Niger: The mystery of four American deaths
The 12-man group of Green Berets had just finished a meeting in the Niger village of Tongo Tongo, when “suddenly, on the scrubby desert horizon, men on motorbikes appeared,” said Dionne Searcey in The New York Times. For two hours, these 50 ISIS-aligned militants engaged U.S. soldiers in a “chaotic firefight,” firing on them with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Four Americans were killed—including Sgt. La David Johnson, who was separated from his companions; his body wasn’t recovered until 48 hours later. Three weeks after, the Niger tragedy hasn’t just led to an “unsavory” fight between President Trump and Gold Star families, said Benjamin Hart in NYMag.com. It has also “prompted many to wonder what U.S. troops were doing in the African country in the first place.”
This much is clear: “Niger has been a toe in the expanding American footprint in Africa,” said Jason Ditz in TheAmericanConservative.com. President Obama escalated U.S. presence there from 100 military “advisers” in 2013 to about 575, as part of his stealthy and expansive global war on terror. Today there are about 800. These soldiers are tasked under the 9/11-era Authorization for the Use of Military Force with providing intelligence support to French troops in their fight against Islamist militants connected to ISIS, al Qaida, and Boko Haram. The Pentagon says that the U.S. soldiers were pursuing an important ISIS recruiter, but so deep is the secrecy around these operations that we don’t know if our troops have been engaging in covert combat missions in Niger. Indeed, several U.S. senators said they had no idea that so many U.S. soldiers were there.
When wars are secret, “mission creep” is inevitable, said James Barnett in WeeklyStandard.com. There may indeed be a case for the U.S. to support the counterterrorism operations of French and African forces in the region, but our intervention has been based on “the assumption that American soldiers would almost never be in harm’s way.” That assumption is obviously no longer valid. The confusion surrounding the four American deaths “is eerily similar to the Benghazi attack,” said Zack Beauchamp in Vox.com, and if Obama or Hillary Clinton were in office, Republicans would be blaming them personally. Instead of “another partisan witch hunt,” Congress should investigate what happened—and determine how deeply the Trump administration plans to get involved in Africa. In other words, “provide real oversight.”