The military intervention that the United States political and Pentagon establishment never talked about is suddenly in the news after a joint patrol comprising 12 US troops and 30 Nigerien soldiers was attacked by a small group thought to be an ISIS affiliate known as ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS).
The attack, which took place outside the village of Tongo Tongo, near the border with Mali, left four US Army Green Berets and five Nigerien soldiers dead and many more wounded, along with numerous ISIS-GS forces.
The incident itself was little mentioned until US President Donald Trump – after two weeks of silence on the matter – offended the family of soldier La David Johnson in a characteristically insensitive condolence call to his widow Myeshia Johnson.
Beyond Trump's predictably poor communication skills, the attack on the patrol has generated controversy over a host of tactical questions and generated a debate over the immediate next steps for military operations in Niger and Africa as a whole.
But almost entirely missing from the media coverage or the mainstream political discussion are the broader questions that arise in the wake of the Niger attack: What is the role of the US military in Niger in the first place? And why has there been a dramatic escalation of US military presence in Africa as a whole?
Niger’s strategic role
According to the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) there is no active US military presence in Niger at all, but rather 800 US troops providing "only" training and logistics for soldiers of the Niger army, as well as support for 4000 French troops in West Africa.
But these claims obscure the strategic regional role played by Niger for the world's imperial powers.
In Mali, which lies to Niger's west, al Qaeda-linked forces have been waging a civil war against the French-supported government. To Niger's south, a civil war in northern Nigeria between Boko Haram and the government has spilled over into neighbouring Chad and Cameroon, as well as Niger, in the broader Lake Chad region, accounting for tens of thousands of deaths.
These conflicts have been highly destabilising, generating scorched earth responses from the Nigerian and Nigerien governments and creating a huge refugee crisis. About 2 million people have been displaced and famine looms across four nations.
However, the US military's strategic focus is not on the humanitarian crisis, though this rhetoric is used to justify intervention. The real focus is on counterterrorism and containing the risks posed by this regional instability, with the potential for further insurgency and wider wars.
Counterterrorism initiatives in the region date back to 2002, on the heels of 9/11, and continue to unfold with the widening US involvement in West Africa.
As Alan Maass wrote in 2014: “In the US and Europe, politicians are exploiting the international outcry against Boko Haram to recycle anti-Islam rhetoric from the ‘war on terror’ – and to justify, behind a facade of humanitarian concern, the expansion of military operations in Africa that are designed to promote imperialist interests, not the well-being of Nigerians or anyone else on the continent.”
This same rhetoric has been deployed to obscure the real roots of the spiralling regional crisis, which lie in the Western intervention in Mali and Libya.
Journalist Nick Turse, author of Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, has documented the expanding presence of US military sites across Africa, including airfields, bases and outposts, which now number 46.
Most strikingly, as Turse has described for The Intercept, the US is building a large drone base in Agadez in Niger.
Authorised by the previous Barack Obama administration, Agadez is, as Turse writes: “considered the most important US military construction effort in Africa ... [T]he only country in the region willing to allow a US base for MQ-9 Reapers – a newer, larger, and potentially more lethal model than the venerable Predator drone – Niger has positioned itself to be the key regional hub for US military operations, with Agadez serving as the premier outpost for launching intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against a plethora of terror groups.”
Scramble for Africa
The growing conflicts in West Africa are the logical outgrowth of a wider US presence across the continent. The launch of AFRICOM in 2008 has evolved, almost a decade later, into a vastly expanded militarisation, with a shift towards greater permanence.
The scale of intervention made a decisive jump on Obama's watch, with a 200% increase in military missions. Today, there are about 6000 US troops across the African continent. More than half are concentrated at the main US base at Camp Lemonnier in the small Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, with others scattered across the continent.
Several factors have helped create what is essentially a US war in Africa.
For one, concerns about stability and security speak to the continent's geostrategic value for US interests more broadly. The US military presence in Africa can be understood in part as playing an important supporting role for US intervention in the ongoing wars in the Middle East.
The "war on terror" against key targets in Africa – such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, near the Red Sea, with proximity to the Middle East; Boko Haram; and Islamic militants in Libya and the Mali/Niger border region – are closely tied to these wider aims.
Arguably, however, efforts to eliminate terror by military means have only intensified the violence. Suicide bombings by Boko Haram, for example, are already twice the number that took place in 2016.
At the same time, the expanded US military presence is an expression of imperial tensions between the major world powers.
Across Africa, the US government has sought alliances and favourable conditions for conducting business in a host of nations. The period of greater military involvement has coincided with a surging economic boom, sometimes described as the "new scramble for Africa" – a drive for oil and other natural resources and investment opportunities that relies on friendly African regimes amenable to looking out for US interests.
The US, however, is not the only major power with its sights set on Africa.
France, the former colonial power in the region, has sought to establish power broker status in West Africa, including in Mali and Niger.
France also has economic interests of its own – it relies on uranium for nuclear power plants that generate about three-quarters of its electricity, much of it originating in Niger, the fourth-largest uranium producer in the world. France's economic presence has only intensified the conflict created by its military presence – the Somair uranium mine in Arlit, for example, has been the target of attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups.
China is likewise a major economic competitor to the US in Africa, and its presence in Niger is a case in point.
China has made strides in developing its important nuclear industry, and it has launched Somina, a joint venture between Niger and the China National Nuclear Corporation. As with the Somair mine, local anger at conditions surrounding mines has been building for years, including among Tuareg herders facing depletion of their water sources near the mine.
The competition between imperial powers has likewise taken a military form for the Chinese government, which announced in late 2015 that it would establish its first overseas military outpost, a naval base in Djibouti.
The aftermath of the attack in Niger points to the prospect of increased US intervention there.
A similar possibility is likely in Somalia as well, following the al-Shabaab bombing in the capital, Mogadishu, that left more than 300 dead – an attack thought to be in retaliation for a US Special Forces raid on a Somali village two months before that left 10 civilians dead.
Following the Mogadishu bombing, Trump signed a directive classifying parts of Somalia as areas of "active hostilities”. This means the Pentagon now has more power to carry out air strikes and ground raids in the region – and, effectively, greater permission to kill bystanders without accountability.
Defence Secretary James Mattis announced on October 20 that counter-terror efforts in Africa will now be expanded. "The war is morphing," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters last week. "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; you're going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field."
The prospects for intensified imperial intervention pose sharp questions for how an opposition to this militarism can be built. Certainly, the "problem" of the region will not be resolved by great attention on the part of Trump, who has faced recent criticism for his supposed inattention to Africa policy.
Yet people on the left must also reject calls to inject resources into "local" forces such as the African Union (AU). US funding for military operations via local proxy forces or regional operations such as the AU merely provide an alternative vehicle for extending US interests on the continent. This is a dead end for the left.
Rather, anti-war forces in the US and beyond must demand an end to military deployment and use on the continent in all forms. We must show how the corporate scramble for African resources is linked to the intensified militarisation, and challenge both.
Imperialism in Africa will lead inevitably to heightened conflict, poverty and war, whether US lives are lost or not. Resistance to the new wars in Africa could not be more urgent.
[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]