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four dead americans

bryan black, la david johnson, dustin wright, jeremiah johnson
last october, four american soldiers were among nine killed in niger in a mission to take down an isis operative that remains under a fog of confusion and mystery. the story of what happened was quickly overtaken by the story of donald trump's purportedly unsympathetic reaction to one of the dead soldier's widows, that in turn lead to a vicious rebuttal by white house chief of staff john kelly, who at that point ceded any claim he might have had to being a moderating influence in the white house. discussion on what actually happened and what american soldiers were doing in niger to begin with stalled and fell silent within days. and while it was discussed in the mainstream media, there was scarcely a mention of a very interesting and salient fact: the united states government is in the process of building a massive base- one which may, when the final costs are tallied, be the most expensive such installation ever- in the niger desert.

that seems like a rather important point if an american wants to understand why four countrymen died in an apparent ambush by dozens of islamic extremists. and it's not like the information was top secret. the article linked above was published in 2016 and reveals pretty much everything one would need to know. since then, the intercept has published numerous other stories on the subject, all of which are based on sources that are available to the media. media coverage, however, tended to gloss over the extent of u.s. involvement in africa, focusing instead on the immediate circumstances related to the ambush and deaths. the military and the media should absolutely deal with those circumstances but that needs to be done in context and the context is that america has been sinking massive resources into africa, only to see terrorism there get worse.

the truly flabbergasting part of the story is not that the american public didn't know about their military's involvement in africa, but that even the people in charge claim to be oblivious to what's going on. senators lindsey graham and chuck schumer both claimed to be unaware that the country had anything like the number of troops it does in niger when the four soldiers were murdered last year. as members of the body that appropriates the money required for the base and its ballooning budget, it would be nice to think that they were keeping an eye on those things. at the very least, it would be nice if someone from either house of congress showed some understanding of what america's role in africa was supposed to be, or its roots in the 1998 bombings of two u.s. embassies, or why niger has become such a crucial part of the amorphous war on terror when africa wasn't even on the radar when the legal framework for the "war" was put in place. really, it would be nice if anyone seemed to know anything about what was happening, given that the niger project will command a massive amount of resources and will continue to put american lives at risk.

overhead view of the american military base in niger
the military knows more about the situation. they know, for instance, that the military base has increased hostility towards westerners [and americans in particular] among nigeriens who supported anti-terrorism efforts. likewise, they know that well before the ambush last october, niger had grown so dangerous that american troops were prohibited from engaging in off-base activities after dark. they also know that there are many more terrorist groups in the region now than there were when america embarked on its terrorism war. they are likely even aware that the planned base may violate the nigerien constitution and provoke a political crisis in a country that already suffers from instability. but if senators graham and schumer are to be believed, that information isn't being passed along.

senior members of the united states senate claiming ignorance of what is happening in niger is not altogether different than the inept response that came when four other americans were murdered in benghazi, libya. [and it's no small irony that lindsey graham was one of the loudest voices demanding an explanation for the official response to the benghazi deaths.] furthermore, both cases have been examined only in microcosm; no one dares ask the question "what are we doing in these places at all when our presence doesn't seem to be helping?"

this is where the real world crashes headlong into the contradictory foreign policy of donald trump and his administration. on the campaign trail, trump won voters over by insisting that he would both stamp out the threat of terrorism and drastically reduce america's global military involvement, getting it out of the business of "stupid wars" and nation-building. the latter half of that might be the most sensible policy he ever articulated but it means nothing because we're no longer in the age of the cold war, fighting with a powerful enemy through proxy states. stupid wars and nation-building are the substance of the war on terror, so fulfilling one part of his stated goal necessitates abandoning the other. trump is every bit as ignorant as graham and schumer about what is actually being done to combat terror and there's little reason to hope that's improved in the months he's been receiving daily briefings. he's not a detail guy and apparently a $100 million base with annual operating costs estimated at up to $30 million is now considered a detail.

[side note :: i don't mean to imply that this is a problem trump has created because it isn't. plans to build the base were authorized by president obama; the war on terror was the brainchild of the bush administration; the critical importance of africa was established during the clinton years. for once, this is a problem that trump inherited, although that's cold comfort because he's a less capable leader than any before him and none of them knew how to address, let alone solve, the problem.] 

still from a video purporting to show the isis ambush
[side note to the side note :: trump did come very close to making the situation worse, however, by inexplicably including chad in his controversial "muslim ban". chad is one of the few countries that has managed to serve as an ally in the fight against terror and as an interlocutor between western forces and african locals. including them on a list of countries that harbour terrorists was a slap in the face. fortunately, the administration reversed its decision on chad in the spring but the fact that they were ever included reinforces the idea that the people currently in power have little knowledge of on-the-ground reality.]  

the killing of soldiers in niger should be a litmus test for america's appetite for the war on terror. it makes an excellent case for debating the viability and desirability of becoming enmeshed in the difficult politics of west africa as a direct participant rather than as an advisor or outside consultant. one could hardly ask for a more appropriate example for evaluating the return on investment of military spending or where the line between fighting terrorism and colonialist interference should be drawn.

however, the public can't debate those things if they don't know the whole story and there aren't that many people who can spend time rifling through the archives of news sites just to get all the details. if the mainstream media wants to earn its bona fides holding the administration to account [which it should, with any administration], it needs to stop promoting the vulgar but ultimately meaningless fountain of sewage gushing forth from the president and his media puppets and it needs to stop assuming that audiences don't have the brains to grasp more complex issues. [listen to some of the farmers and steel workers being interviewed about trump's scorched earth trade policy. their understanding of international business is more sophisticated than that of the people in congress making the rules.]

these are dangerous times in a complicated world. this is not the time to be half-assing it through issues people need to understand.

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