President Trump's grotesque antics over the past week have had the side effect of shining a dim light on little-known American military operations.
For the last several days, in classic Trumpy fashion, the president has been feuding with a pregnant war widow, Myeshia Johnson, whose husband was killed in Niger on Oct. 4. In an interview on Good Morning America, she said that when Trump called her, he failed to remember her husband's name. Trump denied it, of course, though it's hard to imagine someone with less credibility than the president at this point.
However, this absolutely appalling controversy also demonstrated to many people for the first time — among them Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — that America had troops in Niger in the first place. It's symptomatic of an imperial machine that is operating on autopilot, without debate or even knowledge of what's happening.
So what are American forces doing in Niger? The operation dates back to 2013, when President Obama asked the Niger government for permission to build a drone base there, to provide air support to French forces that were backing the (authoritarian) government of Mali in a civil war. That incredibly complicated conflict, which still flares up on occasion, is over the attempted creation of a new state out of northern Mali, and the failure of the government to defeat the rebels in 2012.
The Malian civil war, in turn, was powerfully fueled by remnants of the deposed government of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, who was overthrown and killed with the help of Western intervention in 2011. Gadhafi's army had many ethnic Tuaregs, and when he fell many of them packed up their weapons and headed to their ancestral homeland of Azawad in northern Mali. There they briefly declared a new state (which had been a goal for decades), but afterwards quickly fell out with several extremist Islamist groups, which had been backing them, and they began fighting amongst each other. France, backed by the United States, then stepped in to help the old Malian government retake the north.
Meanwhile, that same collection of (rapidly splintering and reforming) Islamist groups was also carrying out attacks elsewhere, including Niger, Burkina Faso, and Algeria — where Western troops provided a handy target and organizing symbol. In response, U.S. and French forces began training and assisting Nigerien troops in counter-terrorism.
That was the background of the Oct. 4 attack, when eight American Green Berets and 30 Nigerien soldiers were reportedly visiting a village seeking intelligence on an Islamist leader, where it seems they were tricked by a local elder into waiting until Islamist forces could attack. Four Americans and four Nigeriens were killed.
In short, it's just the same sort of imperial whack-a-mole that the United States has been doing since the invasion of Afghanistan, where one military intervention only leads to more instability and more intervention. I can't say for sure that American forces are a net negative presence in Niger (who could?), but I can say that this operation has not gotten remotely the careful consideration that wise foreign policy necessarily requires — or indeed any top-level consideration at all.
It's doubly true given the glaring incompetence of the American commander in chief. How much money would you bet that Trump had never heard of Niger before his advisers told him about the fallen soldiers there? I wouldn't take 10-1 odds on him being able to point it out on a map even today.
This lack of attention can be seen elsewhere. Consider another recent story: the capture of Raqqa, the capital of the dread Islamist group ISIS, by American-backed Kurdish and Syrian forces. This got little coverage from American media — especially not compared to the deluge of fevered panic when the group was beheading Western prisoners.
On the narrow question of ISIS being rooted out of its strongholds, that is surely a good thing. But there is no sign that the broader problem of political instability in the Middle East is going to be addressed or even acknowledged. After years of brutal fighting — and especially thousands of American bombs — Raqqa is almost totally destroyed. If there's anything the idiotic Iraq invasion showed, it was that extremism and terrorism thrives in the political and economic chaos left behind by shattering conflict.
But there is zero chance that this Republican government is going to start beefing up humanitarian aid, much less provide a Marshall Plan-style diplomatic and economic rebuilding package to get the region back on its feet. Instead, it's going to be the same old whack-a-mole until either America finally gets a clue, or the capacity of the American state to wage global conflict is finally drained completely.