The U.S. war you didn’t hear about...until now

October 26, 2017

The attack on U.S. and Niger soldiers is headline news after another Trump Twitter tirade, but the media aren't even asking the important questions, writes Lee Wengraf.

THE MILITARY intervention that the U.S. political and Pentagon establishment never talked about is suddenly in the news after a joint patrol comprising 12 U.S. troops and 30 Niger soldiers was attacked by a small group thought to be an ISIS affiliate and known as ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS).

The attack, which took place outside the village of Tongo Tongo, near the border with Mali, left four U.S. Army Green Berets and five Nigerien soldiers dead and many more wounded, along with numerous ISIS-GS forces.

Even the incident itself was little mentioned until Donald Trump--after two weeks of silence on the matter--offended the family of soldier La David Johnson in a characteristically insensitive condolence call to his widow Myeshia Johnson.

Beyond Trump's predictably poor communication skills, the attack on the patrol has generated controversy over a host of tactical questions: Was there a breakdown in U.S. intelligence that left the patrol vulnerable? Was the attack an ambush engineered by ISIS-sympathetic villagers? Did nearby French forces respond quickly enough? Did U.S. forces "leave" La David Johnson behind by failing to retrieve his body until 48 hours after the assault? Why were the soldiers traveling in unarmored vehicles?

U.S. officers survey a military base near Agadez in Niger
U.S. officers survey a military base near Agadez in Niger (Spc. Craig Philbrick | flickr)

These questions have generated a debate over the immediate next steps for military operations in Niger and Africa as a whole. Sen. John McCain has threatened to issue subpoenas for a congressional inquiry, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings at the end of the month on the authorization of the use of force against ISIS.

The hearings promise to unleash an argument over whether Congress' authority should be curtailed to grant greater latitude to military forces "on the ground" in the so-called "war on terror."

But almost entirely missing from the media coverage or the mainstream political discussion are the broader questions that arise in the wake of the Niger attack: What is the role of the U.S. military in Niger in the first place? And why has there been a dramatic escalation of U.S. military presence in Africa as a whole?

ACCORDING TO the U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, there is no active U.S. military presence in Niger at all--but rather 800 U.S. troops providing "only" training and logistics for soldiers of the of the Niger army, as well as support for 4,000 French troops in West Africa.

But these claims obscure the strategic regional role played by Niger for the world's imperial powers.

In Mali, which lies to Niger's west, al Qaeda-linked forces have been waging a civil war against the French-supported government. To Niger's south, a civil war in northern Nigeria between Boko Haram and the government has spilled over into neighboring Chad and Cameroon, as well as Niger, in the broader Lake Chad region, accounting for tens of thousands of deaths.

These conflicts have been highly destabilizing, generating scorched-earth responses from the Nigerian and Niger governments and creating a massive refugee crisis. Approximately 2 million people have been displaced, and famine looms across four nations.

However, the U.S. military's strategic focus isn't on the humanitarian crisis, though this rhetoric is used to justify intervention. The real focus is on counterterrorism and containing the risks posed by this regional instability, with the potential for further insurgency and wider wars.

Counterterrorism initiatives in the region date back to 2002, on the heels of 9/11, and continue to unfold with the widening U.S. involvement in West Africa. As Alan Maass wrote for in 2014:

In the U.S. and Europe, politicians are exploiting the international outcry against Boko Haram to recycle anti-Islam rhetoric from the "war on terror"--and to justify, behind a façade of humanitarian concern, the expansion of military operations in Africa that are designed to promote imperialist interests, not the well-being of Nigerians or anyone else on the continent.

This same rhetoric has been deployed to obscure the real roots of the spiraling regional crisis, which lie in the Western intervention in Mali and Libya.

Journalist Nick Turse, author of the 2015 book Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, has documented the expanding presence of U.S. military sites across Africa, including airfields, bases and outposts, which now numbers 46.

In particular, U.S. operations now have a greater reach into West Africa. Several are concentrated in the immediate Niger region, including Arlit and Niamey in Niger, and Bamako and Gao in Mali.

Most strikingly, as Turse has described for the Intercept, the U.S. is building a large drone base in Agadez in Niger. Authorized by the Obama administration, Agadez is, as Turse writes:

considered the most important U.S. military construction effort in Africa...[T]he only country in the region willing to allow a U.S. base for MQ-9 Reapers--a newer, larger, and potentially more lethal model than the venerable Predator drone--Niger has positioned itself to be the key regional hub for U.S. military operations, with Agadez serving as the premier outpost for launching intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against a plethora of terror groups.

THE GROWING conflicts in West Africa are the logical outgrowth of a wider U.S. presence across the continent. The launch of AFRICOM in 2008 has evolved, almost a decade later, into a vastly expanded militarization, with a shift towards greater permanence.

The scale of intervention made a decisive jump on Obama's watch, with a 200 percent increase in military missions. Today, there are about 6,000 U.S. troops across the African continent. More than half are concentrated at the main U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier in the small Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, with others scattered across the continent.

Several factors have helped create what is essentially a U.S. war in Africa.

For one, concerns about stability and security speak to the continent's geostrategic value for U.S. interests more broadly. The U.S. military presence in Africa can be understood in part as playing an important supporting role for U.S. intervention in the ongoing wars in the Middle East.

