On Monday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, appeared before reporters at the Pentagon ostensibly to address a number of questions relating to the deaths of four American and five Nigerian soldiers in what has been described as an ISIS-led ambush in Niger nearly three weeks ago.
But by the time the press conference ended it was clear that many of those questions—What were the exact circumstances surrounding the attack? Was there a change in the nature of the original reconnaissance mission? Were the servicemen wearing body armor?—would remain unanswered. On Sunday morning, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain complained that his committee was “not getting enough information.”
And while the president’s deeply shameful behavior towards the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson has attracted considerable and richly deserved condemnation, members of Congress are also raising questions about the ambush and the larger mission in Niger. Indeed, some senators, including Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Armed Services member Lindsey Graham, have even admitted that they had been unaware of the extent of the American presence in Niger until now.
The mission in Niger derives its legal authority from the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) which granted then-President George W. Bush wide authority
to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Yet now the incident in Niger is causing some lawmakers to question whether it might be time, 16 years on, to reexamine the AUMF. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Tim Kaine observed that “The many questions surrounding the death of American service members in Niger show the urgent need to have a public discussion about the current extent of our military operations around the world.”
Senator Lindsey Graham predicts that “the rules of engagement are going to change when it comes to counter-terrorism operations.” Graham told The Washington Post on Friday that “You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.”
For Graham, this simply means widening the authority granted to the military, but others in Congress are asking hard questions about the underlying strategy. Hawaii Congresswoman and Iraq war combat veteran Tulsi Gabbard observed that “the Administration’s contradictory policies are draining American resources and putting U.S. service members’ lives on the line in Niger and different parts of the world to support the so-called war on terror without a clearly defined strategy or objectives.”
“The Trump Administration,” continued Gabbard, who is a member of both the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, “must provide the American people with answers—what are our soldiers doing in Niger, what is their objective, and what exactly is the strategy for this ‘war on terror’?”
Yet, so far anyway, the administration has not been keen to answer such questions.
At a think-tank event in Washington last week, national-security adviser H.R. McMaster swatted away inquiries as to why the public was only now learning about the attack, claiming, “It was really not that long ago and this investigation is underway.” For his part, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, recently opined that the US military is in Africa in order to “teach them how to respect human rights.”
Meanwhile, the military’s footprint in Africa, as elsewhere, has been expanding for some time. In April, the journalist Nick Turse unearthed “clear evidence of a remarkable, far-ranging, and expanding network of [US military] outposts strung across the continent. In official plans for operations in 2015 that were drafted and issued the year before, Africa Command lists 36 U.S. outposts scattered across 24 African countries” And according to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress will appropriate $186.5 million for “contingency operations” and $225.3 million for “operation and maintenance costs” for the US Africa Command during the coming fiscal year.
Given all this, Congress should act in the public interest and demand answers as to what exactly the administration is up to in Niger—and why.