The strange history of an imperial skirmish in Niger

There is a collective national ignorance that surrounds the United States' vast military presence in Africa.

Nigerien soldiers receive training from US soldiers. Image by U.S. Army, via Flickr CC.

The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is soon expected to release a series of reports on October 4, 2017 skirmish in Niger that claimed the lives of five Nigeriens and four US soldiers. In the meantime, the New York Times has just published its own lengthy autopsy of the event. The 8,000 word piece not only provides new details on the events in Niger, it attempts to place the murky firefight into a broader context so as to draw out its wider political implications. But the way the Times historically frames the event can only reproduce the very thing that the article is attempting to address: collective national ignorance that surrounds, what Senator Lindsey Graham rightfully called, “an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography.” The very war that led to the firefight in Niger.

Even more disturbing is the racial subtext of the event’s ostensible political implications, which is never called into question by the Times. Indeed, the Times’ article leans heavily on this subtext to pursue its angle on the story. When a Navy SEAL is killed in a botched raid in Yemen during the first month of the Trump presidency, the political outrage is predictably and expediently aimed at an inexperienced and disorganized White House, criticisms being leveled by wounded media institutions seeking to draw blood where it hurts Republicans the most — national security. But when four special operators are killed in “Africa” months later, probing questions are raised as to whether or not US forces should even be there in the first place. As with the 1993 Mogadishu battle, the loss of US soldiers in Niger does what no other zone of conflict is able to do: it calls into question the very rationale that drives the projection of US military force around the world. As the Times’ reporters claim, “[T]he deaths [in Niger] have reignited a longstanding argument in Washington over the sprawling and often opaque war being fought by American troops around the world.”

What the war in Iraq and the endless occupation of Afghanistan could not accomplish, low-level US counterterrorism assistance in the Sahel could: initiate a sense of buyer’s remorse regarding the Global War on Terror. In other words, Africa is not worth it. From T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom to today, we understand that the Middle East glorifies empire. From Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the present, we understand that Africa debases it.

The Times’ genealogy of the Niger ambush is partially rooted in the congressional authorization allowing the US president to use force against those involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks. As the Times explains, this act of congress has had far reaching consequences:

It is a war with sometimes murky legal authority, one that began in the embers of the Sept. 11 attacks and traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was expanded to Yemen, Somalia and Libya before arriving in Niger, a place few Americans ever think of, let alone view as a threat.

Of equal historical importance to the Times’ narrative is the August 7, 1998, bombings in Tanzania and Kenya targeting US embassies, events that seem to function as the inception date of Islamist militancy in Africa. That said, the article works hard to establish the US presence in Niger as primarily an Obama era policy, one that aggressively enhanced previously existing programs following the 2012 coup in Mali and the subsequent declaration of an Islamic state based in Timbuktu.

But the Times’ description of this war’s unfolding geography makes no sense. Involvement in Libya began as a humanitarian intervention in 2011 with no connection to the war on terror, apart from secret renditions of prisoners to Libya for torture by the Gaddafi regime. Indeed, the US knowingly supported Al-Qa‘idah linked rebels in their struggle to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Following the 2012 attacks on US diplomatic and intelligence compounds in Benghazi, US counterterrorism involvement in Libya was highly circumscribed as the country descended back into civil war by 2014. Only in mid-2016 did US ground forces begin to participate in the fight against the Islamic State during the long siege of Sirte.

By contrast, US training and security cooperation initiatives in the Sahel region were already well underway. Some are in fact extensions of programs that even predate the 9/11 attacks (e.g., the annual African Lion exercise in Morocco). The first major pan-Sahel training exercise involving Nigerien troops, “Flintlock,” was in 2005, a year before Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia that resulted in the creation of Al-Shabaab. Where the Times paints US involvement in trans-Saharan security as the latest stage in the global war on terror, it in fact began in 2002.

Making this narrative all the more bewildering is the absence of other fundamental developments in the region from the Times’ history. No mention is made of the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s, from which today’s Saharan “terrorist” organizations directly descend (notably the 2003 kidnapping of tourists in Algeria, which the Times thoroughly re-examined in 2014). Nor is there any discussion at all of the 2011 intervention into Libya’s civil war by NATO and the Arab League, which helped to destroy the Gaddafi regime, unleashing untold volumes of light weapons into trade networks across the Sahara and creating the conditions for the Islamic State to take root in Libya. Nor does the Times’ account even bother to mention by name the half-billion dollar counterterrorism initiative launched by the Bush administration in 2005, which enhanced already existing military aid and training programs that had been active in the Sahel region since 2002, well before there was any visible threat or even presence from Islamist insurgents in the region.

