Niger, America’s forgotten soldiers and another nameless war

Niger, America’s forgotten soldiers and another nameless war
© Getty

This is the first time most Americans have heard of the place. That’s the worst part.

Niger: Few can locate it on a map; fewer can pronounce (Nee-Zher) it. Almost no one realizes the U.S. military has troops there. Can anyone articulate their purpose?

Regardless, four soldiers died in the former French colony on Wednesday, Oct. 4, victims, it appears, of an ambush. The suspected perpetrators: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — how many Americans even recognize that acronym?

ADVERTISEMENT
It still stings — years after my last combat tour — when I watch the quick, televised announcement of U.S. Army troop deaths, crunched between long segments on the latest White House palace intrigue (did he or didn’t he call the president a “moron?”) and exhausting reports about Mueller’s ongoing search for evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. But these were American soldiers, you know, the ones our society sensationally worships. And they are dead. Killed — ostensibly — in the service of the citizenry in a faraway land few even knew they were in.

What does it say about a society, when such deaths barely raise an eyebrow? Four dead, killed in another country we are not at war with, by a group only tangentially covered by the long-outdated Authorization to Utilize Military Force, the vague 2001 congressional approval to attack those who “planned, authorized, or committed” the 9/11 attacks; AQIM wasn’t even designated a terror organization until 2002.

This much is certain: These troopers were casualties of perpetual war, imperial overstretch, and American apathy. More’s the pity.

Maybe AQIM really is a threat to the region or, more relevantly, to our homeland.  Maybe military advisors, supplies or support are prudent. Maybe. Only no one discusses that.

Nonetheless, the surprise deaths of American troops raises far more questions than answers, and, at least, deserves a public debate. Of course, the people’s representatives in the House and Senate will likely remain silent; congressional cowardice, executive overreach — they’re the tangled, unheralded stories of the 21st century. The combination may just bring down what’s left of the republic.

For starters, here are just a few questions a citizen (or, dare I say, a strategist) might ask:

  • Who, or what, authorized troops to deploy to this desolate stretch of desert?
  • To what extent is AQIM a threat to our homeland? To the region?
  • Is military force appropriate or capable of influencing the security situation?
  • Why will it work in Niger, when similar operations in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have such a checkered record?
  • And, even if it might work, is the “juice worth the squeeze?” In other words, are the potential benefits worth the prospective cost, in blood and treasure?

Now, while you ruminate over those simple if thorny questions, consider a few complicating factors:

  • Previous U.S. interventions in North Africa, i.e. Libya, actually destabilized the region and — in a classic case of blowback — worsened the Islamist threat in Mali and Niger. Who’s to say that won’t happen again?
  • U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) mission statement is full of the military’s typically inflated, task-oriented rhetoric: “disrupt and neutralize transnational threats,” “prevent and mitigate conflict,” “build African partner defense capability,” “promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.” It might be difficult for small U.S. advisory teams to achieve anything of the sort while the military is concurrently committed to counterterrorism in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, as well as deterrence in Eastern Europe and South Korea.
  • Even America’s formidable military possesses a finite number of Special Forces (SF). With SF teams deployed to 70 percent of the world’s countries in 2017, that’s hardly a sustainable operational tempo; soldiers spread thin are soldiers at risk.
  • In the past, the stability, credibility and competence of partner governments have proved vital to achievement (or not) of U.S. regional goals. America’s futile battle against endemic Afghan corruption is only the most recent example. Niger, though progressing, is only just recovering from a military coup and possesses a sketchy human-rights record.
  • This August, China opened its first military base on the African continent, in Djibouti. China is also Africa’s largest trading partner, exploiting the region’s vast natural resources. Perhaps military power represents America’s last lever of influence on a continent increasingly oriented eastward; are U.S. operations there as much about political and economic hegemony as “counterterrorism?”

None of this is, in itself, nefarious. However, that Americans are barely considering these dynamics is more than a little troubling.  

Legislative indifference is just as grim. Americans’ elected bodies owe it to deployed — and dead — soldiers to grapple with at least some of these issues. And if the U.S. cannot actually balance ends and means in Africa, or demonstrate a conflict’s connection to a vital national interest, then it is incumbent on Congress to limit or restrict future operations.  

In the 1980s, in what now seems a parallel universe, the legislative branch asserted itself – in what became known as the Boland Amendment — to prohibit “boots on the ground” in Nicaragua’s complex, less-than-vital civil war. Sure, President Reagan unlawfully ducked the law, but at least Congress tried, and some officials were held accountable.  

Today, most congressmen wouldn’t dare limit presidential primacy. Just last month, Senator Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE made a half-hearted (though admirable) effort, and managed only 36 votes.

Undoubtedly, critics will chastise my lack of support — especially as a serving Army officer — for the “mission” or the “troops,” two nebulous concepts that have become increasingly but  dangerously coupled in the public consciousness. As for my concerns about secrecy, some will assert opacity is an operational necessity in counterterrorism. Perhaps.

Nonetheless, 16 years of perpetual, indecisive war across several continents, to say nothing of mass surveillance, torture regimes and the false pretense of the Iraqi invasion, have made this soldier skeptical of secrecy’s slippery slope.

War and peace are matters too grave to consign solely to generals, presidents, or intelligence agencies. The potential, and all too pervasive, deaths of American service members demand a public hearing. Let the populace, and Congress, deliberate, vote and authorize these dangerous, ubiquitous troop deployments. The Constitution, the Republic and some lives depend on it.  

But don’t count on it: Trump will tweet, citizens will forget and Congress will cower. It’s the new American way.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.