Special operations takes on risk in growing Niger mission
The United States has quietly moved scores of additional troops in recent months into Niger, home to the second-largest contingent of American servicemembers on the African continent and an operational anchor for an increasingly dangerous counterterrorism mission.
U.S. operations in Niger provide support for local troops in the fight against extremist groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Maghreb. The mission’s risks were highlighted Wednesday when four U.S. servicemembers were killed while on patrol.
There are now about 800 U.S. troops working in Niger, up from 645 in June, according to U.S. Africa Command. Only the small east African nation of Djibouti, home to the U.S.’s major troop hub Camp Lemonnier, has more forces, with roughly 4,000 personnel.
The growth in troop numbers in Niger is because the United States has two “security cooperation locations” in the country, one in the capital of Niamey and a newer outpost under development to the north in Agadez, said Samantha Reho, an AFRICOM spokeswoman.
AFRICOM has set up a series of such locations throughout Africa in recent years, part of a broader effort to facilitate troop movements and reduce crisis-response times.
On Wednesday, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, all Green Berets with the 3rd Special Forces Group, were killed when they came under fire during a joint patrol with Nigerien troops, the Pentagon said. A fourth U.S. servicemember was also killed in the ambush, but the Pentagon had not identified him as of Friday, pending next-of-kin notification.
“I think clearly there’s risk for our forces in Niger,” said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, during a news conference Thursday.
Niger, a country situated between Mali and Nigeria, serves as a launching pad for surveillance of several extremist groups active in the region.
In Mali, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has conducted cross-border attacks, while Boko Haram, arguably the most lethal terrorist group in Africa, launches frequent attacks into Niger from strongholds in northern Nigeria.
Special operations forces in Niger play a key role advising local forces responsible for leading the fight against militants. The military has offered few details about the mission Wednesday that resulted in the deaths of four troops other than to say the forces were on patrol and serving as advisers to their Nigerien counterparts. They were the first combat fatalities for U.S. troops in Niger.
The military hasn’t identified the militant group that may have been behind the attack or said whether surveillance aircraft were able to provide support. The patrol occurred near Niger’s border with Mali, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and several smaller extremist groups are known to operate.
The United States is not currently believed to be conducting armed drone flights from its outposts in Niger or nearby Cameroon, so it is unclear whether fire support from the air was an immediate option. As construction commenced in 2016 on a new drone site in Agadez, AFRICOM was mum on how surveillance operations could evolve over time.
“The arming of any aircraft, including remotely piloted aircraft, is done with the approval of and upon coordination with the government of Niger,” AFRICOM said at the time. It said it would not discuss specifics about military efforts or “speculate on potential future activities or operations.”
The Pentagon declined to go into details about the patrol that turned deadly. The New York Times reported the firefight was relatively brief: a 30 minute-clash that included about 10 U.S. troops and 20 Nigerien forces.
The long-term implications of the attack on the U.S. mission are uncertain, but some analysts say the result could be a sharpened focus on military efforts.
“There will be a natural temptation to up the tempo of military operations,” wrote Africa analysts from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “Clearly for Niger and its Western partners, such operations are a critical component of their response to militant groups that attack security forces and whose violence and intolerance threaten state and society alike.”
Military efforts also run the risk of increasing civilian casualties, but these shouldn’t distract from efforts to solve root problems of regional conflict, such as land disputes and fights over natural resources among various group, according to the International Crisis Group.
One of AFRICOM’s concerns in Africa is the challenge of conducting search and rescue operations on a continent that is three times the size of the United States and has limited medical services and infrastructure.
In March, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM’s commander, highlighted those worries in testimony to Congress, which said search-and-rescue assets in Africa were limited and the United States often relies on contracted services.
McKenzie didn’t comment on whether such issues were a factor in Niger but said that enabling the evacuation of forces is given careful consideration when troops deploy.
“Anytime we deploy full forces globally, we will look very hard at the enablers that need to be in place in order to provide security for them,” he said. “And that ranges from the ability to pull them out if they’re injured, to the ability to reinforce them ... We look at all those things, and evaluate on a continual basis.”
By Thursday, two U.S. troops injured during the fighting in Niger had been transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where they are in stable condition.