PENTAGON - The United States is refusing to rule out shrinking the size of its military presence in Africa despite warnings that without Washington's help, critical counterterror efforts could fall apart.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly delivered the latest plea for continued U.S. involvement in the counterterror fight Monday during talks with top U.S. military officials at the Pentagon.
But following the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Washington had to take into account other urgent priorities.
"We are focused on great power competition, first with China, then Russia," Esper told reporters. "My aim is to adjust our [military] footprint in many places. No decisions have been made."
France currently has about 4,500 troops in Africa, taking a lead role in countering terror groups linked to Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida across the Sahel region.
Earlier this month, in response to the death of 13 French soldiers during a combat mission in Mali late last year, France said it would send another 220 troops to the region.
And France is not alone in sounding the alarm about the growth of terror groups on the Sahel.
A increasing number of Western diplomats have warned that IS, in particular, is using the region to regroup following the loss of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
The concern has run so deep, that during an anti-IS coalition meeting hosted this past November in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that partner nations were already looking to West Africa and the Sahel as "a preferred, initial area of focus" outside of Syria and Iraq.
U.S. and Western counterterror officials also caution the region is one of the few places where terrorists from IS and al-Qaida, usually fierce rivals, will work together to advance anti-Western plots.
Standing alongside Esper at the Pentagon on Monday, Parly said that, as a result, Washington's support for the French-led efforts was "even more necessary," noting that countries like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are already stepping up their campaigns to eradicate the terror groups.
"The U.S. support is critical to our operations," she said. "Its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness against terrorists."
U.S. officials have insisted they are not blind to the dangers. Still, for months, they have floated the idea of cutting some of the about 6,000 troops currently stationed in Africa.
Publicly, U.S. officials have declined to say what potential cuts would mean for its bases in Africa, both in Djibouti and in Niger, home to many of the U.S. military's drones, which play a key role in gathering intelligence.
"There is a lot of collaboration in terms of logistics but also in terms of intelligence," Niagale Bagayoko, a lead researcher and chair of the African Security Sector Network, told VOA. "That is one of the reasons why the French are presently eager to see the Americans to stay involved in the continent, in particular."
French officials have also emphasized that while they understand Washington's desire to rebalance its forces across the world to better confront adversaries like China and Russia, they are not asking for a lot.
"It's a classic case of burden sharing where a limited U.S. support leverages an immesnse effort carried out by France and Europe," Parly said Monday.
Yet despite French officials expressing hope that "good sense" would prevail and that Washington would maintain its support for the French-led counterterror operations, U.S. defense officials have increasingly signaled such help may not be forthcoming.
"France has reached out to other European allies. I think it's time for other European allies to assist, as well, in the region," Esper told reporters Monday. "That could offset whatever changes we make as we consider next steps in Africa."
VOA's Salem Solomon contributed to this report.