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Nobody knows anything. Trump can’t recall the names of the slain soldiers. Mad Dog Mattis can’t explain what the soldiers were doing when they were killed. Lindsay Graham and Chuck Schumer had no idea the US had 800 boots on the ground in Niger, even though they had both repeatedly voted to appropriate money for Africom’s operations in the Lake Chad Basin and in the Saharan Region, allegedly to target ISIS and Boko Haram.
Most Americans were shocked to learn that the US had any troops in Niger. Of course, most Americans were also shocked that Niger (of Bush-era yellowcake fame) is not Nigeria. They are also cautious about whether or not it is safe to pronounce the name of the country in public.
Chris Matthews, talking dotard at MSDNC, advised his dwindling audience that “jungle fighting” is always fraught with peril, apparently oblivious to the fact that Niger, one of the largest countries in West Africa, is mostly blanketed by the Sahara Desert.
And three weeks after the firefight, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, still didn’t know what happened outside the village of Tongo Tongo on October 4, 2017, despite having a surveillance drone record much of the firefight. Perhaps the general should consult Hillary Clinton, an expert in “happenings,” who stamped her imperial heelprint on the sands of North Africa in 2011 with the sacking of Libya, a debacle whose consequences continue to rock the region six years later.
What they know and what they say they don’t know are, of course, two entirely different things, except in the cases of Matthews and Trump, who really are as dumb as they appear on TV.
The first story to leak out of the Pentagon was that while on a training mission in Niger consisting of 12 US Army Rangers and 30 Niger regulars, three US soldiers (later amended to four) had been killed and two wounded by armed gangs of militants riding motorcycles and driving trucks. This scenario lasted for about a day. Then a new plotline developed suggesting that the troops were on a goodwill expedition to villages near the Mali border, consulting with tribal leaders and winning “hearts-and-minds.” This familiar narrative held sway for a couple of days before being supplanted by a third version, wherein the US Rangers were on a reconnaissance mission searching for an elusive HVT, a High-Valued Target associated with a nascent ISIS group in the region. Later, a revised account purported that after the troops had met with villagers they learned that a suspected terrorist was in the neighborhood and took off in hot pursuit, even though the squad, composed largely of inexperienced soldiers, wasn’t prepared for combat and didn’t radio for air support. In the latest self-serving variation, the US forces were deviously lured to a hamlet outside of Tongo Tongo and ambushed, betrayed by the ungrateful villagers they were trying to help. Amid all of this soul searching and hand-wringing, no one seemed concerned enough to mention the five dead Nigerien soldiers, whose lives had been cut short in this botched endeavor.
For two weeks, the White House remained tactfully silent, dodging any questions about the ambush. Then President Bonespur was baited with a query about why he had not mentioned the Niger incident in any of his numerous Tweets or public pronouncements. Trump responded by boasting about how he prefers to call the families of slain solders, unlike his cowardly predecessor. In fact, Trump hadn’t yet called or written to any of the families and when he did he bungled the conversations, as General Kelly suspected he would.
Let’s recall that the question that tripped the eruption wasn’t whether Trump had called the families of dead, but about why he hadn’t mentioned the Niger bloodbath at all. But Trump is completely self-referential and in this case the spectacle that followed his brutish treatment of La David Johnson’s wife, Myeshia, and his racist Tweets about Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who had exposed the churlish nature of Trump’s condolence call, served to eclipse the question of what US troops were really doing in Niger and how this stealthy endeavor went so wrong.
Trump often functions as a kind of human IED. Each time he detonates, he sends the press into a frenzy, tracking down every forensic fragment of his latest explosion, while missing the real story right under their noses. Whether intentionally or serendipitously, Trump has managed to change the subject from why four Americans had died in a country the US is not at war against to the precise nature of his calls to the families of the dead.
John Kelly was promptly sent forth to mop up the damage. It was not a command performance. Unburdened from the restraints of his former code of conduct, the chivalrous general launched into a crazed 15-minute rant about the country’s moral decay. Kelly used the corpse of his own son as a political prop, bemoaned the idea that America no long treats women as sacred beings and then insulted Rep. Wilson as an “empty barrel”, a slur he tried to lend substance to by telling a completely fabricated story about a speech she gave at the opening of an FBI building in Florida. By implication, Kelly also smeared the pregnant, grieving young widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Perhaps uncoincidentally, both the Congresswoman and the widow are black. So much for the baby-sitter-in-chief. But did one really expect more from the man who, as head of Southern Command, oversaw Guantanamo during its darkest days?
On Monday October 23, General Dunford stepped before the cameras to hold a rare press briefing. Instead of clarity, we were treated to more mystification, delivered in Dunford’s sedate Xanax-like drone. Dunford implied that the Niger operation was spurred by a tip from Niger’s former colonial overlords the French, who can always be counted on to issue an invitation to a quagmire. But Dunford had little else to offer. What was the purpose of the operation? Who ordered it? What were the rules of engagement? How heavily were the troops armed? Were they wearing body armor? Why did they wait an hour to report the ambush and request help? Why did it take two days to locate La David Johnson’s body? What was he doing more than a mile away from his cohorts? Why couldn’t his wife view his remains? What is the US’s vital interest in Niger? Who laid the ambush? What were their motives? What did the White House know and when did it know it? There was much sonorous dissembling, but no clear answers from the general.
The most revealing comment Dunford made was his confirmation of something that many of us have long suspected: the US military presence in Africa is large, lethal and expanding. Dunford admitted that there are currently more than 800 US troops in Niger and more than 6,000 troops actively engaged across Africa in 53 different nations, meaning all but one country on the continent. This number is almost certainly low, since it doesn’t include special forces, SEAL teams, defense contractors, mercenaries, CIA operatives or drone operators in their Nevada cubicles.
Even now the Trump administration is raising the stakes with a pending $5.2 billion request to Congress to fund more missions in the African “theater of security operations.” The Pentagon is also exploiting the Tongo Tongo ambush to strong-arm the government of Niger into allowing armed US drones to patrol the nation’s desert skies. (I recommend the excellent reporting of Nick Turse for more on the Pentagon’s African deployment.)
You can understand President Bonespur’s predicament. How can he explain to his white nationalist powerbase why his government is conducting military operations across Africa, of all places? The easy out for Trump would have been to blame it all on Obama, the Kenyan interloper. Even though Africom was conceived by Donald Rumsfeld and midwifed into being by Robert Gates, it took Obama to put it into ferocious action, as part of his African Tilt strategy. Marketed under humanitarian pretensions, the blood started flowing quickly. By the end of Obama’s first term, his Africom strike forces were making 550 raids a year. As Obama left office, the lethal tempo had escalated to 3,500 military operations a year, many of them publicly billed as an effort to squash the misogynistic brigands of Boko Haram. Less heralded were the 500 airstrikes this year alone on Libya, the nation that just won’t stay liberated. (The real motive behind Obama’s African project had less to do with chasing down terrorists, than in providing a military hedge against growing Chinese ambitions for the oil and mineral resources of the continent.) That’s one big reason you don’t hear any real protest from the Democrats.
Both political parties would much rather keep the focus on Trump’s malicious Tweets and far away from the true scope of America’s vicious intrusions in Africa, where if you admit nothing, you can get away with almost anything.
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