U.S. Counterterrorism in Africa | Opinion

Four years ago this week, a group of U.S. special operators accompanying partner forces in the Nigerien army were ambushed by Islamist militants, roughly 120 miles north of Niamey, Niger's capital. The sizable Al-Qaeda contingent crossed the border from neighboring Mali, another African country in the Sahel region that has suffered from significant jihadist violence over the last decade. Unsurprisingly, the ambush surprised the U.S. forces who were in the area that day, turning what should have been a relatively anodyne advise-and-assist mission into a deadly confrontation. When the attack was over, four U.S. troops lost their lives.

The ambush in Niger came as a shock to lawmakers back in Washington, some of whom were directly responsible for overseeing counterterrorism operations conducted by the Defense Department. Asked weeks later whether he had any idea U.S. troops were in Niger to begin with, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, admitted point blank that he didn't. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who served on the Armed Services Committee at the time, made an equally damning confession: "I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger."

The entire episode was a stinging indictment of how the system of checks and balances is supposed to work on war and peace—the weightiest subject policymakers and lawmakers will ever tackle in their careers. As Brian Finucane, a former lawyer in the State Department who now works for the International Crisis Group wrote this week, the executive branch has long been negligent in submitting the required reports to Congress when U.S. forces are introduced into a hostile environment, a stunning violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. In fact, in order to avoid coming back to Congress for an explicit use of force authorization, successive U.S. administrations essentially created a whole new category of Al-Qaeda aligned militant groups that allowed the executive to expand the war against Al-Qaeda and ISIS unilaterally (even if those alleged ties were nebulous at best).

The 2017 incident in Niger, however, also exposed a creeping militarization of U.S. policy in Africa that has only expanded in the years since—all without even cursory debate about whether conducting simultaneous counterterrorism operations across the African continent is desirable, necessary, or sustainable from the standpoint of U.S. national security.

The above sentence is not an exaggeration. The U.S. military presence in Africa, guided in large measure by train, advise and assist programs that frequently turn into kinetic conflict, has spread like wildfire from coast to coast. The Cost of War Program at Brown University counted over two dozen U.S. counterterrorism training operations on the continent between 2018-20, from as far afield as Morocco to Madagascar. Research published this summer by Michael A. Allen, Michael E. Flynn and Carla Martinez Machain found that the U.S. military has stationed more servicemembers in more countries in Africa, across a wider geographic area, over the last 15 years. As illustrated in a Sept. 30 dispatch by Time magazine national security reporter W.J. Hennigan, U.S. counterterrorism operations are especially frenetic in the Horn of Africa, where U.S. special operators, trainers and pilots effectively serve as Somalia's air force against a 15-year al-Shabab insurgency that has proven to be as deadly as it is persistent. Hundreds of miles to the west, in the Sahel, Washington has built up a CIA drone base in Niger, where the agency conducts surveillance missions to monitor various terrorist organizations operating in Mali, Niger and Chad.

Niger Army soldiers on security patrol
Niger Army soldiers on security patrol in Niger's troubled western region of Tillabéri. Giles Clarke/Getty Images

If the purpose of the U.S. presence is to snuff out terrorism in Africa or create a series of security partners that could contain the alphabet soup of terrorist groups operating across the continent, then Washington is a long way from accomplishing the objective. The number of terrorist attacks in the Sahel and West Africa has increased substantially over the last several years. Despite losing thousands of militants over a span of a decade, al-Shabab remains a potent force inside Somalia, taking advantage of a weak, poor, fractured government whose remit is lucky to extend beyond Mogadishu. Some of the African soldiers that have been trained by Washington have used the skills acquired not to fight terrorism in their own countries, but to overthrow their own governments.

In September, security forces in Guinea used their off-time from training exercises with U.S. Green Berets to launch a successful coup attempt against the sitting president (the U.S. training program has since been suspended). A similar case happened last year, when Col. Assimi Goita, a Malian military officer, installed a junta-led government after spending years working with U.S. special operations forces on counterterrorism and counterextremism missions.

To be fair, some of these events are impossible to predict. If U.S. defense officials knew in advance that their training efforts could possibly enable the kinds of coups seen in Mali and Guinea, they may have had second thoughts before implementing the program. Not even U.S. Special Forces, the cream of the crop, can be perfect all of the time.

But one can't help but question whether Washington's expansive military activity in Africa is doing the United States any favors, especially when the very terrorist groups the U.S. seeks to stamp out are by and large more concerned with local fights than killing Americans in the homeland. Therein lies a vital question: Is there a better way to defend the U.S. from anti-American terrorism other than weighing into internal fights on behalf of governments that oftentimes disillusion their own populations? Or are we doomed to continue the current course, treating all terrorist groups as equally dangerous, no matter their objectives, capability and intent?

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.