The little-known involvement of the US military in Niger shows how a hastily-written law allows global intervention without congressional oversight
The vast majority of Americans probably had no idea that the US even had military troops participating in combat missions in Africa before the incident in Niger in the beginning of October that left four American soldiers dead. But now the Trump administration is already planning to escalate lethal military operations in the country where the attack occurred – all with little debate.
Donald Trump has been involved in a bizarre public feud with the families of the fallen soldiers, which has dominated headlines and cable television for weeks. But there has been far less pointed questions about why the US military is fighting in Niger at all, and yet it seems likely that there’s about to be more US military presence in the country that will only make matters worse.
(October 4, 2017) Soldiers killed in Niger
Four US army special forces troops and five soldiers from Niger die in an ambush during a joint patrol in the south-west of the country.
(October 16, 2017) The row begins
Asked why he has not spoken about the incident, Trump discusses his calls to bereaved families, saying: “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls – a lot of them didn’t make calls.”
(October 17, 2017)
Trump drags White House chief of staff John Kelly into the developing row, saying: “You could ask Gen Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”, a reference to the death of Kelly’s son in Afghanistan.
(October 17, 2017)
Trump phones the widow of Sgt La David Johnson and reportedly says Johnson “knew what he was signing up for”, according to Frederica Wilson, a Democratic congresswomen who heard the call.
(October 17, 2017)
Wilson criticizes Trump’s reported remark as “so insensitive”. In response, Trump claims Wilson’s account is “totally fabricated” but Johnson’s mother supports Wilson’s version of events.
(October 18, 2017)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Kelly is “disgusted and frustrated” by the politicization of his son’s death – even though it was Trump who first mentioned him.
(October 19, 2017) Enter John Kelly
Kelly delivers a rebuke to critics of Trump in an emotional press conference but fails to acknowledge that the controversy began after Trump attacked Obama.
(October 20, 2017)
Sanders says it would be “highly inappropriate” to question Kelly, a four-star general, a comment that causes outcry in itself.
(October 21, 2017)
On the day of Sgt Johnson’s funeral, Trump refuses to let the matter rest, referring to Wilson as “Wacky Congresswoman Wilson” in a tweet.
(October 23, 2017)
Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt Johnson, says Trump’s condolence call “made me cry even worse”. Trump disputes her account immediately after the interview aires.
As NBC News reported on Wednesday night: “The Trump administration is paving the way for lethal strikes against terrorists in Niger as the US military pushes forward with a plan to arm the Reaper drones that fly over that country.” Meanwhile, Republicans are also hinting that more military personnel may be on the way as well.
It apparently doesn’t matter to the Trump administration that there’s no congressional authorization to do so. They are following in the Obama administration’s footsteps by taking the radical view that the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed in 2001 for the war in Afghanistan, can be used to fight all sorts of wars throughout the world more than 16 years later.
Niger is the perfect illustration of the US’s permanent war posture around the world, where special forces fight various militants with little or no public scrutiny and no congressional authorization. The Obama administration announced in 2013 that they were sending 100 troops to Niger as “support for intelligence collection” with French troops in the region. By this year, that number had ballooned to 800, with almost no media attention before the deaths of the soldiers.
The White House routinely gets away with this by claiming that US troops are on “advise and assist” missions – one of the many military euphemisms that has morphed into the absurd over the last few years. Claiming troops are only “assisting” or “training” local forces is the way that the US military establishes a foothold in a country while telling everyone they don’t engage in “combat”. Then, when they inevitably do get in a firefight and a soldier gets killed – as happens time and time again – it provides an excuse to expand the mission even more.
It’s the ‘war on terror’ circle of life: send troops into a country to “advise and assist”, troops inevitably get killed by local militants when they inevitably engage in combat missions, send more troops in to “fix” the problem. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s not just Niger either. As journalist Nick Turse, an expert on the region who has been covering US military presence in Africa for years, writes: “In truth, US forces are already deployed all across Africa by the thousands. Around 6,000 troops are on the continent, conducting 3,500 exercises, programs, and engagements each year – almost 10 missions each day – from Cameroon to Somalia, Djibouti to Libya.”
Congress, of course, has shamefully abdicated its constitutional role as legislative body in charge of declaring war since it passed the AUMF shortly after 9/11. That law – just 60 words – has been used for 16 years now to justify conflicts on multiple continents against enemies that didn’t exist at the time of its enactment.
Exactly one member of Congress voted against it at the time: California representative Barbara Lee, who warned it “was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit”. For being so prescient then, she received death threats at the time.
While many senators are now asking polite questions about the US role in Niger, there’s no indication we are anywhere closer to repealing the AUMF or Congress will do anything beyond hold hearings about the Niger incident.
There’s a good argument that deploying troops to Niger without congressional authorization is illegal – like it is in Syria, Yemen, and other countries where US troops are now fighting that don’t include Afghanistan or Iraq. Just don’t expect our elected officials to do anything about it.
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