(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.
What types of missions do U.S. troops do in Africa?
Most missions done by U.S. troops in Africa fall into one of the following categories:
Train, Advise, and Assist: as per reporting, this is what these particular Special Operations Forces personnel were engaged in. Train/Advise/Assist (TAA) missions can happen under a number of different authorities – from U.S.C. Title 10, from the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), or from other acts of Congress, such as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001. TAA missions are usually formulated that way to indicate to Congress, the Host Nation government, and the American people, that U.S. service-members are not planning to engage in direct combat operations, but are rather working with the defense and security forces of the Host Nation to help them with a security threat that the Host Nation wishes to combat AND that the U.S. considers important to U.S. interests. The fact that these are not designated as combat operations does not mean there is no risk involved; there is always risk, and we generally engage in TAA operations precisely because there is a threat present that the Host Nation cannot deal with on its own.
Building Partner Capacity: these missions usually don’t involve U.S. military personnel, unless they are training Host Nation security forces in how to use equipment. They are done under a couple of authorities, some in Title 10 and some in the NDAA, and most of these programs are “dual key”, meaning they have to be agreed to by both the Department of Defense and the Department of State. They usually involve outfitting the Host Nation force with equipment – anything from body armor and night vision goggles to surveillance or mobility aircraft – to improve their counterterrorism capabilities. These programs also have a requirement that the Host Nation forces receiving the training/equipment go through a course of instruction on human rights and civilian control of the military, usually carried out by the U.S. Defense Institute for International Legal Studies. Most of the training involved in these programs is technical in nature and is often done by contractors rather than U.S. military personnel, but that can vary.
Both TAA and BPC efforts are subject to the Leahy Amendment, which is the provision that says the U.S. can’t provide this type of assistance to any individual or unit against which there is a credible charge of gross human rights violations, unless the Host Nation government can demonstrate that meaningful progress is being made towards holding the responsible parties accountable.
Foreign Internal Defense: this is basically when U.S. forces go into a country to help protect a Host Nation government against insurgent or terrorist threats to its existence. FID missions have a higher likelihood of U.S. personnel being involved in actual combat, although they can also be focused on building the capability and capacity of the Host Nation’s own security forces, as well as some governance issues.
Support to Foreign Forces: sounds a lot like the others here, but tends to be either direct support to Host Nation (or other local) forces engaged in operations supporting U.S. Special Operations Forces (“Section 1208”), or support of a more advisory nature in Host Nation security sector reform.
This list is not exhaustive, but covers most of what the Department of Defense is doing on the African continent. All of these can be done either by conventional or by special operations forces (SOF), but they are frequently done by the special operations community because they fall more solidly into the wheelhouse of things SOF are specifically trained to do. If you are really interested, all of this is laid out in Joint Pub 3-05 “Special Operations”.
This list also does not include activities by USAID, which is focused mainly on health, agriculture/climate, and education, nor does it include purely State Department activities, which may include similar forms of public outreach and meet and greet events to the one described by journalist accounts of the Niger operation. ALL these programs are generally subject to the oversight and constraints of both the U.S. Ambassador (who is the authority for what U.S. personnel may and may not do in-country) and Congress. This is not to claim that there are not classified programs or that the military is always held on a tight leash by the Ambassadors or by Congress; it is simply to point out that the apparatus of checks and balances and oversight IS in place and is generally working as expected. Note that checks and balances frequently result in compromises.
If Congress is already involved in this process, you might ask, then why is Congress now calling for an inquiry? There are two quick/easy answers and one more cynical answer to that: first, in the ex ante phase of oversight that happens at the program proposal stage, when the DoD is informing Congress about what it intends to do, that information goes only to the handful of relevant committees (and is handled primarily by their professional staff). The Agriculture committee does not get briefed on Security Assistance missions in Niger. Second, oversight has an ex post element as well as an ex ante element. Congress regularly wants reports on whether these programs are working, and if something goes wrong, Congress will generally want a thorough investigation of why it went wrong, whose fault it was, and how to prevent that from happening again. All of this is exactly the way the system is set up to work.
