What the US is really doing in Niger

The deaths of the four US troops have awoken Americans to military deployments in Africa. With ISIS ousted from its capital in Syria, Pentagon officials say, US counterterrorism efforts are likely to focus even more on Africa.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, speaks to reporters about the Niger operation during a briefing at the Pentagon, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017.

The tragic deaths of four US service members in an ambush in Niger have awoken Washington and US voters to the larger issue of American military deployments in Africa and the continued global nature of the nation’s struggle with Islamic extremist terrorism.

Even senior lawmakers seemed surprised by the size of the US presence in the region as outlined by the Pentagon in the incident’s wake. “I didn’t know there was a thousand troops in Niger,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee, in a Sunday broadcast interview.

Yet in the months to come that deployment may expand, or at least become more active. Pentagon officials say US counterterrorism efforts are likely to focus more on Africa now that the so-called Islamic State has been ousted from its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. The strategy is to press Islamic extremist groups simultaneously, wherever they are, said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon briefing Monday.

In Niger and surrounding areas, US Green Berets typically focus on providing training and security assistance for local forces. That includes intelligence and reconnaissance help. Was the Niger ambush related in any way to “mission creep,” with training aid morphing slowly into more concrete combat support for Nigerien troops? So far that’s not entirely clear.

“One positive thing that may come out of this tragedy is, at least temporarily, a little more congressional oversight, looking into what these missions are trying to accomplish and whether they are operating in terms of the US national interest,” says Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, whose research centers on conflict and US foreign policy in central Africa.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Graham wasn’t the only top member taken aback by the fact that 800 US troops, according to the military, are in Niger, a landlocked nation surrounded by unstable neighbors with a military generally rated as “poor.” Surprise was bipartisan. Asked if he knew about the US presence there, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York on Sunday said, “No, I did not.”

But the deployment is far from secret. It is likely that Sens. Graham and Schumer were reacting to the scale of the troops, not their location. As General Dunford noted in his Monday appearance, the US has had troops in Niger, on and off, for 20 years.

The Pentagon today has about 6,000 troops scattered in 53 African nations, the Joint Chiefs chairman said. While that might seem large, given the scale of the mission and the size of the continent, it really isn’t, according to the Department of Defense. The 800 US troops in Niger work with 4,000 military personnel from France, the former colonial power in the region, and 35,000 local partners.

These forces face daunting challenges from Islamic extremists, human traffickers and other smugglers, and antigovernment militias from all sides, according to the most recent Worldwide Threat Assessment from the US Director of National Intelligence. US intelligence judges that the Sahel region – particularly Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – was itself deeply affected by spillover instability from the fall of Libya in 2011, and a violent uprising in northern Mali in 2012.

In 2017 “[Al Qaeda] in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Murabitun, Ansar al-Din, and other violent extremist groups will continue attacking Western and local interests in the region,” Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, told Congress last May.

AQIM has taken advantage of poverty and weak central governments to win local support in the Sahel region. The area’s vast plains and porous borders complicate counter-terrorism operations, writes Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Lebanon, in an analysis of Jihadism in the Sahel.

Kinship links further cement this relationship. Top AQIM leaders have spent a decade forming relationships and even intermarrying with locals.

“Today AQIM is rooted in the social and economic fabric of many Sahelian communities and tribes,” writes Dr. Ghanem-Yazbeck.

The Pentagon also believes that this is an area where ISIS has an aspiration to increase its presence in Africa. Dunford said that is something the US is watching carefully. It is premature to speak about increased troop levels or other expanded resources in the region, he added Monday.

“We are dealing with a global challenge,” said the nation’s top military commander.

That said, it wouldn’t be a matter of routine that the US suffers casualties in these operations, according to the Pentagon. It remains unclear exactly what happened Oct. 4 near the village of Tongo Tongo in western Niger, near the border with Mali.

Officials aren’t sure if the mission changed during the group’s visit to the village to meet local leaders, or if intelligence was faulty, or why one of the Green Berets, Sgt. La David Johnson, became separated from the main group.

As the ambush shows, the danger from these extremist groups is real, says Dr. Seay of Colby College.

“People in the area suffer greatly under these extremist groups,” she says.

But it is unclear if the presence of Green Berets at this meeting represents a type of mission creep, she says. In general, US operations in the Sahel and Africa generally are taking place under strategies put in place years ago, and directed under the auspices of a congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed in 2001.

A US pullout might be devastating to the area, given the relatively weak capabilities of Niger’s forces, Seay says. But is it in the US interest to continue a military presence in a place where unrest is at times driven by local political grievances as much as religious extremism?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t.

“That is a discussion that is not happening,” she says.

A more direct US military role in the region involving use of preemptive force against groups judged to be extremists could be counterproductive, adds Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The groups at issue are extremely fluid, she says. They arise out of local conflicts and competition as much as, if not more than, radical impulses and connections.

US bombs might thus make things worse. A recent United Nations study reached that conclusion, says Ms. Cooke.

“Military responses may be one of the key drivers of radicalization in a place that is extremely fragile and there are not a lot of economic opportunities,” she says. “There are a lot of other things the US could be doing.”

Correction: This article was updated to correct the number of local partners working with US and French troops in Niger.

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