Near the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger, events took a negative turn when village leaders tried to delay the departure of a US-Nigerian patrol team. Just a few hours later, the team was ambushed by a militant group, and four U.S. soldiers were killed.
In the week following the attack, the media exploded when Representative Frederica Wilson (D-FL) criticized President Trump for his insensitivity during a condolence call with fallen sergeant La David Johnson’s widow. Rather than mourning the loss of the four soldiers, the nation turned its attention towards a classic he-said-she-said battle between Trump and Representative Wilson. In the midst of all the chaos and drama, more pertinent questions remained unanswered. What was the U.S. military doing in Niger in the first place? To what extent is the U.S. involved in African affairs?
Currently, there are more than 6,000 U.S. troops in Africa. Military missions are carried out in about 20 different countries, including Niger, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, and Djibouti. The U.S.’s main goal is to train and assist African troops, instead of participating in combat. This large military presence is not a recent development, but rather the result of several years of foreign policy work.
Since 2007, the U.S. has been involved in what has been called a “shadow war” in Africa. It is a secretive war: one that is not often covered by the media and one that very few Americans know about. However, this certainly does not diminish its importance. The “shadow war” is the U.S.’s fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism in Africa. African militant groups have been influenced by Islamic extremism from the Middle East since the early 2000s. Several groups, such as Al-Shabaab, The Movement for Monotheism and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Boko Haram, are currently affiliated with ISIS and al-Qaeda. All of these groups have used violent methods, such as suicide bombings, in order to attack cities and promote their ideology. Throughout his presidency, President Obama deployed U.S. troops to Africa, in order to help local governments fight extremists. African troops did the fighting, while U.S. soldiers provided intelligence and surveillance.
When Obama left office, many troops stayed in Africa. This situation worked out well for Trump because under the Trump Administration, U.S. foreign policy goals in Africa have remained almost the same. Both presidents strive to stop the spread of Islamist extremism and defeat terrorist groups. However, the main difference is that Trump has taken a much more aggressive and military-oriented approach to achieving this goal. Since his inauguration, Trump has made no effort to bring any of the U.S. troops stationed in Africa back home. In fact, he has sent more troops.
During the last month of Obama’s presidency, there were only 575 troops in Niger. By June, 2017, that number increased to 645. After the Niger ambush, the media discovered that the current number is about 1,000. As of right now, the Trump Administration supports an increase in military involvement in Africa. A few weeks ago, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) confirmed this by telling reporters that “the war is morphing…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.”
One of Trump’s main priorities as President is national defense, which involves counterterrorism efforts. After all, terrorist groups like ISIS threaten the safety of Americans both within the U.S. and abroad. By stationing more troops in Africa, Trump hopes to defeat ISIS or al-Qaeda strongholds and weaken those extremist groups.
In order to deploy a larger number of troops, Trump’s foreign policy in Africa involves increasing military spending. In Trump’s proposed Pentagon budget for the 2018 fiscal year, he calls for an additional $52 billion to be spent on military affairs. This new focus on military involvement has had large consequences. For example, in his budget, Trump also proposed a $3 billion cut to humanitarian aid for Africa. This would be drastic for Africa, which, according to an analysis by Global Finance Magazine, is made up of 24 of the world’s 30 poorest nations. Unlike previous presidents, Trump is not very concerned with finding a balance between promoting U.S. interests and helping other countries. His view of “America first” means that America is the priority, and other countries are left to fend for themselves. According to J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “gone are the days when human rights, development, economic growth, and humanitarian relief dominated the American agenda on the continent [Africa].”
In Trump’s eyes, everything is now about building a U.S. military presence. The military aspect of his foreign policy goals in Africa do not deviate greatly from Obama’s. However, despite the similarities, Trump’s specific military strategy has major issues. For starters, there is a huge lack of transparency surrounding Trump’s policy. Following the Niger ambush, many congressmen revealed that they are also kept in the dark about the U.S. presence in Africa. In a recent NBC’s Meet the Press interview, Senator Graham expressed extreme shock when he claimed that “I didn’t know that there were 1,000 troops in Niger.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also confirmed that he did not know about this military involvement in a later interview. As president, Trump claims to listen to the wishes of the American people. However, how are Americans able to express their opinion on this “shadow war” if they are clueless about what is happening? How are congressmen able to make informed policy decisions if they do not fully understand the U.S.’s military strategy?
An increase in military spending might have short-term benefits, but the cut to humanitarian aid for Africa has long-lasting repercussions. Trump’s proposed $3 billion cut includes a $1.1 billion cut to programs that buy drugs for people infected with H.I.V. According to researchers, this may result in the death of more than 1 million people in Africa. It is perfectly reasonable to prioritize American security when it comes to foreign policy; however, Trump should spend more time evaluating this rash decision. Many experts believe that a decrease in U.S. aid will actually be counterproductive for Trump’s counterterrorism efforts. According to these experts, many terrorist groups find people who are angry with the economic inequality or political corruption in their country. They promise that they will empower whoever joins their cause. It is much easier for terrorist groups to take control of poverty-stricken areas where the government is weak. A lack of foreign aid in Africa may turn it into a “terrorist recruiting field.”
Although the ambush in Niger was tragic, it certainly helped publicize a lot of unknown information about Trump’s foreign policy in Africa. Both Trump and the Pentagon are now being held accountable for their lack of transparency. American citizens and members of Congress now have a better understanding of Trump’s military decisions. The U.S. currently faces a future of military aggression overseas. As more information is revealed, the Trump Administration will have to respond to the public’s growing criticism or support. The “shadow war” has finally taken its first steps into the light.