On October 4, US special forces in Niger, conducting a “reconnaissance mission” north of the capital city of Niamey, were ambushed. Local militants attacked the Green Berets with small arms and machine guns, leaving four Americans dead. On their own, the bare facts of the assault would not have drawn much media notice in the US, which has conducted counterterrorism missions in Niger and on the African continent in general since September 11. And in fact, the media largely ignored it. Donald Trump has been much criticized for failing to mention the attack in public until twelve days after it occurred, but it’s not like the country’s major papers spent that time filling up column inches with analysis of what happened. Only when the attack could be repackaged as another of Trump’s political gaffes, in the form of his public feud with the grieving mother of one of the dead Americans, did everyone begin to wonder what the US was doing in Niger to begin with.
It is both comic and grotesque to watch this ritual unfold, in which Congress only bothers to express curiosity about the most sprawling, endless military conflict in American history when it’s a member of the American military who dies—and even then, only if a newspaper notices. US involvement in Niger has not been a secret. The State Department launched a program in 2002 designed to provide military assistance to forces in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, and in recent years, Niger has emerged as America’s most important counterterrorism partner on the continent outside of Djibouti. In September, journalist Nick Turse reported that the US military is currently building a drone base in Agadez, a city of some 120,000 people that sits in the center of Niger. The base will serve as a launch point for MQ-9 Reaper drones, successors to the more famous Predator drones. Congress was alerted to the construction of this base in 2015 and 2016, and President Obama signed the defense bill that authorized its funding (some $100 million). Whatever its members may have said to journalists over the last week or so, Congress wasn’t caught off guard by the existence of US military operations around the African continent, only by the need to field questions about those operations.
In addition, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the document on which the legality of the war on terror is based, specifically says that the US retains the prerogative to intervene anywhere in the world if it feels the need to combat a terrorist threat. One of the war’s founding principles is that it has no geographical limits. In the case of Africa, it is statistically safer to assume up front that the American military has a presence in a given country than not. Appearing on Democracy Now!, Turse noted that the US currently conducts operations in somewhere around forty-nine of the continent’s fifty-four countries, all under the aegis of AFRICOM, the unified combatant command founded in 2006 in order to centralize the coordination of our military’s activity on the continent.
The situation in north and west Africa specifically has deteriorated rapidly in recent years, though it’s not yet clear whether that deterioration is connected to the October ambush in Niger. The origin—or at least one important origin—of these recent problems can be traced to President Obama’s decision to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, a decision that looks increasingly bad and increasingly consequential with each passing month. (When criticized by Congress for not consulting them on the decision to launch airstrikes in Libya, Obama argued that the AUMF covered things. Apparently an operation that cost the Pentagon $716 million in its first two months and resulted in the death of a prominent head of state did not constitute full-blown hostilities.) Going back into the early 2000s, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger had experienced problems with violent separatist groups, but these groups had been too small and too poorly equipped to disrupt daily life or destabilize the ruling governments in a serious way. In the aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall, however, many soldiers from the Libyan Army, as well as supplemental mercenaries Gaddafi had hired to combat the rebellion—particularly Tuareg émigrés from northern Mali—fled south and west and they brought their equipment with them. Rebellions of increasing size and sophistication have proliferated in all three of those countries ever since.
In response, the US has pumped many millions of dollars’ worth of arms and training into those countries, hoping to shore up their respective abilities to combat the expanding insurgent networks. This influx of funds and arms has produced adverse consequences that the US seems unable to foresee, despite their occurring over and over during the last two decades. In 2012, for example, a Tuareg insurgency in Mali sparked a series of crises that led to a military coup, which overturned a democratically elected government only a month away from holding new elections (the country’s incumbent leader, in keeping with Mali’s constitution, was not standing for reelection). The soldiers said they were fed up with a government that was not providing them with equipment sufficient to combat the rebellion in the north. It emerged in the wake of the takeover that the coup’s leader, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, had made multiple trips to the United States to receive military training as part of a State Department–funded program. The US and its NATO allies had no desire for such a coup to take place, and early the following year, French troops invaded the country, where their presence drastically heightened tensions between Tuaregs in the north and those living in the south. The US made unwitting and crucial contributions to every part of this debacle, from the arrival of well-equipped rebels from Libya, to the increased strength of the military relative to the weak civilian government that was supposed to be in charge, to the specific expertise of the coup’s leader. Today the French military remains bogged down in Mali’s insurgency.
