On October 4, four U.S. troops and five Nigerians were killed in ambush by heavily armed ISIS-affiliated fighters near the restive Mali border in Niger. While the press has been obsessed with how President Donald Trump has handled it politically back home, it’s important to note that this event not only marked the first U.S. combat deaths in Niger, but the first public revelation that the Pentagon was carrying out anything close to combat operations there at all.
That isn’t to say that we didn’t know the U.S. had troops in Niger. In February of 2015, U.S. African Command announced a deployment of troops for a small training operation. But it wasn’t meant to be permanent. More so, it was never widely conveyed, at least publicly, that Special Forces would be engaging in joint military patrols on the Mali border, a known stomping ground for multiple Islamist factions. This, according to reports, is what the Green Berets were doing when they were ambushed.
In that incident, 12 U.S. troops were reportedly leaving a meeting with local leaders and were walking back to unarmored vehicles when they came under fire from 50 Islamists with small arms, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. Though outgunned the Green Berets engaged in a firefight lasting about 30 minutes before the French military came to the rescue with fighter jets, eventually scaring the ISIS-affiliated fighters away (they reportedly did not have authority to shoot). The French forces then came in with helicopters to fly out the dead and wounded.
Three U.S. soldiers were reported killed and two wounded that day, and two days later it was announced a fourth was found dead after a lengthy recovery operation.
“This was a hard fight, this was a very tough fight,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters last week.
Why were they outgunned? It could be that the mission had been set up as “low risk” when team leaders got the go-ahead to move forward on the patrols in the first place, according to sources quoted by the New York Times. This is clearly troubling, however, when one considers the Mali-Niger border region is known to be teeming with multiple Islamist factions. That appears to be why the U.S. is there, though there has been no real conversation in Washington, much less in the public forum, about the role there.
Turns out that for five years Niger has been a toe in the expanding American footprint in Africa, and has become a hub of U.S. military activity (about 800 soldiers are serving as advisors and training local forces there now) and, according to Nick Turse, the location of a brand new $100 million drone base. Meanwhile, the region has become a crossroads of Islamist activity, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb across the Sahel. And now, apparently, ISIS.
While some reporters have sought to find scandal in President Trump’s reaction to the troop deaths, there’s been little to no concern about the U.S. putting troops in combat situations in Niger in the first place, ostensibly to “train and advise,” and then keeping it largely out of the press.
Niger is far from the exception. In March 2012, the Pentagon confirmed that U.S. troops were attacked in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, and that a CIA officer was killed. This was the first time officials confirmed that the U.S. had ground troops operating inside Yemen at all. The revelation is even more stunning when one recalls that the White House publicly ruled out sending ground troops to Yemen several times in the years leading up to this admission.
During his August 21 speech on Afghanistan, President Trump cautioned that “America’s enemies must never know our plans.” This was presented at the time as a reason for not giving any specifics about how the Afghan war’s escalation was to proceed, but also appears to be a driving policy goal for the administration, likely at the behest of the Pentagon—secrecy at all cost.
Given the Pentagon’s long history of being less than candid with the American public, making secrecy a government-wide goal suggests what happened in Niger was not an oversight, nor likely to be a unique situation for the world’s largest military, which has troops in myriad countries—at last count 138—often doing God knows what.
Even in obvious, known war zones, like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, the Pentagon often plays semantics games with its missions, regularly defining troops in the middle of firefights to be “advisors” or “trainers.” It’s rare indeed for the Pentagon to acknowledge that any of its troops are in “combat duty” anywhere. Nothing ensures limited coverage of a U.S. war like rebranding it a training operation, and apart from the casualties that inevitably follow, little to suggest to the casual observer that America is actually engaged in combat there.
This is doubly true in places like Niger, where the original reports of deployments were so deceptively downplayed by the Pentagon that few media outlets bothered to cover them. The presence of U.S. troops was, if not a secret, not exactly a widely known fact. With troop numbers and operational details kept from the public, America can be, and in fact is, engaged in secret wars without any public oversight.
Keeping the “enemy” from knowing our plans has become so vague, with so many deployments around that world, that who the enemy even is has to remain unspoken, so it can change on a whim, or as U.S. patrols happen to stumble into new fights. And when they do, the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) serves as the blanket authority to engage in combat.
Niger provides a terrifying reminder of how far we are from being an informed American public that serves as a check and balance on what our military is doing in our name. We can’t have a debate on U.S. intervention overseas if we don’t even know where are our forces are, let alone to what end.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, the Toronto Star, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Providence Journal, the Daily Caller, The American Conservative, the Washington Times and the Detroit Free Press.