Niger has Washington mad as hell, but for all the wrong reasons

Niger has Washington mad as hell, but for all the wrong reasons
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This month, four U.S. Army troops were killed during a terrorist ambush in a remote and seemingly random (read: nonstrategic) West African village. When the deaths of these service members became public, an epic showdown commenced in Washington between two branches of the federal government over the facts of the case. Congress and the executive devolved into mudslinging over why these troops were there, how long they’d been deployed, whether or not they were engaging in combat, whether or not they were properly prepared for combat, and whether or not ISIS had backed the attackers.

But what really irked Washington about this incident was that it caught senior officials flat footed. No one knew we even had troops in Niger, let alone that American blood and treasure had been spent there. This appalling ignorance hints at a much more pervasive and systemic problem: the deep and paralyzing apathy embedded in the U.S. government’s attitude towards the African continent.

In short, no one knew what was happening in Niger because most of the governing class in Washington doesn’t really care about what’s happening in Africa more broadly. Despite this dismal reality, Africa as a whole is more strategically important to the United States in the 21st century than ever before, with foreign trade and investment and the fight against terrorism to name but two critical issues.

The day the news broke about the Niger ambush several senior U.S. senators responded to media inquiries about it by defensively and strangely unabashedly declaring they didn’t even know we had troops deployed to Niger. Subsequently, “We didn’t even know!” became somewhat of a rallying cry for those implicated in the fallout. On Capitol Hill, it was, “We had no idea this was all happening.” At the Pentagon, it was, “We had no idea that Capitol Hill had no idea. We thought they might know.”

After all, if Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike Sanders expresses 'serious concerns' with Biden's defense increase MORE, a senior senator who sits on the Armed Services Committee, didn’t know there was a military campaign raging in Niger, how could anyone else possibly be expected to know, either? The reality is that the United States currently has 800 troops deployed in Niger, and thousands more deployed across West Africa, to fight radical jihadist organizations that have been enjoying a rapid rise in the region over the past few years.

The eagerness of senators to admit ignorance of the Niger military campaign revealed an astonishing lack of shame and embarrassment. They proudly and defiantly proclaimed they had no idea what was going on. Imagine, if you will, a senator admitting to the press that he was unaware of 1,000 American troops in the Middle East (“I had no idea we’ve got soldiers deployed to the Palestinian territories!”) or Latin America (“A U.S. military campaign in Brazil? You don’t say!”). Such preposterous ignorance would get them lambasted on social media and laughed out of town.

But the Niger ambush drives home the reality that the United States is waging war against terrorism in West Africa and that a sizable contingency of the U.S. government doesn’t know about it or doesn’t care to know, because Africa isn’t considered strategically important. America’s regional policies and bilateral engagement with the continent’s 54 nations, perhaps with the exception of a couple of North African countries, underscores this point.

Lawmakers and presidents alike have a tendency to view Africa through the myopic lens of aid packages and give very little consideration to African nations as sovereign states with their own prerogatives, interests, and assets. Even as the United States launches military operations inside their borders, we refuse to acknowledge them as strategic partners, a courtesy we allow everywhere else on the planet.

The American media, for its part, only ever highlights African tragedy: famine, disease, civil war, political corruption, or African events with potential to impact the United States. The 2014 ebola epidemic, for example, fit nicely into both narratives and thus received national attention here at home for a while. But it is nowhere near the attention the press should be giving the continent.

I’m still waiting for someone to call the bluffs of these senators, to decry their assumption that Americans will understand and forgive their infuriating ignorance about the men and women serving in Niger and across West Africa. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to preoccupy our nation’s attention, the war on terror is migrating southward right underneath our noses. Washington insists on turning a blind eye but cannot afford to do so for much longer.

Gillian Turner served as an adviser to the National Security Council during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. She is now a Fox News contributor. You can follow her on Twitter @GillianHTurner.