Mission Inscrutable

Just what is the U.S. military trying to accomplish in Niger?

US solders in Senegal
An American soldier looks on during a combined training exercise with Senegalese troops in Thiès, Senegal, on July 25, 2016. 

Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images

The African nation of Niger has dominated the news for three weeks now after four American soldiers died in an ambush near the Malian border on Oct. 4. In the initial days after the attack, journalists asked key questions—why were our troops there? What were they doing?—but these were soon eclipsed by more incredulous questions about the White House’s reaction to the tragedy: Why did the president wait two weeks to acknowledge the deaths? Why weren’t condolence letters promptly sent out? And, why in the world would the president tell a Gold Star widow that her husband “knew what he was signing up for”?

The president’s tone-deafness aside, it is worth asking whether the U.S. soldiers on the ground—or indeed anyone in the U.S. government, including the president—know what the U.S. has signed up for in Niger or whether any of those efforts are actually working. The most honest answer to both of these questions is probably no. In fact, the confusion surrounding U.S. military operations in Niger speaks to broader problems with how the U.S. fights terrorism around the world, and the uncomfortable truth is that many of the difficulties are of our own making.

On Monday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that the U.S. military is in Niger to “build the capacity of local forces to defeat violent extremism in West Africa.” The details of how the Pentagon undertakes that effort are important. The U.S. military is conducting at least five separate missions in Niger and most of them have different objectives, metrics, and in some cases, different chains of command. In the west near the Niger-Mali border, U.S. special operators are partnering with Nigerien forces to combat militias loyal to al-Qaida or ISIS. In the south, near Niger’s capital of Niamey, special forces, conventional forces, and U.S. contractors run train-and-equip programs to improve the basic capabilities of the Nigerien armed forces. In the west, U.S. troops are providing intelligence, logistics, and aviation support to the five-nation African coalition that is battling Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin. Two other U.S. military detachments are constructing an aviation base in Agadez in central Niger and supporting the French military’s operations against insurgents in Mali. As a result of all of these efforts, Niger now hosts the second-largest U.S. troop presence in Africa after Djibouti—a fact even many senior lawmakers were unaware of until this month.

All of these missions occur with the approval of the U.S. ambassador to Niger and with varying degrees of oversight from the Pentagon, State Department, and the relevant committees in Congress. But that doesn’t mean the efforts are unified or even pursuing the same goals. The counterterrorism operations have a singular and violent purpose: killing or capturing individuals and groups designated by the U.S. government as threats to U.S. national security. To accomplish this, small groups of special operators arm, fund, and train local proxies—including tribal militias, irregular forces, and even individuals— and accompany them on missions. These are combat operations in everything but name, and they occur throughout Africa and the Middle East.

The train-and-equip efforts, on the other hand, are neither combat nor military “operations.” Rather, they are “security sector assistance” activities undertaken to help Niger create a capable, professional military that respects human rights and civilian control. These programs are supervised by the State Department but implemented by U.S. military personnel and contractors in country with help from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency in Washington. Unlike the counterterrorism operations, security assistance programs only fund national forces that have undergone congressionally mandated vetting to ensure they have not committed gross human rights violations, war crimes, or atrocities.

The military support provided to the multinational task force battling Boko Haram in Niger’s west is something in the gray area between counterterrorism and security sector assistance. Boko Haram is Africa’s second-deadliest Islamist insurgency (after Somalia’s al-Shabaab) and has already killed 6,000 civilians in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin. In 2015, those five countries vowed to fight the insurgents together, and both the African Union and the United States pledged support. The U.S. troops assigned to this mission provide combat support to troops in the field and help in the difficult task of coordinating military operations across five national borders. These U.S. soldiers have a different chain of command from the special operators doing counterterrorism or the soldiers and contractors doing security sector assistance.

Are any of these efforts working? Maybe—it depends on how one measures success. Today, Boko Haram can no longer slip as easily across national borders when facing a tough fight—an important change from 2015—and all five coalition nations credit the U.S. with helping in this success. However, in February, a report by the International Crisis Group warned that overly militarized tactics are also “sharpening local conflicts” and “strengthen[ing] the tendency to create militias” in Niger. The report concluded that the coalition must supplement counterterrorism with nonviolent approaches—development and grievance resolution programs, in particular—because “there is no military solution to this insurgency.”