A 2005 report from the International Crisis Group raised serious questions as to why the US government appeared to be spending millions of dollars on a terrorist threat in the Sahel that no one was sure even existed. Visiting one of these programs in 2005 in Niger, The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan was at least “realist” enough to admit the extent to which the largely preventative nature of US military intervention in the Sahel was driven as much by concerns about oil production in North and West Africa as anything else.

That said, describing early US security initiatives in the Sahel as proactive and prescient obscures the fact that they played a significant role in the destabilization of the region. As will be described below, securitizing the Sahel helped to reinforce the deep socio-economic precariousness of the region. It furthermore allied US policy to regimes with historically antagonistic relations with communities in their Saharan hinterlands.

Needless to say, none of this is examined in the Times’ dissection of the 2017 attack in Niger. We get imperial handwringing, intimate portraits of the fallen US soldiers, and a blow-by-blow account of the attack itself. But what is truly concerning about the Times’ narrative of US involvement in the Sahel is not its blind spots. It is the fact that the narrative is vague and disorienting. Islamist terrorism in the Sahel seems to emerge from nowhere, coalesce without explanation, and metastasize uncontrollably. Africa is a land without an intelligible history and terrorism is a violence without a discernible political economy.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

As noted above, US counterterrorism activities in the Sahel region began soon after 9/11. Their rationalization was uniquely geographical. It wasn’t the presence of any viable terrorist threat that was motivating US interest in the region. It was the region’s alleged susceptibility to terrorism that frightened policy makers in Washington, planners in the Pentagon, and agents in Langley. The frightening equation was poverty, weak governments, and vast empty spaces. As with Afghanistan, it was the threat of the unknown, visualized and rationalized as a geography of ungoverned spaces and terrorist safe havens, that drove Washington to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Saharan security during the George W. Bush administration. In 2007, Scholar E. Ann McDougall noted that these developments fit within a broader pattern of European constructions of “emptiness” in the Sahara-Sahel region. That is, a pathology whereby North Atlantic states displace and project their own internal political crisis to regions that have little chance of mounting an effective resistance against this epistemic and imperial violence.

With the collapse of the state in the north of Mali in 2012, the Sahara-Sahel region finally saw the fulfillment of the prophecy that had been outlined by the US government ten years beforehand in the Pan-Sahel Initiative. What “terrorism” had existed in the Sahara-Sahel region circa 2001-2002 was mainly the remnants of a shattered Islamist insurgency from Algeria. Just as Fanon had seen strategic value in the Sahara for the FLN in its struggle against the French, so too had the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC), which began using the Sahara as a means to finance and organize a new phase of resistance against the Algerian state. Much of this funding would come from European hostages, though there was also involvement in trade and smuggling. A high profile 2003 kidnapping of several dozen tourists in the Algerian Sahara brought widespread attention to the Group and retroactively justified the US security initiatives already underway.

Over the course of the next decade, the GSPC built up a war chest of several millions of dollars in ransoms and eventually allied itself to Al-Qa‘idah, though its connections to the Algerian intelligence services were strongly alleged by informed observers. To what end would the Algerian regime seek to destabilize its oil producing and southern border regions was never clear, though as with many things in Algeria, the most plausible explanation was likely inter-factional fighting within the ruling elites (e.g., the Presidency and the intelligence services). The 2012 coup in Mali and the 2013 attack on a natural gas facility in eastern Algeria seems to have galvanized the Algerian regime, though historically tense relations with France, the former colonial power, and the United States, as a result of the Cold War, have complicated international efforts to manage the terrorism threat in the region in a concerted way.

More importantly, the US-led securitization of the Sahel during the first decade of the 2000s dramatically destabilized the region by robing Saharan communities of tourism revenues. While there were some in the US government, notably the State Department, who wanted to use the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (later Partnership) funds for preventative development-oriented programs, almost no attention was paid to the fact that the livelihoods of people who actually live in the Sahara, notably Tuareg communities in Mali, Algeria, and Niger, were being ravaged by the discourse of terrorism now framing the region’s security challenges.

