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Allies worry as U.S. ponders cutting military forces in Africa

Carley Petesch
Associated Press

Dakar, Senegal – As extremist violence grows across Africa, the United States is considering reducing its military presence on the continent, a move that worries its international partners who are working to strengthen the fight in the tumultuous Sahel region.

The timing is especially critical in the Sahel, the vast arid region south of the Sahara Desert, where militants with links to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have carried out increased attacks in the past six months. In Niger and Mali, soldiers have been ambushed and at times overpowered by hundreds of extremist gunmen on motorcycles. More than 500,000 people have been displaced by violence in Burkina Faso.

FILE- In this file photo taken Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, a soldier stands guard outside the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in the wake of a weekend attack that killed up to 32 people.

The pending decision is part of a worldwide review by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is looking for ways to tighten the focus on China and Russia.

“My aim is to free up time, money and manpower around the globe, where we currently are, so that I can direct it” toward Asia or return forces to the United States to improve combat readiness, Esper said Monday after meeting with French Defense Minister Florence Parly, who traveled to Washington to urge the U.S. not to reduce forces in the Sahel.

High-profile Republicans and Democrats have warned that such a decision would undermine national security. They argue that cuts in Africa could hand over influence on the booming continent of 1.2 billion people to China and Russia.

FILE- In this file photo taken Monday, April 16, 2018, a U.S. and Niger flag are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger.

The commander of U.S. forces in Africa, Gen. Stephen Townsend, is scheduled to testify Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the role of American forces in Africa.

The U.S. has about 6,000 personnel on the continent. In West Africa, the Africa Command’s mandate is to advise and assist, whereas in East Africa, where most of the U.S. troops are located, forces also accompany African troops on missions.