(Disclosure: while I worked in the Pentagon office that oversees these types of operations, I was there in 2013/14 and I have no special knowledge of this specific mission. I am going to talk in generalities. The views presented here are the author’s personal views and do not represent the position of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.)
Over the last few days, I have seen several attempts to explain what U.S. troops are doing in Niger, and they range from Lindsay Graham’s assurance that the troops are there “to defend America” to claims that this was some sort of Trump-Russia secret mission (Maddow).
As usual, the truth is both more complicated and more boring. We have lots of small groups of U.S. military personnel all over the world, and all of them are there because U.S. administrations of both parties have, for decades, favored a foreign policy posture of forward defense. Some combination of people from the Combatant Command (in this case, AFRICOM), the country team, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the State Department, the National Security Council Staff, and Congress thought it was in the interests of the United States to have them there.
Reasonable, informed people can disagree on whether these missions are good policy, whether they are likely to work, or whether they carry an appropriate risk-to-reward ratio … but first it’s important to be informed. So, in this post, I will go over what types of missions the bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa are doing, and then explain the basic policy logic underpinning our operations in Africa.