When news broke that four U.S. Army commandos were killed by hostile fire in Niger last week, Americans might be forgiven if their first response was, "Where?" While Afghanistan is often dubbed our "forgotten war," U.S. military intervention in Niger was never on our national radar in the first place.
There's a good reason for that: American troops' presence in Niger now spans three presidential administrations, but their mission has never been subject to congressional authorization or public consideration of the prudence and necessity of such an intervention.
The tragedy of this ambush invites us to correct that deficiency, starting with a review of the facts. U.S. troops, active in Niger since 2005, were first deployed by President George W. Bush to train local forces and support Paris' counter-terrorism efforts in the former French colony and in nearby nations including Mali. In 2007, the mission was put under the umbrella of African Command, or AFRICOM, the Pentagon's newest continental command center.
President Obama sent additional American soldiers to Niger in 2013, to "provide support for intelligence collection and [would] also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region." One year later, Obama expanded drone operations to Niger.
Today, President Trump seems content to stay the course of under-the-radar escalation. A major U.S. base is under construction to serve as a hub for drone activity throughout the region, while American boots on the ground in Niger are significantly occupied with the arrival of extremists from neighboring Libya, which remains in chaos since the U.S.-facilitated ouster of strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
The use of Special Forces is key to Washington's misleading claim that this is a minor project unworthy of civilian scrutiny. The attack which left four Americans and an unknown number of Nigerien troops dead last week reveals that is not the case. "America is not at war in Africa," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc said after visiting the continent in 2016, "but its partner forces are." The ambush in Niger shows this is a distinction without difference. Our partnership is clearly significant enough that Americans are in the line of fire.
And to that we must ask, why is Washington engaged in an unaccountable, costly, and dangerous intervention in Niger? What vital U.S. national security interests are at stake in this African country? Would we really be measurably less safe without this mission? How much are we spending on this endeavor, and for how long will it take? Why must American troops risk their lives to supplement a far larger French intervention? What does Washington expect to achieve? And if this intervention is so vital to our existential security, why is it kept so quiet?
More broadly, as military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich has asked, "Under what circumstances can Americans expect nations [like Niger] to assume responsibility for managing their own affairs? To put it another way, when (if ever) might U.S. forces actually come home?" Is it "incumbent upon the United States to police vast swaths of the planet in perpetuity," and, if so, "What sequence of planned actions or steps is expected to yield success?"
All of these are questions I suspect the Trump administration, like the Obama and Bush administrations before it, could not answer about Niger to the public's satisfaction—and so it has elected, like its predecessors, not to speak of Niger at all.
This is a sorry excuse for strategy and accountability in a deeply important policy arena where, as we have sadly learned from experience this month, lives are at stake. Congress should demand answers to these critically important questions from the executive branch before another life is sacrificed or dollar appropriated.