Niger ambush proves need for transparency in US security assistance

Niger ambush proves need for transparency in US security assistance
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Among the many questions around the ambush of U.S. servicemembers in Niger last month is: What laws or policies authorized U.S. troops to be conducting patrols alongside Nigerien military units in a far-removed corner of one of Africa’s most poverty-ridden and remote countries?

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis sought to clarify this question last week in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stating, “This is a Title 10 Train and Advise” program, but his answer left more questions than it answered. Americans – and our partners overseas – deserve transparency about the purpose and scope of U.S. military activities around the world; the confusion that unnecessary secrecy sows can put the success and sustainability of these activities at risk.

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Title 10 is the section of United States Code that sets out the authorities, rules, and permissions for the entire scope of U.S. military and defense activity, ranging from the conduct of war to the purchase of pencils. It includes a range of different authorities under which U.S. troops can engage with partners, including those authorizing capacity-building, combined exercises, coalition operations, humanitarian responses, and special operations missions such as the development of surrogate forces and foreign internal defense. Which authorities are used, and how, matters greatly with regard to the scope and risk of missions; yet, the American public – and even members of Congress – are often unaware of the details.

In this case, confusion abounds. During the Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Secretary Mattis asserted that the mission was a capacity-building effort, that:

“The mission of those troops, sir, on that patrol, was a — was a combined patrol, which means they were with Niger — Niger troops. And they were on a patrol where they were teaching them how you do what's called ‘key leader engagement.’”

Yet, General Joseph Dunford asserted during a Pentagon press briefing that “it was planned as a reconnaissance mission” — a military operation for U.S. intelligence-gathering purposes, a mission fundamentally different than efforts to train foreign partners.

Yet a third explanation – that the mission was intended to target a terrorist known as Dandou – has emerged from Nigerien officials quoted in the American press. Each of these different missions would entail vastly different authorities, different resources, and different obligations with regard to Congress’s oversight.

Such confusion presents an unreasonable challenge to policymakers, particularly those involved in the oversight of the Department’s overseas activities. It opens the door to reputation-damaging speculation and harmful misinformation about U.S. activities.

Preventing such confusion is relatively easy: it simply requires that the Department be transparent about its assistance activities overseas. The Pentagon – as well as the State Department, which faces transparency challenges in administering its own security assistance activities – should make publicly available timely information about its assistance efforts. Doing so would help avoid misunderstandings among both the American public and the citizens of nations in which U.S. military units will be operating.

Transparency does not require the disclosure of classified details; some activities are so sensitive by their very nature that they should not be publicized. And it need not compromise operational security. In fact, DoD has already taken significant steps to enhance the transparency of its assistance: it has dramatically increased its after-the-fact reporting of global security cooperation activities through ForeignAssistance.gov. And, at the direction of Congress just last year, the Department is preparing to produce its first-ever unified security cooperation budget exhibit, providing key details on program objectives, scope, and resources.

Yet, as the confusion over the Niger incident demonstrates, additional measures to improve transparency are needed, at both the Pentagon and the State Department. Both agencies should publicize country-level details about planned assistance programs in advance of their execution, providing clarity on the intent and authority for each activity. This can be done conscientiously, without compromising operational security.

Security assistance is a critical element of the United States’ national security strategy, and most Americans would be proud to know the extent to which U.S. service members are working, not simply to defend the United States, but to help other nations throughout the world bring greater stability and security to their own societies. Yet, without sufficient transparency, members of Congress and the American public are unable to understand whether they are achieving their intended results, and whether they’re worth the risk.

Leaders at the Defense and State Departments would do well to remember: Congress cannot support what it does not understand.

Tommy Ross is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2014 to 2017, he served as the Pentagon’s first deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Security Cooperation.