It is equally hard to know whether the security sector assistance programs are bearing much fruit. The U.S. government has spent $160 million in the past decade to train and equip Nigerien forces, but as the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, manning and equipping units gives little indication of whether they will stay and fight or desert with U.S.-provided weapons. The human rights training and vetting requirements have a mixed record as well: As just one example, the U.S. provided millions in training and equipment to South Sudan when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011, but none of the associated vetting or human rights classes stopped President Salva Kiir’s Dinka-led government from slaughtering its ethnic enemies with U.S. weapons when the country descended into civil war in December 2013.

Even the special operators doing partnered counterterrorism operations have little proof that their efforts are working. U.S. proxies may be killing those that claim to be affiliated with al-Qaida or ISIS, but no one knows whether the American-funded violence—or even the mere presence of the U.S. military in Niger—is helping the extremists recruit more members than the Americans and their Nigerien counterparts are killing. In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted with frustration that “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.” This criticism is even more trenchant today, because we’ve had 14 years to adjust.

These problems of different missions, metrics, and chains of command are not exclusive to Niger. The U.S. partners with foreign military forces all around the globe; indeed, it is easier to list the countries that do not receive U.S. military support than it is to list all that do. U.S. funding for security sector assistance around the world has more than tripled since Sept. 11, 2001, and now totals roughly $20 billion per year—more than half of which is controlled by the Department of Defense.

With this rapid growth came proliferating bureaucracy: There are now 46 separate U.S. government offices sharing the responsibility of overseeing or implement assistance programs like the ones in Niger. In 2013, President Obama announced a new security sector assistance policy and directed the Pentagon and State Department to synchronize efforts, reduce inefficiencies, and develop common metrics. When the Trump administration came into office, those reform efforts withered on the vine. (Disclosure: I helped lead some of these efforts as a National Security Council staffer in both the Obama and Trump administrations.)

In addition to abandoning these much needed reforms, the Trump administration has made three other strategic errors that are harming our counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and around the world. Chief among these was the shortsighted decision to add Chad to President Trump’s travel ban, an insult that was severe enough to cause the Chadian government to pull 2,000 troops out of Niger, creating a security vacuum that Boko Haram will surely exploit.

The administration’s demand for drastic cuts to foreign aid (including a $1 billion reduction to the United Nations peacekeeping budget) is another egregious error, because counterterrorism operations cannot produce sustainable gains without accompanying aid, development, and support from nongovernmental organizations like the United Nations.

Finally, the president’s disruptive style and lack of basic decency are making all of us less safe. His puerile love of bombing; his insults to NATO and other treaty allies; his disregard for human rights; his calculated appeals to nativism and Islamophobia; and his shortsighted insistence on a foreign policy of “America First” are all making U.S. soldiers’ jobs on the ground more difficult—both in Niger and around the world. America’s partners are starting to doubt our motives, values, and promises.

If the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that military power alone cannot defeat violent extremist organizations; in fact, overly militarized approaches pursued without accompanying aid, development, and diplomacy can make them stronger.

The recent fall of ISIS’s so-called capital in Raqqa, Syria, proves there is a role for violence in defeating Islamic extremism, and the various tools the U.S. military is employing in Niger may be all part of a lasting solution. But lethal military assistance programs must be nested in a broader diplomatic strategy, guided by clear metrics and subjected to robust nonmilitary oversight. We should also be more cautious when providing lethal support to non-national forces and vet them better to ensure they have not already committed war crimes or gross human rights violations. Our Green Berets are very good at a great many things, but predicting the motivations and limitations of local militias is not one of them.

Brave men and women join our armed forces every day with the understanding that they may someday pay the highest possible price in the nation’s defense, and this was hopefully what the president meant when he told Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow that her husband knew what he was signing up for. But no one signs up with the expectations that their comrades’ careful efforts will be undermined by a careless commander in chief. That is what has been happening in Niger and in the broader fight against Islamic extremism since President Trump took office. We desperately need it to stop.