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Opinion After Niger, ramping up U.S. ‘aggression’ in Africa is a really, really bad idea

Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah says Trump's dust-up with a Gold Star family should shine on light on the U.S. military's expanding presence in Africa. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Some of us Africa-watchers were hoping that Donald Trump and his administration, laden with military generals, would not set its sights on Africa. Apart from a reference to the imaginary nation of “Nambia,” Trump rarely mentions the continent, much less outlines a clear policy towards it. Now, more than two weeks after four U.S. green berets were killed in a mysterious ambush in Niger, it appears that the U.S. counterterrorism machine may be ramping up in Africa.

According to reports late last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior lawmakers that the U.S. military would shift its counterterrorism efforts to focus more on Africa.

When asked about Niger, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) of the Senate Committee on Armed Services said, “the war is morphing. You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.”

The Niger ambush only began to make headlines because of Trump’s failure to mention the attacks for 12 days, his reckless handling of a condolence call to Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow, and his Twitter attacks on Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). Many unanswered questions remain about the mission that the troops embarked on. We still aren’t sure which armed group was responsible for the attack, whether the American troops were adequately armed, or why Johnson’s body was left behind in the desert for two days.

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In the absence of answers, and a lack of a clear and coherent Africa strategy to begin with, ramping up U.S. military aggression in Africa sounds like a really, really bad idea right now.

To be fair, the Trump administration inherited an overmilitarized Africa policy from the Obama administration, which oversaw the expansion of the Africom regional command and special operations forces. Africa hosts the second largest regional contingent of special operations forces after the Middle East. The percent of special forces deployed to Africa rose from 3 percent to 17 percent between 2010 and 2016.

The Sahel is a region with porous borders and weak governments. As Joe Penney noted for Defense One in August about threats in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, “year after year, Western and West African nations pour resources into military response to the growing insecurity in the region, with little results.” Responding to the attack in Niger, Rudy Atallah, who was once considered for a national security council appointment for Africa under Trump, told the Atlantic that Niger is particularly difficult for U.S. forces, noting that “we don’t have very good intelligence information on what the threat looks like or how it’s growing and [U.S. troops] don’t have the support of local population.”

If the administration plans to scale up its aggression against terrorism in Africa, it needs to be clearer about how that initiative complements that of France. “The French are the most engaged outside power in the region,  and the U.S.A. originally became involved in both Mali and Niger to support French anti-terror initiatives,” said Naunihal Singh, an assistant professor at the Naval War College. He said it should be clearer how U.S. drone bases in Niger mesh with French strategic aims, and how French efforts to train military forces in the region complement U.S. training efforts.

If the last nine months are anything to go by, the Trump administration seems to have no idea what the heck it is doing in Africa, even when it comes to basic diplomacy. It was just a few months ago that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson infuriated African diplomats when he snubbed Moussa Faki, the head of the African Union, by cancelling their first Washington meeting at the last minute. The Trump administration has not yet nominated an assistant secretary of state for Africa, and there is currently no National Security Council senior director for Africa. It damaged relations with Chad, one of its most capable counterterrorism allies, by slapping a nonsensical travel ban on the country, since revoked. As a result, Chad withdrew hundreds of forces from Niger, where it was helping to combat Boko Haram.

On Thursday, asked about why U.S. troops were in Africa, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said, “They’re there working with partners … teaching them how to be better soldiers; teaching them how to respect human rights …” However on Friday, the Post reported that the Pentagon was adopting a “status-based targeting” system for suspected terrorists, meaning troops will be able to use lethal force against a suspected member of a terrorist organization even if that person does not pose an immediate threat.”

This should make anyone who cares about human rights and effective counterterror strategy quite nervous.  Already, a number of the nations that the United States relies on in the war against terror have pretty dismal records when it comes to abuses against civilians.  So what will happen when the Trump administration begins  allowing U.S. forces to eliminate suspected targets who don’t pose an immediate threat? What message will this send to the armies that the U.S. is tasked with training? It’s not inconceivable to think that such a policy will give African governments a pass to commit abuses against civilians with more impunity.

Africa matters for global security. But African nations and Western powers need to be asking the right questions and setting clear counterterrorism objectives  before embroiling themselves in unwinnable shadow wars.