The ‘Myths and Lies’ Behind the U.S. Military’s Growing Presence in Africa
AGADEZ, Niger—In early May, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, addressed a group of journalists gathered in a staid, gray room at the Pentagon. The press conference had been called to disclose the main findings of the Defense Department’s investigation of an ambush seven months earlier in the West African nation of Niger.
The ambush, which unfolded outside the village of Tongo Tongo and was subsequently claimed by a group known as ISIS in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, killed four American soldiers, four Nigerien soldiers and one Nigerien translator. The deaths of the Americans brought an unprecedented level of scrutiny to U.S. military operations in West Africa’s Sahel region and on the continent at large. The reaction—from lawmakers, the news media and the general public—revealed widespread ignorance of the extent of those operations and what they were intended to accomplish.
Listen to Joe Penney discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 22:36.
At one point during the press conference, a journalist asked about reports indicating that Nigerien authorities may have apprehended Doundoun Cheffou, one of the militants who led the Tongo Tongo ambush; these reports were later determined to be incorrect. Waldhauser confirmed that the Nigeriens had indeed arrested the wrong man, while at the same time offering an unexpected shred of insight into how U.S. military officials think about the places where their soldiers are deployed. Shaking his head, he said, “Look, in this part of Africa, myths and lies are notorious.”
In response to a follow-up email, Maj. Sheryl Klinkel, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said that Waldhauser, who fought in the 1991 Gulf War and the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was “referring to violent extremist organizations like ISIS and their ability to exploit and influence under-governed areas.” Yet Waldhauser’s cryptic phrasing, combined with the Pentagon’s own shadowy presence in Niger and elsewhere, invites an important question: At a time when U.S. military engagement in Africa is growing rapidly, who exactly is doing the mythmaking and the lying?
The U.S. military obscures the nature of its actions in Africa through ambiguous language and outright secrecy. It limits the amount of information available about the objectives of its operations, how those operations are carried out, the facilities it uses, and how it partners with governments in the region. At times, this has involved subverting democratic processes in partner countries, an approach that runs counter to years of diplomatic engagement ostensibly designed to strengthen governance institutions.
Nevertheless, interest in the U.S. military’s activities is on the rise and is set to increase further as incidents like the Tongo Tongo ambush make them more visible. Earlier this month, for example, militants from the al-Shabab extremist group in Somalia ambushed a group of American special forces soldiers, African Union peacekeepers and Somali government soldiers, killing one American Green Beret.
The gamble that the public, in both America and across Africa, won’t find out about questionable actions, and won’t have the means to challenge them if they do, is becoming increasingly risky. Moreover, the Pentagon’s engagement in Africa—from Niger and Ghana to Djibouti and Somalia—is ramping up at the expense of a coherent diplomatic and economic strategy for the continent, a state of affairs that harms both American and African interests.
The Pentagon is subverting democratic processes in partner countries in Africa, undermining years of diplomatic engagement.
The Fallacy of “No Combat Operations”
Waldhauser’s press conference in May underscored the fact that, more than half a year after the ambush near Niger’s border with Mali, the Pentagon’s version of events continued to be marred by frustrating ambiguities and contradictions. One of the murkiest elements of the story was the question of what the Americans were doing, and what they were authorized to do, on the patrol.
“Let me reiterate,” Waldhauser said forcefully at the beginning of his remarks in Washington. “Neither the strategy nor the authorities that U.S. forces use to implement it envision U.S. forces conducting combat operations in Niger.”
Yet this statement was belied by the nature of the Tongo Tongo mission, which involved a few dozen Nigerien and American soldiers. The objective of the mission was to capture or kill Cheffou in the area of Niger with one of the highest concentrations of jihadist attacks. The summary of the Defense Department’s report, available on its website, says the mission was “targeting a key member of ISIS-GS,” meaning Cheffou. It also states that U.S. special operations forces “have the authority to conduct CT [counterterrorism] operations with partner Nigerien forces.”
The Pentagon draws a distinction between combat operations and counterterrorism operations, though this line is fuzzy at best. Officially, the U.S. troops participating in the mission alongside the Nigerien soldiers were not meant to fire any weapons unless they were targeted themselves. Yet at the press conference, Waldhauser struggled to explain how this would actually work. “If there was a target to go to, our U.S. forces don’t go to that target,” he said. “They stay… they stay behind… they… It’s a little bit of an art, not necessarily a science. You can’t really say, ‘You’ve got to stay back 500 yards,’ or ‘You can only go this close.’”
of the fight against Boko Haram at a Nigerien military base in Diffa, Niger, March 26, 2015
(photo by Joe Penney).
