Week of October 27th, 2017

America’s War in Niger and the Continuing War on ISIS

The death of four American Special Forces soldiers in Niger surprised many Americans. Most Americans aren’t aware of international events and few in the US were aware of the extensive military obligations of the US military and the extent of the war on ISIS and other radical Islamic groups outside Syria and Iraq.

Defense Department officials said Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29 and Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, were killed in an attack during an advise-and-assist mission in southwestern Niger.

The armed militants were from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The attack also left five Nigeriens and an unknown number of militants dead.

The American military operation in Niger is one of about 20 in Africa and part of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). The command is aimed at building military relations with African nations and other key players in the region. It began operations in 2007.

Niger is part of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, where ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates flourish. The U.S. State Department in April issued a warning for Americans traveling in Niger to stay away from “locations frequented by Westerners” and to keep to hotels with armed Nigerien security officers because of the risk of terror attacks and kidnapping threats against Westerners.

“Niger’s southeastern border with Nigeria and east of Maradi are poorly controlled,” State Department officials said. “Boko Haram and several factions affiliated with ISIS have conducted cross-border attacks into Niger. The government of Niger has increased its security forces in the border areas, but the situation remains unstable and travel is not advised.”

Officials with the Defense Department said this month that about 1,000 troops in the region (800 of which are in Niger) work with about 4,000 French service members. The U.S. military has had some presence in Niger since 2012, according to CNN.

“We’re providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said. “But also we have troops on the ground. Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training, and we actually do these kinds of missions by, with and through our allies.”

In January 2013, United States Ambassador to Niger Bisa Williams requested permission to establish a drone base in a meeting with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou.   In February, Obama sent 150 military personnel to Niger to set up a surveillance drone operation that would aid France in its counterterrorism efforts in the Northern Mali conflict.  In October 2015, Niger and the U.S. signed a military agreement committing the two countries “to work together in the fight against terrorism”. American Special Forces personnel were sent to train the Niger Armed Forces.

Most of the US forces are working to build a second drone base for American and French aircraft in Agadez. Construction is expected to be completed in 2018, and will allow surveillance operations with the MQ-9 Reaper against insurgents.

The Ambush

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said US armed forces have been working for years with West African nations to combat the threat of terrorism. But rarely have US forces been engaged in such a firefight.

The American soldiers killed in the Oct. 4 attack were assisting with Nigerien security force counterterrorism operations about 125 miles north of Niamey, the country’s capitol city, according to the Defense Department.

On 3 October 2017, twelve soldiers from the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group accompanied thirty Nigerien soldiers on a reconnaissance mission to gather information.  The next day, the soldiers met with local leaders, asking them for information about the whereabouts of insurgents.  However, the meeting would drag on with the local leaders delaying the soldiers’ departure by stalling and keeping them waiting. While the soldiers were returning to base, about fifty armed ISGS militants attacked the convoy.

Although the militants, had been armed with light weapons, vehicle mounted weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars, the American and Nigerien soldiers only had automatic rifles.

An hour into the ambush, the soldiers called in for air support, which led to French fighter jets being scrambled to respond to the ambush.  Even though there was now air support, the French pilots could not engage because they could not readily identify enemy forces in the firefight. However, the presence of the fighter jets brought the engagement to an end.

United States Africa Command spokesperson Robyn Mack said that Berry Aviation, a Defense Department contractor, was “on alert during the incident and conducted casualty evacuation and transport for U.S. and partner forces.”

There are several investigations taking place, including one in France.

On 19 October, NBC News reported that AFRICOM sent a team to Niger to conduct a “review of the facts.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has since joined the investigation.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, said that the ambush was “considered unlikely”. Officials from the Department of Defense said that soldiers had carried out 29 similar operations in the past six months with no problems and were considered routine by the time of the ambush.

There was also considerable political fallout as some Democrats tried to equate the attack with the one that led to the death of the American ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.

Republican Senator John McCain stated that the Trump administration was not being forthcoming about the details of the attack. McCain also said that the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which he is the chairman, would like to get the information “it deserves and needs,” before deciding whether a formal investigation is necessary.

A senior congressional aide told NBC News that the ambush was caused by a “massive intelligence failure with no overhead surveillance of the mission nor a quick reaction force to swiftly respond in the event that the mission went wrong.

Defeating ISIS Outside Iraq and Syria

The ambush highlights one of the problems of the war against ISIS. Although the key ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria have been captured, ISIS claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide.

Outside Iraq and Syria, ISIS has an influence in Libya, Egypt (Sinai Peninsula), Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Philippines, Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and the North Caucasus.

Unfortunately, the conventional military tactics used in Syria and Iraq can’t be exported to these other countries. Terrain, unrest amongst the natives, unpopularity of the central government, guerilla fighting skills of the insurgents, and access to arms make each case different. That’s why US Special Forces, especially the Green Berets are being used extensively in these countries. The Green Berets were originally formed during the Cold War to train insurgents behind the Iron Curtain and are experts on counterinsurgency.

Here’s where the problem lies. Conventional American forces are not trained in counterinsurgency warfare and are, therefore, of little help. Yet, American Special Forces are limited in number and already strained from extensive deployments. As a result, it’s likely that Special Forces currently deployed in Syria and Iraq will be moved to these other trouble spots after some time to rest and reequip.

In the meantime, this forces them to rely upon the forces of the host nation, which may not be up to the job.

As a result, the US has been forced to rely upon NATO forces with experience in the region like the French Special Forces used in Niger. However, the cooperation of these forces depends to great extent on America’s (especially Trump’s) relations with that country.

France may be willing to deploy its special forces to Western Africa, where it has a historical interest, but is probably unwilling to engage in other theaters like Somalia or Yemen.

In the end, the defeat of ISIS in these other countries will require an American commitment of Special Forces for years. It also will require bringing on other Western nations to supplement its military forces. And, it will require the assistance of the host nation and a program that can win the hearts and minds of the local peoples.

Whether the US has the will to stay the course for that period of time remains a question.