In his October 23 Pentagon press conference describing the U.S. military presence in Niger, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford demonstrated it is possible to address serious national security issues and finesse the current spate of domestic political hysterics.
"This area (in west Africa) is inherently dangerous," General Dunford said. "We're there because ISIS and al-Qaida are operating in that area."
Here's the predicate to Dunford's statement: on October 4, four U.S. Army Green Berets died in combat in Niger. They were part of a 12-man U.S. detachment accompanying 30 Nigerien soldiers on a patrol returning from the village of Tongo Tongo, near Niger's border with Mali. Five Nigerien troops died in the battle.
The Obama Administration sent military advisers to Niger with orders to help train and assist Nigerien forces in their battle against radical Islamist terrorist organizations that also threaten U.S. security. Niger was judged to be more secure than neighboring Mali.
Dunford said Americans are authorized to accompany Nigerien units when "chances of enemy contact are unlikely." Previously, Pentagon briefers said that during the last six months U.S. personnel had participated in 29 similar missions without encountering problems.
On October 3, when the patrol departed, intelligence analysts concluded enemy contact was "unlikely." They were wrong. As the patrol returned on October 4, it was ambushed by 50 tribesmen believed to belong to the "Islamic State in the Greater Sahel" militia. The militia aligns its grievances with ISIS' global power aspirations.
A recon patrol where contact with an enemy is unlikely is definitely a military operation, but it also serves as a counter-insurgency training opportunity that forwards long-range U.S. security goals. The Pentagon wants Nigeriens to learn the skills they need to fight and win without U.S. assistance. That is in America's interest, Niger's interest and in the interest of the entire civilized world.
Should the Green Berets have participated in the October patrol? Competing interests were involved, but this is always the case in military operations. Niger and America confront a common enemy -- Niger locally, America globally. Someone made a judgment call that the training opportunity was worth the risk. But the intel proved to be utterly wrong. Defense Department is conducting a full investigation of the entire mission, the plans, the decisions and the intelligence assessment.
In western Africa, ISIS and al-Qaida are trying to exploit regional political and tribal divisions to expand their political influence . The Obama Administration responded to the terrorists by increasing military assistance throughout the area, not just in Niger. The Obama Administration didn't hide the troop increase in Niger, but it didn't emphasize it, either. As a result, accusations of "shadow war" now appear in the sensationalist press.
All told, 6,000 U.S. military personnel are deployed in Africa. For the most part, U.S. forces in Africa operate as small detachments that can be deployed as needed around the continent.
That holds true for West Africa, where approximately 1,000 U.S. troops serve in nine different nations. Niger has the largest regional contingent, with 800 troops. The majority work on construction projects or support aerial drone surveillance operations in the region. France has 4,000 soldiers in West Africa, including a large force in Mali.
West African nations are willing to fight the terrorists, but need help. Given France's military assets in the region and American commitments in Syria and Iraq, the Obama Administration concluded that a small, focused military effort providing training assistance and logistics and intelligence support was an appropriate response.
General Dunford's press conference tells me that he thinks that conclusion was correct. It also says the Trump Administration agreed with the Obama Administration's goals in the region. However, that isn't a point domestic hysterics want to hear.