The division in roles between African and American soldiers on such missions is further undermined by the fact that the Americans have better equipment and training, as well as the broader authority that comes with representing a mightier military. A Nigerien soldier who participated in the Tongo Tongo mission, and who spoke to WPR on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists about military operations, describes how the American soldiers were effectively calling the shots.
On Oct. 3, 2017, the mixed unit of Nigerien and American special forces left their base in Ouallam for the village of Tiloa in search of Cheffou. When they didn’t find him in Tiloa, the Nigeriens in the unit told the Americans that they should head back to Ouallam because night was approaching and they were in a hostile zone, according to the Nigerien soldier. But the Americans pushed to continue looking for Cheffou in a village called Akabar, along the Niger-Mali border; again, they didn’t find him. The soldiers then set up camp outside Tongo Tongo for the night, a decision that eventually cost some of the troops their lives. “We were confused as to why the Americans insisted we spend the night in enemy territory,” the soldier says. “But since the Americans were in charge, we couldn’t do anything.”
When the unit was ambushed the following day, the Americans were the ones fighting back, according to this same Nigerien soldier. “We only have light weapons,” he adds, “so it was the Americans who did the combat.”
The Pentagon began increasing its use of advise-and-assist missions in the context of the “war on terrorism” declared after the 9/11 attacks. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 established two new authorities governing military support for other countries. Section 1206, which has since been renamed 10 USC 333, was created so the U.S. could offer a “quicker, more agile, counterterrorism-focused version” of traditional foreign military financing, says Lauren P. Blanchard, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Section 1208, which is now known as 10 USC 127e, is a classified program that allows support for foreign forces engaged in operations with U.S. special operations forces, according to Blanchard.
In 2015, the Obama administration created a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, giving the Defense Department the authority to direct $1 billion in additional funding to equipment and training to build the capacity of partner countries. Much of it went to 1206 programs. This led to security assistance funding from the Defense Department surpassing security assistance funding from the State Department in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, Blanchard says, meaning that the Defense Department “is setting the agenda more in terms of where money is going to go.”
Today, the U.S. has a military presence in almost every country in Africa and conducts “advise-and-assist” missions with local counterterrorism units in Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Libya and possibly elsewhere. Officially, though, the U.S. has never led or unilaterally carried out a “capture-kill” mission in the Sahel, the semiarid region south of the Sahara desert that includes Niger; the mission targeting Cheffou was ostensibly led by the Nigeriens. A U.S.-conducted “capture-kill” mission would have to be officially approved under an Authorized Use of Military Force, in cases of self-defense against an imminent threat or under an “intel determination,” which generally refers to missions undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The lack of clarity around U.S. military operations is a concern for at least some U.S. lawmakers. “I don’t think we have a sufficiently engaged Congress in terms of reviewing scope and duration and territory in which we’re conducting combat operations,” says Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on African Affairs. “I think it’s important that the average American and the average senator understands the distinction between sustained combat operations and train-and-equip missions, and I think there are some operational concerns that the incident in October last year raises.”
I experienced firsthand the pitfalls of the U.S. military’s ambiguous and deceptive language about who is in charge of its various operations during Flintlock, an annual American-run regional military exercise that was held in Niger in 2015. I was embedded to cover the exercise in Diffa, in the southeast of the country, a region frequently targeted by Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based Islamist militant group. Although the Americans said that the Nigeriens were in charge of the whole exercise, that was clearly not true. This became obvious when a colleague and I asked a Green Beret press officer if we could leave the camp to report on Boko Haram’s impact on the town. “We don’t have a problem with it, but since the Nigeriens are in charge, you have to ask the Nigerien commander,” the press officer said. When we did just that, the Nigerien commander told us he also had no issues with our request, and that he could assign a vehicle and soldiers to escort us. But, he added, “You have to get the OK from the Americans.”
When we went back to the American press officer, she got flustered. After a few hours, she told us that her higher-ups had refused the request for security reasons.
While the U.S. places restrictions on what its soldiers can do on advise-and-assist missions, these tend to break down in the field.
Frustrated, we resigned ourselves to reporting from the camp. My colleague had the number of a local official, and he called him to see if he could come do an interview with us. The official agreed, and a couple of hours later he presented himself to the Nigerien security at the gate, following the Nigerien officials’ protocol.
