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AFRICOM and the Self-Investigation Farce

A U.S. Army Special Forces weapons sergeant addresses a group of Nigerien soldiers before a team exercise in Diffa, Niger, in March. (Spc. Zayid Ballesteros / U.S. Army)

Investigating yourself: a surefire way to never get to the bottom of anything. Of course, in some cases that is exactly the point.

Take the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), the headquarters responsible for U.S. military forces deployed on the vast African continent. Last month, Africa—specifically remote Niger—catapulted (however briefly) to the top of American newscasts when four U.S. Army special operations troops were killed in a ferocious ambush. The details remain sketchy but officials quickly blamed the Islamic State of Greater Sahara (ISGS), a loose affiliate of ISIS, though curiously neither al-Qaida nor Islamic State claimed responsibility. Many tactical questions lingered: Did the troops receive a change of mission, were they set up by local village elders, did they have enough air support? Well, this week AFRICOM’s own, two-star chief of staff was appointed to investigate the “incident” in Niger. Certainly, the general will ask and—hopefully—answer those basic tactical questions.

Unfortunately, that is not what the American people should be concerned with. Larger, more consequential, strategic matters—such as why our soldiers are there—will probably never be adequately answered. One doubts AFRICOM’s in-house investigator will pose such tricky questions. The U.S. military is so accustomed to “forever war” that no one in their right mind should expect any notable dissent from senior officers. And Congress? Sure, they’re grumbling some, but America’s representatives have been MIA on their sacred duty to debate and sanction war since 2001. Less than two months ago, 60 senators scuttled Rand Paul’s modest effort to rescind the 16-year-old war authorization. Don’t count on much from these duds.

Anyway, just in case anyone is interested in a real investigation of the genuine issues, here’s a draft list of questions I’d pose to senior policymakers:

  • What exactly are America’s vital, strategic interests in one of the world’s poorest, driest, malnourished and unstable (five republics in 50 years) nations?
  • Do the region’s assorted, local Islamists actually present a tangible threat to the homeland? After all, isn’t it true that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—the regional heavyweight—didn’t exist in 2001, and has never conducted attacks outside Africa or the Middle East?
  • Is it possible American troops are making matters worse? Isn’t it correct that West Africa had far fewer radical Islamist groups on 9/11 and they’ve only proliferated since U.S. troops entered the region in 2002? The Islam practiced in West Africa was traditionally syncretic [blending two or more belief systems], moderate and Sufi-influenced, was it not? Could it be the U.S. “War on Terror” has radicalized the region?
  • What if the West African states—unstable and generally autocratic—are simply conning the U.S. into providing military subsidies and equipment? Doesn’t the U.S. have a history of sending in the cavalry every time a country cries “wolf” or, in this case, “terror”? Could it be America is being drawn into local, ethnic and tribal quarrels masquerading as terrorism?
  • Is it not dangerous to further empower the military in fragile states, especially when U.S.-trained officers recently overthrew civilian governments in nearby Mali and Burkina Faso?
  • What is the danger of “blowback” from U.S. military operations in Niger? You remember, of course, how the 2012 Libya intervention unleashed a flood of Tuareg nomads—equipped with Qaddafi’s sizeable arsenal—into Mali, utterly and perhaps irreversibly destabilizing the entire region? Doesn’t the north of Niger contain these same ethnic Tuaregs?
  • How much of this is really about natural resources and regional competition with China? Doesn’t Niger possess significant uranium deposits? Didn’t China only recently construct Niger’s first oil refinery? Have the Chinese (and Russians) not invested significantly in Nigerien infrastructure projects?
  • On that note, is the U.S. military really the right tool, or lever, to pull in West Africa? Aren’t climate change, “desertification” and poor governance the real culprits for Niger’s poverty and instability? Couldn’t U.S.-backed United Nations missions, NGOs and deft diplomacy better achieve regional goals while avoiding local perceptions of U.S. military occupation? After all, aren’t Africans (rightfully) sensitive to anything that smacks of imperialism?
  • What exactly is the legal basis for military interventions in West Africa? Surely, you’d agree that the outdated 2001 Authorization for Military Force—which only authorized “necessary and appropriate force against those … that planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks” of 9/11—can’t provide reasonable sanction for combat in Niger? Is it not true that there were no West Africans on the planes which soared into the World Trade Center and Pentagon? In fact, none of the Islamist groups suspected of ambushing U.S. troops in Niger existed sixteen years ago, correct?
  • Can America’s 10-division, all-volunteer army and staggering national debt sustain the open-ended deployments of U.S. troops to 70 percent of the world’s countries? What are the limits—in geography or longevity—of this seemingly perpetual global war?

Imagine the discomfort in the room if legislators or journalists ever asked those questions in sequence. But, as citizens in an—ostensible—republic, don’t we deserve to know the answers?

Of course, Niger and AFRICOM will soon fade from the headlines. Americans will remain interested only so long as the media focuses on the reality-TV-style drama of it all. So, the populace will muse about Trump’s telephone calls with war widows (who said what to whom?), and highlight Don Jr.’s bizarre tweet comparing a black congresswoman (whom he misidentified) to a “stripper.” How fun! And sure, some on the left will make a paltry attempt to frame Niger as “Trump’s Benghazi,” turning troop deaths into a political bludgeon rather than engaging in substantive debate. Minutiae and hollow politicization: It’s what we do; it reflects American society. Niger and Africa are unlikely to stay in the news. Neither will America’s perpetual wars. But this much is certain: In 2017, it’s the questions we don’t ask that truly need answering.

Finally, I’d ask readers and policymakers alike to consider economist and political scientist Joseph Schumpeter’s description, penned quite a while back: the nation “pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war … there was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger … the whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies.” Sound familiar? He was talking about Ancient Rome. We all know how that turned out.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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