The "war on terror" against key targets in Africa--such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, near the Red Sea, with proximity to the Middle East; Boko Haram; and also Islamic militants in Libya and the Mali/Niger border region--are closely tied to these wider aims.

Arguably, however, efforts to eliminate terror by military means have only intensified the violence. Suicide bombings by Boko Haram, for example, are already twice the number that took place in 2016.

At the same time, the expanded U.S. military presence is an expression of imperial tensions between the major world powers.

Across Africa, the U.S. government has sought alliances and favorable conditions for conducting business in a host of nations. The period of greater military involvement has coincided with a surging economic boom, sometimes described as the "new scramble for Africa"--a drive for oil and other natural resources and investment opportunities that relies on friendly African regimes amenable to looking out for U.S. interests.

Thus, U.S. intervention in African nations is often framed in terms of a "partnership" in the "war on terror." The Council on Foreign Affairs, for example, stated proudly that "partnership peacekeeping has become the norm."

THE U.S., however, isn't the only major power with its sights set on Africa.

France, the former colonial power in the region, has sought to establish power broker status in West Africa, including in Mali and Niger.

France also has economic interests of its own--it relies on uranium for nuclear power plants that generate approximately three-quarters of its electricity, much of it originating in Niger, the fourth-largest uranium producer in the world. France's economic presence has only intensified the conflict created by its military presence--the Somair uranium mine in Arlit, for example, has been the target of attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups.

China is likewise a major economic competitor to the U.S. in Africa, and its presence in Niger is a case in point.

China has made strides in developing its important nuclear industry, and it has launched Somina, a joint venture between Niger and the China National Nuclear Corporation. As with the Somair mine, local anger at conditions surrounding mines has been building for years, including among Tuareg herders facing depletion of their water sources near the mine.

The competition between imperial powers has likewise taken a military form for the Chinese government, which announced in late 2015 that it would establish its first overseas military outpost, a naval base also located in the East African nation of Djibouti.

As AFRICOM chief Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said, commenting on the presence of the Chinese base so near to Camp Lemonnier: "They've never had an overseas base, and we've never had a base of...a peer competitor as close as this one happens to be. There are some very significant...operational security concerns." This gives a frightening glimpse of the possibilities for future wars on African soil.

THE AFTERMATH of the attack in Niger points to the prospect of increased U.S. intervention there.

A similar possibility is likely in Somalia as well, following the al-Shabaab bombing in the capital of Mogadishu that left more than 300 dead--an attack thought to be retaliation for a U.S. Special Forces raid on a Somali village two months before that left 10 civilians dead.

Following the Mogadishu bombing, Donald Trump signed a directive classifying parts of Somalia as areas of "active hostilities." This means the Pentagon now has more power to carry out air strikes and ground raids in the region--and, effectively, greater permission to kill bystanders without accountability.

The Trump administration's response to the Niger attack leaves little optimism for ending U.S. wars in Africa in the near future.

Defense Secretary James Mattis announced on October 20 that counterterror efforts in Africa will now be expanded. "The war is morphing," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters last week. "You're going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you're going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you're going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field."

As the Washington Post described, "Changes will include granting more latitude for use of lethal force in the field, and a 'status-based targeting' system for suspected terrorists, meaning troops will be able to use lethal force against a suspected member of a terrorist organization even if that person does not pose an immediate threat."

THE PROSPECTS for intensified imperial intervention pose sharp questions for how an opposition to this militarism can be built. Certainly, the "problem" of the region will not be resolved by great attention on the part of Trump, who has faced recent criticism for his supposed inattention to Africa policy.

Statements such as the following from a former CIA analyst point to what greater "involvement" has in store: "Since Trump took office, U.S. policy in the region has been more or less adrift. This could force someone finally to take the tiller by the hand."

Yet people on the left must also reject calls to inject resources into "local" forces such as the African Union (AU).

For example, in an interview with Democracy Now!, author and University of Minnesota professor Abdi Samatar commented that "if President Trump and his team were interested in reducing the level of tyranny and the--if you like--terrorism in the country, what they would have done is use the Somali security forces and spend maybe a couple of hundred million dollars on that, rather than a billion dollars on the operations, and develop a mobile force that will act as a sort of a counterguerrilla tactics--use counter-guerrilla tactics to go after al-Shabaab, without involving Americans and anybody else, and in that process, help Somalis rebuild the social and political infrastructure of their country."

But U.S. funding for military operations via local proxy forces or regional operations such as the AU merely provides an alternative vehicle for extending U.S. interests on the continent. This is a dead end for the left.

Rather, antiwar forces in the U.S. and beyond must demand an end to military deployment and use on the continent in all forms--and we must show how the corporate scramble for African resources is linked to the intensified militarization, and challenge both.

Niger, like other countries in in Africa, is extremely poor. More than 60 percent of its 17 million people survive on less than $1 a day. And just two weeks after the Tonga Tonga attack, on October 21, Islamic militants laid siege to a Nigerien base close by--in the village of Ayorou near the Mali border--and killed 13 Nigerien soldiers.

Thus, imperialism in Africa will lead inevitably to heightened conflict, poverty and war, whether U.S. lives are lost or not. Resistance to the new wars in Africa could not be more urgent.

Further Reading

From the archives