The deaths of four U.S. Army soldiers in Niger has triggered three controversies in the United States. The first is a domestic matter that again raises questions about the ability of President Donald Trump to perform the most basic duties of his office. The second revolves around the mission and capability of the troops that were deployed. The third is a more important debate about the presence of U.S. forces in that country and the rising importance of Africa in the fight against terrorism and Islamic extremists.
The first dispute concerns one of the most unpleasant tasks of the U.S. president: condolence calls to families of troops killed in conflict. Questions were raised about the comportment of the president during the call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the four American servicemen who died that day. When challenged, the president chose to fight back, questioning her account, rather than accepting criticism in an emotionally charged situation. His insensitivity has renewed questions about the president’s empathy and inability to rise above his personal feelings in such moments.
The second controversy emerged as details of the skirmish were divulged. A 12-man unit of Green Berets, whose main task was training, advising and assisting a Nigerien force of 30 soldiers, was on a routine patrol when it was given a new mission to gather intelligence on a terrorist leader who was operating in the area. After completing that assignment, the troops stopped at a village to resupply. They were ambushed shortly thereafter by 50 Islamic State fighters armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy equipment. Four U.S. and five Nigerian soldiers were killed, and two other Americans wounded in the attack.
Questions have been asked about the readiness of the team. It was on one of its first patrols since arriving in the country and the soldiers had little combat experience. It was initially reported that three men were killed; the fourth fatality, Sgt. Johnson, was missing for two days before his body was recovered. The team requested support after an hour of fighting and a drone was dispatched but it was not armed as U.S. drones in Niger are not authorized to carry weapons. French fighter jets were dispatched an hour later; they did not strike the militants either. Those delays and shortcomings are under investigation.
The third controversy concerns the presence of U.S. forces in Africa generally. Congressmen tasked with oversight of military operations expressed surprise at reports of U.S. military involvement in Niger. The U.S. created Africa Command, or AfriCom, in 2007, to work closely with African militaries to combat an emerging terrorist threat. While eager to get U.S. help, many of those governments are cautious and concerned about hosting a visible U.S. military presence. The result has been a capacity-building effort to promote a regional solution to regional problems: U.S forces provide training and assistance, along with some surveillance and reconnaissance duties.
U.S. forces have operated in Niger for more than two decades, and a joint special operations task force was created in 2008. Three years later, U.S. and French forces set up a counterterrorism force there, led by the French. There are now 800 U.S. troops in Niger, a part of the 6,000 U.S. troops deployed in 53 countries in Africa.
A growing U.S. military presence in Africa has tracked the expanding threat of terrorist and extremist groups in northwest Africa. Countries are poor and governments are weak, fertile conditions to produce such groups. Borders are porous, which allows radicals to move easily, escaping authorities when pursued, and to recruit followers. The result is a veritable nest of insurgencies. Boko Haram, one of the region’s more dangerous groups, operates in Nigeria, just south of Niger; terrorists aligned with al-Qaida control parts of Mali, Niger’s western neighbor. Al-Qaida and IS groups are well ensconced in Libya — Niger’s neighbor to the north — and are growing after the implosion of the self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. is also in East Africa. Forces have operated in Somalia for over two decades, and Djibouti hosts the only permanent U.S. military base in the continent.
Japan long viewed Africa as another world, distant from its national concerns. That has changed. Japan’s Self-Defense Force troops were deployed to South Sudan as part of the United Nations-led peacekeepers, before their mission ended earlier this year. The SDF now has a small base of operation in Djibouti. Africa has become a focus of Japanese diplomacy: The sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development held last year produced a three-year plan to promote structural economic transformation, resilient health care systems and social stability for shared prosperity. Here, as elsewhere, Japan can help address root causes of extremism, a contribution as important as that of U.S. military forces — and one that may eventually render it unnecessary.