To make matters worse, one of last places for Tuaregs to seek jobs and housing, Libya, soon became hostile to their presence given their historical association with the Gaddafi regime. The 2011 revolution in Libya was not only a tragedy for many Tuaregs but for the wider region as a whole. The collapse of the Libyan state in 2011 flooded the Sahara with seemingly unlimited quantities of light arms that soon found their way to a renewed Tuareg nationalist uprising in northern Mali in 2012. When Tuareg rebels succeeded in driving state security forces out of northern Mali, these forces turned on their government, ousting the president in a coup. The coup leader, as the Times notes, had received training from the US military.

The four US soldiers who were killed in Niger in 2017 died because they were cleaning up a mess left behind by the Bush administration. The policies of the Obama administration, particularly in Libya, had only made matters worse. The increasing focus on Niger, as the lynchpin of trans-Saharan security, has as much to do with the crisis in Mali (Mali was the original golden child of US Saharan security assistance prior to 2012) as with the collapse of Libya’s transitional government and the emergence of an Islamic State franchise in Sirte in 2015.

The US role in the unmaking of Libya needs no introduction but is worth recapping. Rather than seek a negotiated solution to the Libyan civil war of 2011 in concert with the African Union, the US government opted to pursue a policy of forced regime change with the Gulf-dominated Arab League as its “local” counterpart. By 2016, Obama at least realized that the North Atlantic powers had turned Libya — with all of its light weapons — into a “shit show.” At the same time, French, British and US special forces worked with various Libyan counterparts to help confront the Al-Qa‘idah and Islamic State presence in Libya, driving the latter from Sirte in 2016.

Naturally, as every security and terrorism expert assumed, Libya’s Islamic State would do what its Algerian predecessors had done almost two decades beforehand: hide in the Sahara. Though little evidence exists of this strategy, all eyes were on Niger as the likely victim of the Islamic State’s post-Sirte operations. In reality, the Islamic State in Sirte had never numbered more than a few hundred hardcore activists; most were likely killed by Misratan militias during the Sirte battle or have been picked off by US airstrikes. Those that remain are a nuisance whose prestige as jihadis is only increased by the fact that the US military is willing to fly B2 bombers from Missouri to kill them.

The extent to which the US military is willing to recognize its prevalent role in the tragedy of trans-Saharan security and the sequence of events that led to the deadly skirmish in Niger will likely be revealed in the forthcoming reports from AFRICOM. It will be unlikely, however, that these reports will recognize that terrorism in the region could be a monster of our own making. Indeed, a former State Department official told me last fall that the greatest regret of AFRICOM commanders in the wake of Mali’s 2012 civil war was that the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership had not included enough human rights training for its African pupils. Mission civilisatrice, indeed.

Yet what these partnerships had actually done was far more devastating. They had empowered the regimes and security forces of states whose relations to populations in their Saharan hinterlands have been historically contentious. Whether the relationship between Tuaregs and the Malian and Nigerien states or the ongoing conflict between Morocco and Sahrawi nationalists, the cumulative effect of US counterterrorism assistance was to disenfranchise Saharan communities from their own security. In effect, these state-centered security measures were structurally designed to produce more, not less, insecurity. But such is the nature of institutions to find ways of reproducing the conditions of their own necessity, military institutions being no different.

In his studies of French imperialism in the Sahara, Douglas Porch makes the argument that expansion of European empires was not always driven by the needs of the state or of capital. More Weberian logics of careerism within professional soldier classes and the institutional peculiarities of modern military bureaucracies were also driving late imperialism. Enterprising colonial officers, whose territorial forays and pacification operations occurred with little oversight or guidance from the metropole, were often the real agents of imperialism.

In some ways, this thesis of imperialism tells us something interesting about the dramatic expansion of AFRICOM and our collective ignorance of this fact. Following the revelation of the attack in Niger late last year, the US media, politicians, and public “discovered” a vast network of special forces operations in the Sahel. Our surprise and demand for answers reminds me of several anecdotes in Porch’s work, such as the shock expressed by French officials in the early twentieth century when they were informed that the French empire was now in possession of strategic oases along the Moroccan-Algerian border despite there being no political mandate to seize them.

Further Reading