The ambush in October of a joint patrol of US Green Berets and the Armed Forces of Niger that resulted in the deaths of four Americans and a Nigerien soldier, and the injury of two other Green Berets caught the American people off guard. Americans have lost confidence in the concept of nation building, and most were unaware that US forces were in West Africa, so that added to the shock and confusion many felt when news of the ambush broke. As we have been seeing for the past month, when an event like this occurs, impacting our troops, the questions begin.
One of the first questions asked was what were they doing there? Or even more to the point, what is the United States policy in Niger? Niger is a landlocked country in West Africa, surrounded by Algeria and Libya to the north, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south, and Burkina Faso and Mali to the west. Although the population is overwhelmingly Muslim (over 80%), relations between Muslims and other religions, particularly Christians, historically have been good. The government of Niger is a secular government. The country’s constitution guarantees both freedom of religion and separation of church and state. But, like everywhere else in the region, the country’s freedom and security is threatened by the advance of radical Islamist elements.
The details of the attack on the Green Berets are sketchy at best. It appears that the group had just left a meeting with some tribal leaders when the event occurred, according to Defense Secretary Mattis. So it seems as if the US is using an approach in West Africa to cripple insurgencies and deter the rise of Islamic extremism and at the same time, building trust with the tribal leaders.
It also made sense for there to be Green Berets in Niger because the country was one of the initial members of the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership nations when that program began back in 2005. Therefore, there has been a relationship between all of those partner nations for 12 years, including close cooperation between the US Special Operators and the French armed forces. So the interest in Niger far predates some of the more recent concerns of the region, such as the situation within post-coup Mali as well as the havoc created in Burkina Faso by that nation’s branch of Mali jihadists Ansar ul Islam.
Geographical convenience is also a good reason for the US military presence in Niger. The US flies UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) from a base near the capital city of Niamey and also has a second drone base that should be coming online soon in the country. This means that the US can observe the movement of Jihadists and other actors as they traverse the entire region. There is also evidence that the region is a known transit point for narcotics being shipped to Europe from South America.
Remember also the controversy surrounding Niger during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq back in 2003. It was in that time frame that the US was informed about uranium deposits in the country. Currently there is a train of thought that the US presence in the country is to keep this material out of the hands of the Jihadists. But it is not clear whether or not these groups have the capacity to refine the ore into the material to construct a weapon. For this scenario to play out, these groups need an expanded network to conduct these tasks in a controlled environment. This is exactly what the US and others would be trying to prevent.
Finally, another key reason for the current mission of the US in Niger is to increase the capability of the Armed Forces of Niger to defend their own borders from Jihadists and other extremists that are determined to radicalize the entire region. The American citizenry may have lost confidence in nation building around the world, but sooner or later, if not prevented, the conquest of struggling secular democracies by Islamists will become an issue of our own national security just as it is already for the minority religions such as Christianity, as well as for the majority of Muslims who do not want to live under Sharia.
But even those that understand this threat and see the justification for US presence in the region have deep concerns about the incident itself and how it could happen, as well as what US military will do going forward to prevent such incidents. It appears that as the ambush progressed, the Green Berets may have been outgunned in their effort to repel the enemy. Secretary Mattis has stated that the patrol missions in West Africa are currently being reviewed. Could we see light infantry or even some Marines having an increased footprint in this part of Africa to give support to the work being done by the US Special Forces?
Sometimes doing the right thing is not necessarily doing the popular thing. Because of the recent past, particularly the conditions in combat, rules of engagement, and ideological bent under the Obama Administration, missions such as that of our Special Forces in Africa are not popular with many. But engaging in West Africa, for the sake of regional and global security, and trying to stem the tide of Islamic extremism, is a mission that is right and necessary.