The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s Niger uproar shines light on the U.S.’s murky African wars

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For days, President Trump has been locked in controversy over his response to the deaths of four Special Forces soldiers ambushed by suspected Islamist militants on Oct. 4 in Niger. Trump drew criticism for his near-two-week silence on the incident — conspicuous given his usual habit of declaiming Islamist perfidy whenever given an opportunity — as well as for what is turning into an unseemly public spat between him and Myeisha Johnson, the pregnant 24-year-old widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the slain soldiers.

According to Johnson and close confidants, Trump did not refer to her fallen husband by name during an Oct. 17 condolence call and suggested, rather tactlessly, that the fallen sergeant “knew what he was signing up for.” On Monday, Johnson told “Good Morning America” that Trump's remarks “made me cry even worse.” Trump, for his part, has repeatedly denied this account — even while White House officials appear to have confirmed elements of it.

Details remain murky surrounding the ill-fated patrol and the timeline of the joint American, French and Nigerien response to the ambush. At least five Nigerien soldiers who accompanied U.S. forces on their reconnaissance mission to the village of Tongo Tongo, near the border with Mali, also perished. But no matter what emerges, Johnson's tragedy has waked up Washington to the wider issue of American deployments in Niger and other countries in Africa.

At a briefing Monday evening, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon's assessment was that the assailants probably belonged to a local militia affiliated with the Islamic State. He described the Sahel, an arid region that includes the impoverished countries of Niger and Mali, as a strategic theater where the Islamist militants may seek to regroup after losses in the Middle East.

Dunford did not comment on speculation that Washington may loosen restrictions on the U.S. military's ability to use lethal force in Niger, as it has done in other arenas, including Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will testify Oct. 30 before an open hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will weigh the need for a new c congressional authorization of military force in the battle against the Islamic State.

“The war is morphing,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters last week. “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.”

Nevertheless, even Graham, an inveterate booster of U.S. military action overseas, seemed surprised about the scale of the U.S. footprint in Niger, saying over the weekend that he “didn't know” there were close to 1,000 American troops there.

At least 6,000 U.S. troops are deployed across dozens of African countries on a variety of missions; there is an estimated contingent of 900 soldiers posted in Niger, where U.S. forces have been operating in a support role for more than half a decade in conjunction with a larger French force that has been stationed in the region in the wake of a 2013 French-led intervention against a rampaging Islamist insurgency in Mali.

But the foreign military presence hasn't stemmed the threat of extremist militancy in a part of the world racked by poverty, poor governance and a history of internecine conflict.

“The part of Niger where U.S. troops were killed is already awash with deadly skirmishes. Islamist militants first took over areas in neighboring Mali, along its border with Niger, in 2012,” my colleague Max Bearak notes.

He adds: “While the militants were slowly beaten back by thousands of French troops working with the Malian and Nigerien armies, they still operate in hard-to-govern reaches of the Sahara Desert that covers the northern portions of both countries. From there, they've mounted countless attacks on military camps, kidnapped civilians and foreign contractors, and organized sophisticated attacks on hotels in Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. The United Nations conservatively estimates that armed groups carried out at least 46 attacks in the region surrounding the village of Tongo Tongo, where the U.S. troops were killed, since early last year.”

Jihadist militancy in the Sahel is complicated, with factions routinely shifting their allegiances and tactics when it suits their needs on the ground. The 2011 collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya led to arms and militant groups spilling over the southern border, feeding into long-simmering ethnic rivalries and grievances in Mali, Niger and elsewhere.

“Targeting these groups is the best way to make their leaders heroes, foster unity in jihadi ranks, and inflame communal violence,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a professor at the University of Kent who specializes in political conflict in the Sahel. “All policymakers working in the area know well the highly inflammable nature of the situation.”

But the White House has not displayed much policy acumen when it comes to reckoning with the Sahel. The Trump administration has yet to fill an assistant secretary posting in the State Department for Africa, and it confounded analysts two months ago when it chose to list Chad — perhaps the United States' most crucial counterterrorism partner in the Sahel — as one of the Muslim-majority nations subject to a new travel ban (which has since been thwarted by a federal judge).

The White House “probably hasn’t even begun to think through or review or really even know the details of the U.S. military’s footprint in a country like Niger. One could say that they’ve been distracted by other things, but those things are also of their own making,” Matthew Page, a Nigeria expert and former State Department analyst, told the Atlantic. “I think what this illustrates backs up what a lot of us have been saying about Trump’s Africa policy, which is that it’s not even really half-baked. There’s no one home when it comes to Africa policy.”

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