officials said, is to improve coordination between regional troops and French planes able to carry out air strikes.
So far, take-up has been limited, with only Estonia committing 40 troops. Discussions continue with eight nations. Germany has refused to take part.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Tangi Salaün; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis and by John Irish in Paris, Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Peter Graff and Lisa Shumaker)