Niger Uproar Shines Light on the U.S.'s Murky African Wars

President Donald Trump has been locked in controversy over his response to the deaths of four Special Forces soldiers ambushed by suspected Islamist militants in Niger. Trump drew criticism for his near-two-week silence on the incident — conspicuous given his usual habit of declaiming Islamist perfidy whenever given an opportunity — as well as for what is turning into an unseemly public spat between him and Myeisha Johnson, the pregnant 24-year-old widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the slain soldiers.Details remain murky surrounding the ill-fated patrol and the timeline of the joint American, French and Nigerien response to the ambush. At least five Nigerien soldiers who accompanied U.S. forces on their reconnaissance mission to the village of Tongo Tongo, near the border with Mali, also perished. But no matter what emerges, Johnson's tragedy has awakened Washington to the wider issue of American deployments in Niger and other countries in Africa.At a briefing Monday evening, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon's assessment was that the assailants probably belonged to a local militia affiliated with the Islamic State. He described the Sahel, an arid region that includes the impoverished countries of Niger and Mali, as a strategic theater where the Islamist militants may seek to regroup after losses in the Middle East.Dunford did not comment on speculation that Washington may loosen restrictions on the U.S. military's ability to use lethal force in Niger, as it has done in other areas, including Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will testify tonday before an open hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will weigh the need for a new congressional authorization of military force in the battle against the Islamic State."The war is morphing," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters. "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."Nevertheless, even Graham, an inveterate booster of U.S. military action overseas, seemed surprised about the scale of the U.S. footprint in Niger, saying that he "didn't know" there were close to 1,000 American troops there.At least 6,000 U.S. troops are deployed across dozens of African countries on a variety of missions, but the largest contingent is an estimated 900 soldiers posted in Niger, where U.S. forces have been operating in a support role for a few years in conjunction with a larger French force that has been stationed in the region in the wake of a 2013 French-led intervention against a rampaging Islamist insurgency in Mali.But the foreign military presence hasn't stemmed the threat of extremist militancy in a part of the world racked by poverty, poor governance and a history of internecine conflict.Jihadist militancy in the Sahel is complicated, with factions routinely shifting their allegiances and tactics when it suits their needs on the ground. The 2011 collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya led to arms and militant groups spilling over the southern border, feeding into long-simmering ethnic rivalries and grievances in Mali, Niger and elsewhere."Targeting these groups is the best way to make their leaders heroes, foster unity in jihadi ranks, and inflame communal violence," said Yvan Guichaoua, a professor at the University of Kent who specializes in political conflict in the Sahel. "All policymakers working in the area know well the highly inflammable nature of the situation."But the White House has not displayed much policy acumen when it comes to reckoning with the Sahel. The Trump administration has yet to fill an assistant secretary posting in the State Department for Africa, and it confounded analysts two months ago when it chose to list Chad — perhaps the United States' most crucial counterterrorism partner in the Sahel — as one of the Muslim-majority nations subject to a new travel ban (which has since been thwarted by a federal judge).Matthew Page, a Nigeria expert and former State Department analyst, told the Atlantic: "I think what this illustrates backs up what a lot of us have been saying about Trump's Africa policy, which is that it's not even really half-baked. There's no one home when it comes to Africa policy."Ishaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs writer for the Washington Post, which first published this column. Twitter: @ishaantharoorWhat's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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