Elephants in the Room

Why Is the United States in Niger, Anyway?

National security isn’t just about fighting the Islamic State — it’s about building strong partners in Africa.

American soldiers conduct a training exercise with the Senegalese military in 2016. (Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images)
American soldiers conduct a training exercise with the Senegalese military in 2016. (Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Americans had no idea that the United States had soldiers in Niger, let alone why, until four were killed in an ambush earlier this month. Part of the answer is that U.S. special operations forces have typically been operating in 70 to 80 countries worldwide for two decades. Their task has been mainly to build capacity in the security forces of partner nations, in order to promote both stability and broadly accepted norms in democratic societies. The special operations presence in Niger is only a few years old, and has been tied to U.S. efforts to defeat violent extremists operating with impunity, especially to the north in Mali and to the south in Nigeria.

A larger part of the answer to why U.S. forces are in Niger today lies in Niger’s remarkable development as a relatively stable nation in its region. The United States had much to do with that, and earned the friendship and respect of the Nigerien government and its people.

In the early 1990s Niger took an unusual political step for an African nation in the Saharan region known as the Sahel. Its autocratic president at the time approached the United States and other embassies in Niamey to help create a multi-party democracy in the desperately impoverished nation.

Niger perennially ranked at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index and suffered regularly from extreme droughts that sometimes led to famine. Experts often blame political forces for famine, and Niger was no exception. Moreover, in that period the country experienced violent uprisings by Nigerien ethnic Tuareg groups who felt dispossessed and complained that the national government ignored their needs. There was no U.S. military presence in Niger, or anywhere nearby, besides the embassy’s Marine security guard contingent and a one-man security assistance program.

After the Nigerien government request, the U.S. diplomatic mission — the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency, and other governmental entities — collaborated with other embassies in Niamey, U.N. entities, and nongovernmental organizations to help Nigeriens establish the basis for participatory democracy and a more robust civil society, including the basic laws and regulations for multiparty elections.  In 1993 Tuaregs, Nigeriens of Arab descent, and other marginalized groups ran for office alongside majority ethnic groups in the first multiparty elections since independence in 1960.

The transition to a participatory, transparent, and accountable government is long and uneven in any nation, and so it was with Niger. Coup attempts intervened along the way. The country requires substantial international assistance to build the economic and social infrastructure it needs to provide just the basics for its population, particularly in health and agriculture. But today it still enjoys multiparty elections and improved governance. Its prime minister for the past few years has been an ethnic Tuareg.

Of course, another reason for the U.S. military presence in Niger is its strategic location smack in the middle of the Sahara. The desert provides an ungoverned space where terrorists and violent extremists can thrive. From Niger, coalition forces can address several specific threats to regional and global security, especially al Qaida in the Maghreb, Boko Haram, and Islamic State offshoots.

The lesson we can draw from “Why Niger?” is that US government diplomatic and development strategies to build stability, legitimacy, and capacity in fragile nations can be a foundation for American security, even without direct and immediate threats to America present.  In Niger twenty-five years ago, our strategy was not justified by fighting al Qaida or the Islamic State, which did not exist at the time. But we certainly benefit from the consequences of those policies today, where local and international security forces can implement counterterrorism strategies for the entire region. When many donors assist in building good governance, thereby minimizing ungoverned spaces, we deprive extremists of the territory from which to metastasize into greater threats. Our military, particularly special operations forces, contributes significantly to building partner capacity and is an inextricable part of U.S. national security strategy, alongside diplomatic and development counterparts.

The fact remains that armed conflict in West Africa represents a threat to the United States and its allies. The tragic deaths of American and Nigerien forces earlier this month remind us that operating in the Sahel region of Africa remains dangerous. But the reason U.S. forces are there at all should be assessed in light of American strategic goals with respect to violent extremism, and the history of U.S. support for an African nation like Niger.

David Litt was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Niamey from 1990 to 1993 and State Department political advisor to U.S. Special Operations Command from 1998 to 2002.

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