Why Are U.S. Troops in Niger?

(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.

Continue reading “Why Are U.S. Troops in Niger?”


H.R. McMaster

The president has just announced that LTG H.R. McMaster will be his new National Security Adviser, and Keith Kellogg will stay on as the chief of staff of the NSC Staff.
I will admit that I had bet against McMaster agreeing to do this, at least in part because I couldn’t imagine him agreeing to the kinds of staffing restrictions we heard about with the offer to Harward. So, either the staffing restrictions have been eased, or McMaster feels that having some influence over national security policy is important enough that he will swallow the restrictions … or he is betting that once he is in, he will be able to get his way.

McMaster is an intelligent guy, and by all accounts a great leader, which will be very important in an NSC Staff that appears to be in some disarray. He is likely to get along well with Secretary Mattis. The big questions are the same ones that would have come up for anyone who took this post: what role will Steve Bannon play? How will they get along? Where will McMaster fit in the White House inner circle that appears to be doing most of the policy-making, of which Flynn was an important part? McMaster does not have the personal relationship with the president that Flynn had; will he have much influence? How many of his own people will McMaster be allowed to bring in? Will he be allowed to choose his own deputy? K T McFarland has indicated that she has been asked to stay …

Carrie Lee has interviewed McMaster and has just put out a series of tweets on what she thinks this appointment means. She notes that McMaster is an innovative thinker, but still in many ways a traditional Army officer.

McMaster’s decision is coming as a surprise to a lot of the security and defense community who know him, but this is a man who believes strongly in speaking truth to power, and I can only guess that he feels it is his duty to both his country and the men and women in uniform to try to influence policy as much as he can. It will be interesting to see how much influence he is able to exercise; keep your eyes on personnel changes at NSC/Staff over the next weeks.

Flynn Fallout

The bottom line is that, when a vacuum opens up, someone wants to fill it. And when there are multiple people with competing interests trying to fill it, there will be a power struggle.

I had barely posted my note about Flynn’s NSC and the Trump administration’s potential problems with pushing through arms sales to the Saudis when the word came in that Flynn was resigning. Several people have asked what the implications of this might be, so here are my initial thoughts.

This is certain to make an already unsettled NSC staff even more unsettled. Flynn, regardless of what anyone thinks of him, was the one who was providing direction and guidance to the NSC staff. With him gone, uncertainty about policy, the status of initiatives that are already underway, and frankly the safety of people’s jobs will skyrocket. Although Kellogg, the acting NSA, is reportedly under consideration to take on the job officially, he is a Flynn hire, and may not be asked to stay (see below on power struggles). A significant number of staffers were brought in by Flynn on the strength of personal connections, and if a new NSA is brought in (we’re hearing that the front-runner is retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, and the third name under consideration is David Petraeus), he will want to bring in his own people. Again, it is hardly unusual for there to be a lot of personnel turnover during an administration transition, but this is an unusual and unnecessary level of turmoil, and the whole world can see it.

The fact that Flynn was clearly a close advisor to Trump indicates that there will be a power vacuum, and there will be several people looking to take advantage of that: Continue reading “Flynn Fallout”

How To Sell Weapons to Saudi Arabia (Hint: you have to let Congress know)

In the Sunday edition of the New York Times, there was a story in which it was alleged that the National Security Council Staff was in much more disarray than is normal even for a new administration.

I want to focus on just one point in that NYT story, though, because it’s a point that may have escaped a lot of readers:

“Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia.”

Continue reading “How To Sell Weapons to Saudi Arabia (Hint: you have to let Congress know)”

Grey Zones

If we want to preserve the rules-based system, we must resist the grey zone divide-and-conquer tactics. We must work to form coalitions of people who may agree on nothing other than the fact that they still want to live under the rule of law.

I was going to write a post about how excessive restrictions on immigration are bad for the U.S. in terms of economics, foreign policy, moral leadership, and national/international security. However, plenty of other people beat me to it, and you can find economic cases here , here , and here ; Senators McCain and Graham here ; a bipartisan group of national security professionals here ; a bunch of Nobel Prize winners and other academics here ; more experts here  and here ; the intelligence repercussions here , and countless others .

So, instead of that, I want to talk about one way I think we can understand the approach this administration appears to be taking, and what that means for how to respond to it. I’m going to argue that what this administration is doing looks an awful lot like what security people are now calling “grey zone conflict”. That matters for two reasons: first, it gives us a preview of some possible effects of this approach. Second, it gives us some idea of how to respond … and how not to respond.

“Grey zone conflict” is a term coined fairly recently to describe the behavior of Russia in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and China in the South China Seas. It is an approach used by revisionists against the status quo, but specifically by revisionists who appear to be rising in power and/or “near-peer competitors” to the status quo power. It is an approach that can be used to achieve both short and long term goals, and it is particularly attractive to state actors who already own the presumption of legitimacy (as opposed to, e.g., insurgency, which is done by non-state actors who want to attack the status quo and create legitimacy for themselves). Grey zone conflict is generally defined by NOT meeting the generally accepted standards of armed conflict or terrorism. It frequently involves cyber attacks, information warfare, faits accomplis, and disruptions (sometimes violent) caused allegedly by private citizens (e.g., Russia’s “little green men” in Ukraine). Mike Mazarr describes it like this: “The central strategic concept of gray zone strategies is to confront their targets with a conundrum. Any one specific act in the chain will have limited stakes, but responding to it has the potential to escalate and create a crisis … Gradual gray zone tactics are thus designed to place their intended targets in a no-win position” (Mazarr, “Mastering the Gray Zone”). This is what Schelling called “salami slicing”: each individual action is insufficient to cause/justify a backlash, and as they come in piecemeal, there never seems to be a clear point at which the line has been crossed, but at some point, the line has clearly been left far behind, and the status quo actor is at a massive disadvantage.

Continue reading “Grey Zones”