Niger adventures: More U.S. soldiers die in a land of no U.S. interest
Americans learned the sad news Thursday that three American Special Forces soldiers had been killed and two more wounded in the West African desert state of Niger the day before.
They also learned that some 800 U.S. forces are based in Niger, that one drone base has been built and is manned by Americans in Niamey, the Niger capital, and that another drone base is being constructed in Agadez, in northern Niger.
The Pentagon is saying that it will be looking into the circumstances under which the Americans were killed and wounded, particularly since, in principle, the U.S. troops are in Niger working with that country’s troops only in a training capacity, and, presumably, building and operating the drone bases.
The first question is, what are hundreds of U.S. troops doing in Niger? It is a French-speaking nation for which France has traditionally played the important “godfather” role, including with military forces. Niger is a poor nation of 21 million, with few notable resources apart from the fact of its central location, landlocked, and bordering on Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Nigeria and southern Libya, a largely desert area of little or no strategic importance to the United States.
The claim in the past has been that some of the various shadowy tribal militia forces operating in the region have al-Qaida or Islamic State links but the intelligence supporting that argument for U.S. forces to be in Niger is shaky at best. They can better be described as armed bandit gangs.
The second major question is why Americans learn of U.S. military involvement in Niger, in combat in fact, only when American soldiers die? No one seems to recall an American president or Congress declaring war in Niger. What we are looking at instead is one piece of an expansion of U.S. military activity in Africa to justify the existence of the U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM.
U.S. forces under AFRICOM for years chased around unsuccessfully in Central Africa the Lord’s Resistance Army, no threat to the United States. It has helped wealthy Nigeria combat, also relatively unsuccessfully, the forces of Boko Haram, based in northeastern Nigeria and occasionally active in neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Benin. U.S. forces have been active in Somalia, off and on since 1992, trying to bring some sort of order there, coherent government in Mogadishu, the capital, having been absent since January 1991. The fighting in Somalia has justified the creation and maintenance of a U.S. base, the only one in Africa, in neighboring Djibouti, ex-French Somaliland, with thousands of U.S. forces, fighter bombers and a drone base.
The deaths of three elite U.S. soldiers in obscure Niger should raise in Washington, at the Pentagon, the White House and in Congress the profound question — with large financial implications — of why the United States is involved in sub-Saharan Africa at all. There was no AFRICOM until 2008. Why is there one now, at a time of declining resources for such Beau Geste adventures, expensive in financial terms and now in American forces’ lives?