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The US military is adjusting its strategy for operations in Africa, but recent decisions could have negative consequences. Notably, Africa Command (AFRICOM) has opted to greatly reduce medical evacuation (medevac) flights in the Sahel. American troops had until recently played a more passive role in counterterrorism operations, primarily advising and training local troops in Niger.

Removing Critical Support

American troops have been relegated to non-combat roles after a 2017 ambush claimed the lives of four soldiers. However, military advisers did join local forces in an operation against Boko Haram in March. Now, future engagements are likely to remain limited in scope as the Pentagon canceled a $23 million contract with Erickson, which provided medevac flights for Army Green Berets, as the New York Times reported.

Erickson used a base in Arlit, Niger, but AFRICOM decided to move the 20th special Forces Group to the border region Niger shares with Mali and Burkina Faso. There, American troops will join a counterterrorism fight that France has predominantly spearheaded. AFRICOM said the region is already served by sufficient medevac support and deemed Erickson’s services unnecessary.

What is the Reality of Current US Medevac Support in the Region?

However, it’s unclear whether such medevac support actually exists. Some lawmakers are pushing back on the Pentagon’s decision and believe future medevac flights will be operated by a single helicopter through Berry Aviation. The H225 Super Puma aircraft ferries injured soldiers to Niamey.

Rep. Michael Waltz, R–Fla., is a former Green Beret and served in West Africa, granting him a familiarity with the issue that is unique among legislators. 

“A lack of support can have serious results when troops are faced with a hostile and determined foe,” Waltz wrote on March 12 to Pentagon officials.

Already, medevac support in West Africa has been subpar according to Defense Department standards, the New York Times reported. In war zones, the US military adheres to “a golden hour standard,” that calls for injured troops to be transported out of harm’s way in one hour or less.

During the 2017 ambush, American troops waited four hours for medevac support.

‘We’ve Begun a Review Process’

A reduction in medevac support (Erickson’s contract expires in June) could be evidence of the US military’s plan to downscale involvement in West Africa. While the chief spokesman for AFRICOM, Col. Christopher Karns, said the troops “were being repositioned,” the Defense Department has been eager to adjust its overarching strategy in Africa.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is considering a barrage of measures designed to reduce Washington’s role in counterterrorism operations on the continent. Closing a drone base, withdrawing troops, and cancelling aid to French allies are all options on the table. America currently has 1.200 troops in West Africa.

Esper began a review of US operations in December and was expected to decide on a new strategy by the end of March, however, the outbreak of COVID-19 delayed it.

“We’ve begun a review process where I’m looking at every theater, understanding what the requirements are that we set out for, making sure we’re as efficient as possible with our forces,” Esper said in December.

Potential Impact on France’s Sahel CT Operations

Reducing medevac support, although it could imperil American lives, is the least that could happen. For France, the implications of a larger shift in Washington’s strategy could undermine the entire fight against terrorists.

“If the US decided to withdraw from Africa, it would be bad news for us,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “I would like to be able to convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism to which he is deeply committed is playing out also in this region.”

Who is Winning the Sahel War?

Western forces in Africa, mainly French and American, are all that stands between a free-for-all for Islamic extremists and a glimmer of hope for free society. Paris has been bogged down by the conflict for seven years and even with US assistance, the reality is that few could claim it is winning the fight.

If anything, the struggle has worsened as terrorists flocked to the Sahel from Syria and Iraq. A lack of intense troop buildup from allied forces, however, meant groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram have often went unopposed. There was no invasion of West Africa like in Iraq and Afghanistan; Africa was and remains an afterthought.

Without US support, or with significantly reduced aid, France will be left on its own in a war it cannot win without a either a large push or more international help. So far, the International community has been content to stand by, hesitant to become involved in another never-ending conflict.

Today, it is Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger that are the predominant hotspots. However, without American help to contain them, terrorists could quickly spill over into bordering states and export extremism across the continent. At this point AFRICOM has only announced cuts to medevac support and a troop relocation, but Esper’s review is unlikely to lead to more American resources being pledged to the fight.