There are six thousand US troops stationed in Africa (around a thousand of them in Niger), and political stability has worsened or is not improving in Mali, Niger, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia (where a truck bomb in the capital killed more than three hundred people in October). Inevitably, however, the US appears to be doubling down on militarization. Senator Lindsey Graham’s example is surreal: following the Niger ambush, Graham appeared on Meet the Press to say that he “had no idea” the US had that many troops in the country, that “[members of Congress] don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing. So John McCain is going to try to create a new system to make sure that we can answer the question [about] why we were there.” Whatever system McCain has in mind is not yet in place, meaning that Graham’s professed ignorance of the scope and purpose of America’s military operations in Africa persists. But that didn’t stop him from voicing strong opinions in a separate interview about where US policy should go from here: “You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.” Those remarks came in the wake of a meeting with Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who told Graham that that the military’s counterterrorism strategy would be shifting toward Africa.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic component of US strategy is sorely lacking. The best Trump has managed so far is to send UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on a three-country tour of Africa, where she had to be evacuated from a refugee camp in South Sudan because of protests. She has so far delivered the usual mix of sentimentality (“We can’t let armed conflict be their only choice”) and admonitions (“He understood this was a tough message,” she said of South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir), but nothing resembling a new idea.
The State Department remains understaffed because of Trump’s unwillingness to appoint people to work there. He has not nominated an assistant secretary of state for African affairs, nor is there a current US ambassador to South Africa or Congo. To the extent that Trump has expressed interest in the State Department, it has had to do with budget cuts. It emerged over the summer that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to get rid of envoys to Sudan and South Sudan, along with other positions dealing with Africa, and in his letter announcing the plan, he noted the $5 million in savings that such moves would produce. For his part, in a September speech at the UN, Trump praised the healthcare achievements of Nambia, an African country that does not exist. (It’s Namibia). He also praised his friends who make money on the continent. “I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich,” he said. “I congratulate you.”
The pattern by now is very familiar. Faced with political instability in the developing world—often a region of the developing world in which the US and its allies have at least some interest in resource extraction—the US advises weak governments to fight “terrorism,” providing training and material assistance as needed. When the government proves unable to stand on its own two feet, the US sends in troops of its own. These troops may address the immediate threat, but their very presence, which is necessary in order to keep the client state afloat, only speeds the growth of insurgent groups and sows resentment among the people. Violence increases, the country’s already inadequate infrastructure suffers, and the political system descends into chaos.
Given the destructiveness of this pattern, one might think the US would try something else. But sixteen years in, the war on terror has become politically self-sufficient, the sun around which America’s other foreign policy considerations revolve. Members of Congress are not obligated think about, question, or justify its progress (or lack thereof); Presidents smoothly hand off its imperatives from one to the next, like runners in an Olympic relay; and the question of whether to try and end the war is simply never asked at all. Trump’s belligerence is frightening, but his war looks more or less like the one inaugurated by Bush and institutionalized by Obama.
The most substantive break Trump has made from his predecessors has to do with his open contempt for diplomacy and the pursuit of peace. Not even Bush dreamed of granting so much authority to generals. With Obama’s intervention in Libya looking more and more like the beginning of a years-long regional conflagration, the possibility emerges of an American invasion of some part of north or west Africa during the next few years. No region currently provides a more fertile incubator of extremist groups, and in the event of such a group pulling off a major terrorist attack on American soil, the logic of the war on terror would almost certainly require an invasion. This is in fact the exact scenario imagined in a recent Pentagon war game. The attack occurs on May 23, 2023 in New York, killing 435 people. In response, the US invades Mauritania. The encouraging part of the war game, I guess, is that Trump apparently loses in 2020. The president in 2023 is named Karl Maxwell McGraw.