BY GRANT BONHAM
Amidst President Trump’s recent failure to console the widowed military wife of Sgt. La David Johnson, headlines announced the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger, causing many to question why this tragedy occurred in the first place. While most media focused on the indifferent tone of the president’s response, the implications of these deaths have pushed some substantial international issues to the forefront. The soldiers were killed in a relatively safe country that poses little international threat, but they were positioned in a foreign territory with little local knowledge or congressional authorization. This is part of an increasing pattern of U.S. shadow wars across Africa as regions quickly militarize in the name of counter terrorism. The attack in Niger that killed Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, and Sgt. La David Johnson was a byproduct of both this increasing international military presence in Africa, and the U.S. government’s covert perpetuation of militaristic imperialism across the continent.
It is commonplace to hear about the global military presence of the U.S., but since 9/11 there has been a steady increase of this presence in Africa. On Sept. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush’s speech before a Joint Session of Congress declared a global war on terror and brought the U.S. to the forefront of an ideological fight against global forces that would “plot evil and destruction.” In the post-9/11 hysteria just days before Bush’s speech, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was met with congressional approval, giving the government the authorization 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.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush’s declaration worked to silence critics on the left and right, but the AUMF authorization was broad. As Congresswoman Barbara Lee – the only congressional member to vote “nay” on the authorization – stated, it gave the president, “the authority to wage war in perpetuity.” Congresswoman Lee’s criticism is correct. The bill was written with the intention to outline the enactment of both current and future presidential powers and has led to few limitations on varying president’s abilities to conduct these shadow wars abroad.
The growing scale and lack of clear motive for shadow wars and African militarization is a cause for concern. Currently, U.S. troops conduct over 10 missions a day, and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has indicated that he would like an increased presence in the region. Airstrikes in Libya, and Navy SEAL operations in Somalia continue to show the strengthening of U.S. military control, with U.S. troops comprising the largest foreign military presence. On Sept. 13, African Command (AFRICOM) leader General Thomas Waldhauser remarked that AFRICOM has had great success in eradicating Islamic terrorism across the continent and stated that the mingling of “soldiers from Wyoming” have helped create greater peace in Tunisia. It appears that Trump has intentions of further increasing this presence. The Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Donald Yamamoto, has recently proposed a $5.2 billion dollar increase in African aid to be allocated to fight ISIS and other terrorist organizations. This appears to be an escalating trend, and the global war on terrorism will continue to reach new heights as more troops are stationed and public approval is removed from the decision-making process.
The U.S. government continues to lack transparency in its deployment methods abroad. Niger presents a very clear case study of militarization in Africa and underlines the problem U.S. military deployment sans a clear foreign policy objective. After the attack, Sen. John McCain mentioned the possibility of subpoenaing the Pentagon for more information on the mission. The Foreign Intelligence Committee has yet to initiate this subpoena. Without this information, there is no tangible understanding as to why these troops were stationed in Niger. What is presently known encompasses smaller details leading up to the incident itself. Twelve U.S. soldiers and 30 Nigerian soldiers were operating an intelligence mission when they were ambushed by over 50 ISIS-affiliated militants. The attack resulted in the deaths of the four U.S. soldiers. While the intelligence mission must have served a larger strategic goal in the region, information on the broader policy objectives are still unknown.
Two separate questions arise from this increasing troop deployment in Africa: is military aid in the region effective at stopping the spread of terrorism? What powers to declare or authorize war does Congress have left? The cyclical process of foreign intervention makes it hard to halt the militarization process once it begins. For example, if the U.S. engages in training an army to fight ISIS, and that army launches a military coup to overthrow the current government, then, theoretically, U.S. training would have helped perpetuate that. This has happened twice, in Mali and Burkina Faso, where two U.S. trained commanders overthrew their local governments in military insurrections. Yet this training went virtually uncriticized by the American public, and the effectiveness of these military programs is rarely evaluated. Criticism often goes unheard until American deaths result. On the other hand, the division of war powers between Congress and the president has been so fundamentally eroded that the promotion of a perpetual, global war has become common place for the executive. The War on Terror began over 15 years ago, yet the same policy is justifying these global military forces today. Congress has failed to defend the views of the American people by abdicating their responsibilities outright. The once transparent and debated process of declaring war has become a secretive policy aim for the president to take advantage of.
The four U.S. deaths in Niger exemplify the divide between a growing global military presence and the lack of government transparency to the American public in recent years. Since 9/11, this trend of increasing military powers and congressional relegation has gotten out of control. Members of Congress need to reign in these unregulated powers. President Trump’s recent approaches to foreign policy could spell out trouble, but he’s shown no signs of decreasing this pattern of shadow wars or leaving Africa alone. It was a mistake to initially grant the president such broad powers, and it will only get worse if Congress continues to avoid their responsibilities in informing the American public and keeping the executive in check.