The more cynical answer is that this is political posturing. A lot of members of Congress are complaining that they didn’t know, they weren’t briefed, etc. This is probably true, but it’s NOT because the DoD won’t tell them, it’s because they do not have time (or any incentive) to pay attention to everything. My office was required to brief “Congress” on all of our programs, but in effect that just meant the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the House and Senate subcommittees on defense appropriation. The Foreign Affairs/Foreign Relations committees were notified, but basically never requested briefs. Furthermore, scheduling those briefings was a nightmare because everyone was always too busy. Finally, they were attended only by committee staff (not actual Members). The problem is not that the information isn’t available. The problem is that these kinds of programs never get any attention UNTIL SOMETHING GOES WRONG. Then suddenly everyone says “oh dear, how could this happen? I had no idea”.
If you want much more detailed information on what is going on around the world, Security Assistance Monitor is a fantastic and user-friendly source of data.
So … Why All These Missions? Because U.S. Foreign Policy has generally favored forward defense.
Nearly all of these are what the foreign policy world considers preventative or forward defense measures. We do not do any of the above-mentioned missions just to be nice. They are conceptualized and authorized only if the U.S. has a real national interest in addressing the threat. Of course, there can be debate over what counts as a real U.S. national interest and how best to pursue it, and these programs always have to make that case to both the executive and legislative branches.
We do these because multiple administrations have considered it wiser to help other countries fight violent extremists on their own territory than to have Americans fight those violent extremists or to have them end up on U.S. territory.
A concept of forward defense basically takes a broad view of U.S. interests and determines that the U.S. is better off investing in prevention than fighting problems that have already matured. This has been the general posture of U.S. foreign policy since at least the end of WWII and, some might argue, since long before then.
There are certainly other postures available: an isolationist takes a very narrow view of what counts as U.S. interests and argues that we should not engage in any kind of forward defense or prevention, but rely on a strong homeland defense. A more liberal internationalist view would still define U.S. interests broadly and consider prevention key, but place more emphasis on root causes and non-military means of intervention, such as development aid, economic investment, education support, health and farming aid, etc.
I am not arguing here that the U.S.’s foreign policy posture is the right one; I am simply explaining what it IS, because suddenly a lot of Americans seem surprised about it.
The basic logic of these types of missions is as follows: Niger has a problem with a violent extremist group’s activities in their territory. Niger would LIKE to do something about this group, but doesn’t have the capability or experience, etc., to deal with it. If the U.S. decides that it, also, has an interest in stopping the group’s activities, then we may choose to help Niger, on the fairly decent logic that it is easier, cheaper, less risky, and far more appropriate to help Niger deal with a problem that we both agree is a problem, than to just “take care of the problem” ourselves – either now or later when it’s worse.
We have programs like this all over the world. They ballooned in the context of George W. Bush’s global war on terror, because part of that was to define fighting terrorism just about anywhere as a national interest. President Obama had a different attitude towards terrorism, but that did not translate into fewer missions, primarily because the groups themselves proliferated significantly after the onset of the insurgency in Iraq and the U.S.’s surge response (basically after 2008).
In Africa, specifically, there are several problems:
In the East, primarily affecting Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya (as well as Yemen), we have al Shabaab, which has declared allegiance to al Qaeda, works directly with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, and is suspected of ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram.
In the North, primarily affecting Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan, we have AQIM, as well as a number of other groups that may have started out as local insurgencies (e.g., GIA in Algeria, and now ISGS – Islamic State in Greater Sahara, Ansar Dine, and al Mourabitoun) that now seek to destabilize those governments (or keep them weak and unstable) in order to carry out transnational criminal activities (primarily concerned with trafficking – humans, arms, drugs, wildlife, antiquities) and to have a “haven” now that Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are less hospitable.
In the West, primarily affecting Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, and the Central African Republic, we have Boko Haram, which was aligned with al Qaeda until it switched its allegiance over to the Islamic State in 2015. If you want more information, the National Counter Terrorism Center has a great Terrorism Guide.
While none of these groups has been known particularly to target the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States), they have all shown interest in joining with other jihadi groups to keep the generalized fight going.
They have all waged campaigns of horrific violence, driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, created serious challenges to the sovereignty of all the governments involved, cost their economies millions if not billions of dollars, and raised concerns that if they are not stopped, we could see a reign of terror across the entire northern half of the African continent.
None of this means that this is the best way to think about U.S. interests, or the best way to pursue them, but it is ONE LEGITIMATE way to think about and pursue U.S. interests, and is an approach that has appealed to both Republicans and Democrats over multiple administrations.