On 3 October, a platoon of Nigerien soldiers accompanied by twelve US Special Forces set out northwards from Niger’s capital, Niamey. This was a routine patrol to a remote town near the Malian border called Tongo Tongo, where they met with tribal elders. Upon leaving, the platoon came under attack by an estimated 50 militants, subsequently identified as belonging to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Thirty minutes later, French Mirage jets from an airbase in Chad were circling overhead and casualties were being evacuated by a private contractor, Berry Aviation. Five Nigerien and four US servicemen died.
The absorption of these events in US media took on a very strange rhythm. The White House offered no statement until 16 October, when President Trump was prompted to comment by a question during a press briefing. He proceeded to make things unnecessarily personal, and the precipitating circumstances of the ambush itself were obscured behind salvos of ferocious mud-slinging regarding what the President did or did not say during a condolence call made to the widow of one of the departed servicemen.
Moreover, against this inauspicious backdrop, the Tongo Tongo incident revealed an acute lack of general understanding regarding the Pentagon’s activities in West Africa. Senator John McCain was demanding answers, conspiracy-mongering was afoot, and the coverage defaulted to an all too familiar trope of US hubristic incompetence operating in exotic and dangerous places, reminiscent of costly blunders past in Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan and Libya. Indeed, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson was quick to declare Tongo Tongo 'Trump’s Benghazi'.
However, the Pentagon’s major commitments in Africa are not a secret. President Bush announced the establishment of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, headquartered at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. In East Africa, its major effort has been an ongoing and extensively scrutinised drone war against al Shabaab in Somalia. Shifting west, in 2013 President Obama announced the initial deployment of 100 personnel to Niger, and a comparable deployment to nearby Cameroon two years later. The Trump administration even confirmed the presence of 645 and 300 troops in each nation respectively in a letter to Congress issued as recently as June.
Moreover, figures as diverse as James Carafano, Andrew Bacevich and Nick Turse have been commenting on this ongoing 'pivot to Africa' for years. Over the past decade, AFRICOM has developed an expansive network of small bases and outposts stretching from the Seychelles to Dakar—without compromising its mandate for a ‘light footprint’. Stephen Biddle of George Washington University has suggested that the general public has simply exhibited a ‘massive attention gap’ with regards US foreign policy in the better part of an entire continent.
To discern the signal from the noise, there are three salient points of context relevant to understanding the significance of the Tongo Tongo ambush.
First, AFRICOM and its activities are not shrouded in some special category of mystery. The public record of its activities includes: fronting the multilateral intervention in the Libyan Civil war; the capture of abu Anas al-Libi—perpetrator of Al Qaeda’s 1998 East African embassy bombings; coordinating Uganda’s hunt for Joseph Kony; a humanitarian response to the 2014 Ebola crisis; various supporting roles in the fight against Boko Haram; evacuating US citizens from South Sudan as it descended into civil war; and evacuating the Peace Corps from Burkina Faso in response to a mounting terror threat. Additionally, AFRICOM coordinates the biannual Flintlock counter-terrorism training exercises, which began in 2002. Twenty-four local and Western nations have participated—including Australia. AFRICOM keeps busy.
Second, Niger is in the eye of the storm, occupying strategic geography of tremendous significance to regional stability. In Mali, to the immediate west, lies Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)—an umbrella organisation composed of various Al Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups, including al-Murabitoun, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; and ISGS is a splinter faction that swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi last year. To the northeast lies Libya, where ISIS is seeking fresh pastures as its foothold in Mesopotamia collapses. To the immediate south-east lies Boko Haram, which was, until 2015, the most dangerous militant organisation on the planet.
Hence, Niger is critical for containing and disaggregating the salafi-jihadist militant network that has spread across half the continent. To that end, the Pentagon is currently constructing a substantial drone facility on the southern edge of the Sahara, adjacent the World Heritage-listed oasis city of Agadez. Not only is Agadez ideally located for monitoring neighbouring conflict zones, it is also one of Africa’s largest human trafficking hubs, at the southern end of the supply chain producing the European refugee crisis; a bold staging post for quietly facilitating a more resilient, state-based order in one of the most challenging corners of the planet. Niger matters.
Third, and despite everything already said, the Pentagon is not the chief playmaker in West Africa. That title belongs to France. The French military has been variously deployed in sub-Saharan Africa since 1962, and continuously deployed in Chad since it was invaded by Colonel Gaddafi in 1986. In 2012, a full two years before the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve kicked off in Iraq and Syria, the French spearheaded Operation Serval, a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctioned multilateral intervention to expel the aforementioned salafi-jihadist confederation from Azawad province in northern Mali. This rolled over into Operation Barkhane, a permanent deployment of 4,000 troops across the Sahel, headquartered at N’Djamena, Chad. This includes Mirage and Rafale fighter aircraft, representing considerably greater force projection capabilities than anything in AFRICOM’s current arsenal.
All things considered, how then are we to interpret the events at Tongo Tongo? First, it’s indicative that African security is a global responsibility. Service personnel from three nations—not one—fought this engagement. Second, while questions are always rightly asked of military conduct, death is an occupational hazard of the profession of arms, and the US is very much at war in Africa. The Tongo Tongo ambush should not have come as any great surprise to anyone. Finally, as comparable and more widespread efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated, training foreign militaries is difficult. Niger is no exception, and the US will likely be there for quite some time. Tongo Tongo was not, and will not be, an isolated incident.
John Goldie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.