But as we were conducting the interview, a Green Beret bolted over, furious. “Who is this?” he asked. “How did he get in?” The Green Beret terminated the interview, then berated us for the next half-hour about how we had breached security by allowing an unknown person “who could be a suicide bomber” into a restricted area. It didn’t matter that the local official had presented himself to Nigerien security forces at the gate, or that he was a Nigerien civil servant in a war zone—someone who U.S. soldiers would theoretically want to know, given that they were helping the Nigerien government fight Boko Haram.
In response to that incident and our insistence on leaving the camp to report in town, the same Green Beret determined that we were threatening cohesion and security and kicked us off the embed. Since there were no flights back to Niamey for 48 hours, my colleague and I were confined to our rooms in the camp and restricted from even eating in the main dining hall, grounded as if we were in high school. Our insistence on doing real reporting had forced both the Nigeriens and their American counterparts to openly acknowledge who was really in charge, poking a hole through the fallacy the exercise rested on.
The U.S. military uses similarly imprecise language when referring to its facilities in Africa, in an apparent bid to try to limit the visibility of its footprint. In doing so, it has undermined the democratic process in its partner countries.
The only permanent U.S. military base in Africa is Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. The Pentagon first began using the base in 2002. Today, the U.S. military is one of many forces vying for influence along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and it is also fighting militants in Yemen and Somalia.
The U.S. military presence is expanding far beyond Djibouti, however. In Niger, the Pentagon is currently building a $110 million drone base in Agadez, in the center of the country. The base will enable strikes ranging from Nigeria to Tunisia.
The official name of the Agadez base is Nigerien Air Base 201, meaning it is owned by Niger. Under the terms of a deal reached by Washington and Niamey, the U.S. is merely building it and using it for an undefined period of time, after which Niger will gain full control.
But access is currently restricted for Nigerien soldiers and personnel, and everyone in Agadez simply refers to it as la base américaine. Niger’s government has not made the agreement for the base public, although a Status of Forces Agreement with highly favorable conditions for the U.S.—including full access to the country’s telecommunications, no taxes or fees for military or contractors, and full criminal jurisdiction over American soldiers even in the case of a death—is available online. Neither the agreement for the construction and use of the base nor the Status of Forces Agreement has been reviewed and approved by Niger’s parliament. This has caused some experts in Niger to argue that the base, which is due to be completed later this year, violates a provision of the Nigerien Constitution stipulating that defense treaties must be ratified by lawmakers.
(photo by Joe Penney).
According to Maj. Klinkel, the Pentagon spokeswoman, “U.S. forces are in Niger to work by, with, and through Nigerien partner forces to promote stability and security while enabling those forces to address security threats in Niger.” In Agadez, though, suspicion about what the Americans are up to is rife, even among Nigeriens who work at the base. There is rampant confusion over who the drones will surveil and strike. “The American soldiers themselves don’t know why they’re here,” says a Nigerien liaison between the Americans and Nigeriens, who was speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired. “The day you find out why they’re here, please tell me.”
Despite these reservations, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou has been an enthusiastic partner of the U.S. and other Western countries, including France, Germany and Italy. Issoufou is adored by Western leaders because he does what they ask him to do, and because he holds regular elections. These leaders seem inclined to overlook signs that Issoufou’s commitment to democracy is tenuous. His re-election in 2015 was marred by boycotts and irregularities. More recently, his government has become increasingly authoritarian, making several high-profile arrests of civil society leaders on the grounds that their anti-government protests represented a security threat. Dozens of civil society actors are currently incarcerated, according to the Nigerien news source Aïr Info.
Sen. Coons says the U.S. presence in Niger, and the Sahel more broadly, is justified, citing the threat that the Islamic State could grow its operations there after being dislodged from Syria and Iraq. ISGS, the group that claimed the Tongo Tongo attack, is an offshoot of other jihadist groups in the region and operated for 17 months before its allegiance to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was recognized. It’s unclear the extent to which ISIS communicates with ISGS, and there is no evidence that fighters from the Middle East have attempted to travel to Niger after being targeted in Syria. Nevertheless, Coons says, “I think we would be foolish to ignore a wide open, lightly governed space that is as big as the continental United States and from which attacks might be launched against Western Europe and the United States.”
