No really, what the hell are US troops doing in Niger?

1024 Dunford_US_NigerThe tragic deaths of four US service members in an ambush in Niger have awoken Washington and US voters to the larger issue of American military deployments in Africa and the continued global nature of the nation’s struggle with Islamic extremist terrorism.

Even senior lawmakers seemed surprised by the size of the US presence in the region as outlined by the Pentagon in the incident’s wake. “I didn’t know there was a thousand troops in Niger,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee, in a Sunday broadcast interview.

Yet in the months to come that deployment may expand, or at least become more active. Pentagon officials say US counterterrorism efforts are likely to focus more on Africa now that the so-called Islamic State has been ousted from its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. The strategy is to press Islamic extremist groups simultaneously, wherever they are, said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon briefing Monday.

In Niger and surrounding areas, US Green Berets typically focus on providing training and security assistance for local forces. That includes intelligence and reconnaissance help. Was the Niger ambush related in any way to “mission creep,” with training aid morphing slowly into more concrete combat support for Nigerian troops? So far that’s not entirely clear.

“One positive thing that may come out of this tragedy is, at least temporarily, a little more congressional oversight, looking into what these missions are trying to accomplish and whether they are operating in terms of the US national interest,” says Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, whose research centers on conflict and US foreign policy in central Afric