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Congress can't play dumb about US troops in Niger

Congress can't play dumb about US troops in Niger
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The tragic death of four U.S. servicemembers in Niger has brought attention to the far-flung activities of the American military in Africa, causing several members of Congress to ask questions about the purpose and scope of their mission. But Congress — in particular its national security committees — cannot claim that they were in the dark; the public record indicates otherwise.

Over a decade ago, the Bush administration launched the "Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership." The goal: to build the capabilities of nations in north and west Africa, including Niger, to counter violent extremist organizations. Far from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Departments of Defense (DoD) and State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, sought to assist local governments against a looming terrorist threat. This threat is now real, as evidenced by the spate of attacks across west Africa in recent years, including against local authorities, hotels frequented by westerners, and UN peacekeepers.

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Niger, an impoverished land-locked country nearly twice the size of Texas, confronts challenges from multiple groups, including Al Qaeda affiliates in its north and west; Boko Haram, an ISIS affiliate, in its southeast; and a new group, Islamic State in Greater Sahara. Some of these groups, and other nefarious actors, take advantage of historic trading routes to north Africa to traffic in guns and people. In close partnership with France, which has several thousand forces deployed in the region, and through our unilateral programs, the United States helps Niger to counter these threats.  

In his commencement address at West Point in 2014, President Obama explained why building partner capacity is the correct approach: it allows us to help friendly nations without bearing the bulk of the burden. He asked Congress for additional resources through a new "Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund." Congress obliged, though it substantially reduced the President's initial request of $5 billion. Through this fund and other security assistance programs, Congress has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment for Niger and its neighbors in recent years.  The Pentagon also informs the congressional armed services committees of ongoing DoD activities in Africa through annual posture hearings with the commanders of U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, as well as frequent staff briefings.

In addition, the president regularly reports to Congress under the War Powers Resolution (WPR) about our footprint in Niger. In February 2013, President Obama notified Congress that approximately 100 servicemembers had deployed there to provide support for intelligence collection and to facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in neighboring Mali.  This past July, in a semi-annual WPR report, President Trump told Congress that approximately 645 military personnel were then in Niger. The number has since grown to 800.

Ongoing construction of an airfield in Agadez, in central Niger, accounts for some of the expansion. From there, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) will conduct intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance operations in the region, bringing these assets closer to the threat — especially in Libya — than the current RPA facility in Niamey, the capital city. This effort is also not hidden: the Pentagon has openly requested Congress to fund the Agadez facility (in other words, it's not in the black budget), and the U.S. media has reported on both bases.  

There's no evidence that the Trump administration has altered the policies it inherited. U.S. forces are currently limited to training, advising and assisting, and they accompany local forces only when contact with the adversary is not expected. They do not engage in direct action with partner forces, though our forces can fire in self-defense. Reports that the mission may expand significantly in the region should be viewed skeptically; given local political sensitivities, host nations would resist a large U.S. presence. The light footprint approach of the U.S. military in Africa is also compelled by the demand for resources in higher priority theaters.

Something went horribly wrong with the mission of the U.S. soldiers in early October. Congress has every right to investigate, and to question whether the DoD mission in Niger should continue. The Defense Department owes the country and the families of the fallen an explanation, which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has promised. But Congress can't credibly say it didn't know what we were doing in Niger.

Brian P. McKeon was Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2014-2017. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.