President Trump’s inexplicable fight with the dowager of a Green Beret who was murdered in Niger has started a political firestorm that hints at no fading away. It’s likewise conveyed new regard for a little-known part of Washington’s progressing war on dread: The Pentagon is quickly extending its essence in Africa and is presently occupied with military operations — including dynamic battle — in the greater part twelve African nations.
It’s a fight that takes place largely in the shadows, led by small teams of US special operations forces. In Somalia, Navy SEALs are hunting members of al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked militants from groups like al-Shabaab (one of the commandos died in a botched raid earlier this year). In Libya, they’re carrying out counterterror missions like the one that capturedAhmed Abu Khattala, a militant linked to the deadly assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. And in Djibouti, the US flies armed drones out of a major airbase at Camp Lemonnier, which is also used for counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations in the region.
US forces have also regularly conducted raids and other missions in Chad, Cameroon, Uganda, and, of course, Niger, where there are at least 800 American troops deployed.
With 6,000 troops operating in Africa, and US commanders describing the continent as the next big battleground in the terror fight, the pace and number of American military engagements is certain to increase even more sharply. That raises legitimate new questions about whether the US has committed itself to unending and expanding war in Africa through missions that are taking place with nearly no political or public oversight.
Most US missions aren’t intended to involve any form of combat. Instead, they’re designed to help African nations build up their own capacity to fight militants inside their borders without American help. The theory underlying all of these missions is that it’s cheaper, less risky, and more effective to train and equip local forces to fight than rely on American troops operating far from home on unfamiliar terrain. The problem is that it’s not clear those types of missions work — let alone serve broader US security interests.
However, in countries like Niger and Mali, the US has struggled to build effective local capacity to fight terrorism, in part because of the difficulty of the task and the relatively meager resources allocated (tens of millions of dollars, compared to the billions spent in places like Afghanistan or Syria).
Modern US advisory efforts attempt to minimize risk to American forces like those killed in Niger by distinguishing between “train and assist” and “advise, assist, and accompany” missions. In the former, US troops generally stay on well-secured bases or embassy grounds, providing training or remote assistance where allowed by their mission parameters. In the latter, US troops actually accompany local forces on their missions, exposing themselves to the same risks as their counterparts battling al-Qaeda or other violent extremists.
The latter type of mission — the kind where US forces face risk — is far more effective. However, it exposes US troops, often in places where the US has no military infrastructure for combat air support or medical evacuation.