Coons is right that security across the Sahel is weakening, notably in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Such statements, however, betray a tendency to treat insecurity in the region as an extension of the global terror phenomenon, rather than grappling with the local contexts that give rise to individual armed groups.
Niger is not the only country in West Africa where the U.S. is reinforcing its military presence in the face of local concerns about the precise terms. In March, the leak of an expanded defense cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Ghana caused thousands of people to take to the streets of Accra.
The document detailed benefits for the U.S., including the tax-free importation of military equipment and access to Ghana’s radio network, along with the ability “to control entry to agreed facilities and areas that have been provided for exclusive use by United States forces.” Word of the document quickly spread on social media, and many of the protesters were under the impression that an American military base was under construction.
Washington’s military-first approach in Africa comes at the expense of a more robust relationship rooted in the democratic values it once claimed to prioritize.
Eric Edem Agbana, leader of the Ghana First Patriotic Front, one of the organizations that called for the march, contends that the agreement is not a fair deal for Ghana. “We believe that Ghana’s interest must be secured first in any agreement or deal with any external body,” Agbana says. “By the terms of the agreement, the Americans are going to be establishing a military location, or what we refer to in Ghana as a military base, which means that if any attack is launched from Ghana, Ghana then becomes a target point.”
Agbana adds that the Ghanaians who came out to protest were inspired by their country’s independence leader and founding head of state, Kwame Nkrumah. During the march, demonstrators circulated an excerpt from a speech Nkrumah gave to Ghana’s parliament in June 1963, upon ratification of the charter of the Organization of African Unity. “Proposals of aid need to be examined with care, most of all military help, because it can place us in the hands of foreign powers and make them in effect arbiters of our fate,” Nkrumah said. “Apart from drawing us into their orbit, they become intimately familiar with details of our defense structure... Aid of this kind, even when ostensibly free, can be most dangerous and costly in its consequences.”
Nkrumah found out three years later just how costly those consequences were when he was overthrown in a coup while on a state visit in Asia. The CIA played a major role in the coup, and the subsequent government abandoned Ghana’s eastern allies to ally itself with Europe and America. While Nkrumah’s legacy as a visionary father of Ghana was cemented, America became known for disrupting and harming the process of strengthening Ghanaian democracy.
The outcry over the leaked defense cooperation agreement prompted Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo to deliver a televised address about the issue in April, even though Ghana’s parliament had already ratified the deal—despite the protests and a walkout by minority MPs during the vote. “Let me state with the clearest affirmation that Ghana has not offered a military base and will not offer a military base to the United States of America,” he said. While noting that Ghana and the U.S. had previously signed several defense agreements in secret, Akufo-Addo said that unlike his predecessors, he had submitted the agreement to Ghana’s parliament for ratification. “Submitting this agreement to open scrutiny now allows us to clear the unhealthy fog that has clouded our relations with the United States of America,” he declared.
The Militarization of Washington’s Africa Policy
Back in February, a month before that defense cooperation agreement became public, Akufo-Addo delivered a speech at the National Governors Association in Washington. In it, he stressed the need for Ghana’s relations with the U.S. to go beyond security and extend into areas that would help his country develop. “We want our relations with the United States to be characterized by a substantial increase in trade and investment cooperation,” he said. “This is the way to develop healthy relations between our two countries.”
Coons agrees. “We are falling behind China and we need to step up our game” in terms of trade, he says, while also arguing that increased trade and economic development would ease the migrant crisis, as well. “I think it’s in everyone’s interest to stabilize the economies of countries from Gambia to Burkina Faso, such that young people see that they have opportunities in their home countries, rather than being so desperate that they would risk their lives traveling 1,000 miles across the Sahara and then across the Mediterranean.”
The Trump administration, however, has for the most part ignored Africa, leaving the Pentagon to place its security agenda at the heart of American foreign policy in the region. This phenomenon is not entirely new. After all, Trump is emboldening the special operations forces that were sent in by President Barack Obama.
But this military-first focus comes at the expense of a more robust relationship with many African countries, one rooted in the democratic values Washington once claimed to prioritize across the continent. This means that while U.S. soldiers are becoming more vulnerable to attacks like the Niger ambush, their presence risks weakening the institutions of the states they’ve been sent to support.
A portion of the reporting for this article was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Joe Penney was chief photographer for Reuters in West Africa from 2012 to 2016. He is also the co-founder of Sahelien.com, a website covering the Sahel region.