What Happened in Niger?

Followers of foreign affairs are likely aware that the United States has taken military action in a growing list of nations in the last 10 years, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya to Pakistan. But did you know the U.S. also has active military troops in at least 134 other countries worldwide?

And these aren’t peacetime troops simply barracking at U.S. defense and supply posts around the world. No, these are Special Forces troops committed to carrying out missions that are for the most part secret and will likely remain that way until and unless the voting public is determined to change matters.

As an example, we learned this month that as many as 800 U.S. troops are on the ground in the West African country of Niger — a nation where the U.S. has neither declared war nor identified a national enemy. Globally, there are dozens and dozens of troop commitments in various third-world countries like Niger, where U.S. missions run from the patently obvious, such as raids targeting al-Qaeda in Yemen to the relatively obscure, such as fighting FARC guerilla troops in Columbia. But as more money flows to intelligence agencies and black budgets, the true nature of these overseas incursions grows murkier every day.

In Niger, the official story is that American troops are being used to combat splinter groups of ISIS, which has largely been forced to abandon its strongholds in Iraq and Syria as U.S. troops in combination with local armies have routed the terrorist group in those Middle Eastern states. Publicly, President Trump and others say we’re “winning the battle against ISIS,” but the truth is more complex than that.

While it’s a fact that some ISIS fighters are surrendering and pledging to return to their homelands (up to 80 percent of ISIS soldiers were drawn from foreign sources), some clearly are more committed to fighting U.S. and Western powers via terrorism and political intrigue than others. As it is with al-Qaeda, the U.S. is increasingly playing a game of “Whack-a-Mole” with ISIS, where destroying the group’s civilian infrastructure cover has resulted in a spreading and diluting of the organization throughout the world.

Whereas once upon a time, there may have been one unified group known as “al-Qaeda,” for example, today there’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Bosnia and Herzegovina and al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel. ISIS, also, has found that its anti-American and anti-Western messages have resonated in many third-world nations, and thus, local chapters of the organization have started up in Yemen, Chechnya, the Philippines and other places.

In North Africa, concentrated attacks against the group in Libya have led to its dispersal there and migration into neighboring African states, such as Tunisia, Egypt and Niger. (It’s worth noting that when he was alive, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was not immune from interacting with the leaders and despots of his national neighbors such as Chad and Sudan, likely with an eye on growing his power and influence in the region.)

800 troops is not a small number, and the fact that the U.S. also has drones stationed in Niger begs the question of whether tracking or containing ISIS is the sole mission there. It’s known that Niger has deposits of gold and other precious minerals (the country is the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium), and the African continent has long been a battleground for armies and militia groups to fight over for the rich bounty of natural resources the land contains.

In Afghanistan, there have been allegations that U.S. troops have guarded fields where poppy seeds, the basic component of opium, are being grown, with the brother of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused of being one of the largest traffickers of heroin (derived from opium) in the country.

With the opioid crisis taking a deadly toll on Americans and others throughout the world, one has to ask, is there a monetary component of this global mission creep that our military-industrial complex (MIC) has committed itself to?

In 2008, U.S. Special Forces were operating in 60 countries around the world. By 2012, that number had increased to 71. Today, it’s over 138 (with 100 separate missions in 20 countries acknowledged to be in operation in Africa alone). To date, most Americans are unaware that there are indeed active combat troops carrying out operations in many of these nations.

Of course, the veil of secrecy is occasionally punctured, as it was recently with the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger from what was termed an “ambush” by the Pentagon. But the facts of this case are still somewhat of a mystery. In fact, they’re cloudy enough that grandstanding RiNO (Republican in Name Only) Senator John McCain of Arizona has threatened to subpoena Trump administration officials if they don’t rapidly release all of the facts in the case of the four men who died.

In particular, McCain is seeking information about La David Johnson, the Army Green Beret whose widow President Trump called on October 16. That consolation call became national news when both Johnson’s widow Myeshia and Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida, who was riding in a car with Myeshia, listened to the conversation with Trump. Claims subsequently have been made in the media over words that were said on the call, and the issue has mushroomed into something of a “he said-she said” partisan media circus.

But the larger issue is exactly what Johnson was doing in Niger at the time he died. The Pentagon has said Johnson’s unit was ambushed by at least 50 ISIS fighters and that some of the Americans that were wounded had to be evacuated by helicopter. It also stated that military contractor Berry Aviation was conducting U.S. troop evacuations prior to when the ambush occurred, which begs the question of how dangerous the mission Johnson was on actually was.

In the immediate wake of the attack, French Air Force fighter jets were called in, and they fired automatic rounds at the attackers, but were unable to drop bombs on them due to international agreements.

But along with these facts, it’s been acknowledged that Johnson had separated from the group of men he was with and that his body was not recovered until almost 48 hours after the ambush occurred. “We never left the battlefield, and we never stopped looking for him,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

It’s worth noting that in 2004, Army Ranger and former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in an incident that the Pentagon originally labeled as a brutal firefight against one of the U.S.’s biggest enemies at the time, the Taliban. Parts of Tillman’s mission on his tour of Afghanistan remain classified; however, it later came out that the story of Tillman’s death was a cover-up — he had actually been felled by friendly fire.

Members of Tillman’s unit burned his personal notebook, uniform and body armor to cover-up evidence and were told to lie to the Army specialist’s family at his funeral. MSNBC reporter Chris Matthews has even speculated that Tillman’s death actually could have been premeditated murder, based on medical examiners’ evidence that the fatal shots to Tillman’s head were fired from less than 10 yards away from his body.

Tillman had been known to hold anti-war views and may have been contemplating a series of media interviews after his Afghan tour at a time when pro-war Republican establishment President George W. Bush was seeking re-election.

Could the death of Johnson be a similar case of friendly fire — or worse? The fact that the Army tried to cover up the Tillman affair surely had much to do with the fact that Tillman was already well-known to the press, and his death became a media spectacle. Now that the call to Johnson’s widow has become so sensationalized in the news, the Pentagon appears to be scrambling in a similar way to provide details that should have been made public in the 24 hours after Johnson’s death.

Of course, the fact that Johnson was operating out of Niger and a less-than-declared U.S. military operation surely complicates matters, and it doesn’t help that President Trump has been tweeting about “defeating ISIS” when, in fact, the U.S. seems to be engaging in more “cleanup efforts” in more countries around the world trying to truly contain the terrorist organization.

Perhaps if the president and the Pentagon were more honest about the true status of the anti-ISIS efforts and told the public a little more about what our country is doing in 138 nations around the world (and what the cost of that commitment is), Americans might be in a better position to say whether their taxpayer money — and the blood of our valiant soldiers — should be spent in this way.