Recently the deaths of three United States Special Forces soldiers were reported to have taken place in the African country of Niger.
According to reports, a contingent of American troops was ambushed by an unspecified enemy while accompanying Niger government forces. Two additional US personnel were wounded.
US Africa Command, or AFRICOM, later confirmed the deaths, but refused to provide details regarding the operation the men were on, only that it took place in the region north of the capital city of Niamey where the US maintains a base of operations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at an air base there.
The drones (UAVs) are mostly unarmed and primarily conduct surveillance and intelligence collection missions.
The operation that ended in the death of three US servicemen is part of the broad counter-terror mission that has been ongoing in Niger and other countries in the region for several years now. While the center of jihadism has always been the Middle East, terror groups in surrounding regions have been developing a presence deeper into the African continent in the Sub-Saharan and the swath of desert known as the Sahel, stretching from Senegal on the western coast, to the tip of Ethiopia in the East. America is also currently involved in conflicts in Cameroon, Uganda, and South Sudan.
High profile attacks like the Grand Bassam resort shooting in Cote d'Ivoire, and the recent August attack in Burkina Faso that left 18 people dead in a restaurant in the city of Ouagadougou, serve as stark reminders that extremism in Africa is no fantasy.
While it might very well be an American security interest to maintain a military presence in Niger and other African countries, the problem is that the escalation is occurring with little public debate — and, some military experts say, too little attention from top decision-makers in Washington.
As one former CIA Africa analyst and current researcher at the Pentagon-funded Rand Corp told media sources recently: "I don’t think there is any congressional oversight in this.” The same source concluded his comments by stating that the lack of guidance from Washington and the top military echelons has left the US troops operating in Africa “pretty much doing their own thing."
There is no question that Africa has taken a backseat in terms of importance and attention, both in the public perception and amongst decision makers. Bigger conflicts such as the ones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are the hot topics in American foreign policy.
But this does not mean that Africa is a moot point.
Africa has quietly become a hotbed of jihadist activity over the past several years due to a few very important regional factors. After the fall of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 for instance, weapons began to flood Niger and other central African countries. The influx of military hardware fueled groups such as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab, and cells of the Islamic State that have been active in the region. The increase in militant activity, in turn, attracted more recruits from other regions such as North Africa and the Middle East.
With the escalation of extremism, the US also upped its hand and began an influx of troops. Take the American military presence in Niger for instance. While the country contained around 575 personnel at the end of 2016, that number currently stands at 800 according to the Pentagon.
And it’s not just troops that are being added. A new drone base is under construction in Agadez to compliment the one already in the country’s capital.
All of these indicators point to America’s long-term commitment to a presence in Africa. The question remains what coherent policy direction, if any will emerge from all this investment in men and military infrastructure.