African securityU.S. troops help fight terrorists in Africa — quietly
The attack on the U.S. troops in Niger last October, which left four American troops dead and two wounded, was a surprise to the American public because the presence of the U.S. forces in Africa was mostly off the media. The Niger operation is one of the several U.S. military missions ongoing in about twenty African countries, mostly in the northern half of the continent. Most of these missions have one goal: “rolling back Islamist extremism.”
The attack on the U.S. troops in Niger last October, which left four American troops dead and two wounded, was a surprise to the American public because the presence of the U.S. forces in Africa was mostly off the media. The Niger operation is one of the several U.S. military missions ongoing in about twenty African countries, mostly in the northern half of the continent. Most of these missions have one goal: “rolling back Islamist extremism,” National Public Radio reports.
The Americans in almost all of these missions are not engaged in combat roles, but rather offer logistical, intelligence, and technical support to local and regional forces. They advise, assist, and train African militaries. But these supportive roles sometimes take them to the battlefield alongside their African partners, as was the case in Niger.
“The missions are different, but obviously if they’re out in a high-threat environment, they’re going to be prepared for combat as a contingency,” said Dan Hampton, a retired Army Colonel at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank sponsored by the Defense Department. Given that these roles sometimes require accompanying the African troops, Hampton maintains that it is not easy to say they are non-combat roles.
Africa Command (AFRICOM) was launched in 2007 as the arm of the U.S. military assigned to work closely with African militaries in the face of more sophisticated extremist groups emerging on the continent. Many African countries want the support of the United States, but not an American high-profile presence.
According to John Campbell who covers Africa for the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. military operations aim at providing “African solutions for African problems.” That is, “developing the indigenous capacity to respond to security threats.”
President Barack Obama deployed U.S. forces to Niger in 2013 in the wake of extremism in northwestern Africa. Niger’s neighbor to the south, Nigeria, was battling Boko Haram; to the west, pro al-Qaeda radicals were on rampage in Mali; and to the north, Libya was in chaos. This placed Niger in a strategic location in a region where borders mean little. For centuries this region served as the link between sub-Saharan and North Africa for trade and smuggling.
Operational Detachment Alpha Team 3212, or “Team Ouallam,” made up of twelve U.S. troops and thirty Nigerien troops, ran into an ambush on 4 October 2017 in a Nigerien village. Four Americans and five Nigerien troops were killed. A Pentagon investigation discovered errors which left the Americans exposed and vulnerable. The report, which was sent to the Congress, has been faulted by some for containing too many presumptive and difficult-to-believe conclusions. “They seem aimed, at least in part, in obscuring how much combat the regional counter-terrorism mission actually involves as a whole”, The Drive reports.
Defense Secretary James Mattis references the Islamic State as being responsible for the attack, but no group has claimed responsibility for it.
Mattis described the mission as “supporting the French-led and the African troops, in the campaign to throw ISIS and the terrorists, the radicals, those who foment instability and murder and mayhem, off their stride.” He added that the United States was mostly assisting with intelligence and surveillance.
Mattis said the United States has over 1,000 personnel in the region, an apparent reference to an area that includes Niger, Nigeria and Mali. Some other examples of other regions where the United States is active are:
Libya: The United States has carried out periodic drone strikes against militants.
Niger: The Unites States has a drone center here. Four U.S. troops were killed in October 2017.
Nigeria: The United States assist the military against Boko Haram extremists.
Uganda: U.S. forces, in 2011, began to hunt for Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army that has terrorized Uganda and neighbors for years. Kony was not been found before the search wound down, but the group was weakened.
Somalia: The United States has hundreds of troops here, conducts periodic drone strikes, and is now helping the military to confront al-Shabab militants.
Djibouti: The only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. The U.S. forces here tend to attend more to the nearby Persian Gulf.