As streiff laid out this morning, there’s a new narrative going around in liberal (and some non-liberal) circles. That somehow, the loss of life from an ambush in the country of Niger is not just “Benghazi” but “Benghazi on steroids.”
The first take was given by none other than Frederica Wilson, who proclaimed such during an interview. That’s since been molded and repeated by numerous Democrats as well as turned into a few different conspiracy theories, the most ludicrous by Rachel Maddow, who claims that Chadian troops pulling out to the far east of the country led influenced the attack. I’ll do a thorough debunking of that later.
There’s just one issue with these hot takes. They ignore all the facts to make a political point. Having spent lots of time in Niger, including reaches well outside the capital of Niamey, I want to give my personal experiences, what it looks like on ground, and why the politicization of this issue is short-sighted and shallow.
Let’s deal with a few assertions about force strength first.
One complaint that’s going around is that there was not sufficient resources in the area to support the soldiers after the ambush took place. That’s true in the abstract. In context, it’s a silly point that ignores the facts on the ground. The country of Niger is not a terrorist hotbed. It’s actually one of the most stable areas in western Africa and Islamic radicalism has basically no foot hold there. This is not Iraq, Libya, or even Nigeria. It’s not even in the same universe.
Because of this, American deployments there are not many. Private contractors handle evacuation duties. I’ve actually met the guy once who runs the operation. They have two older Sikorsky helicopters on the east end of the civilian ramp. They looked like variants of the Sikorsky S-61, but I’m not sure of the exact model. I remember them being blue and white and only one looked airworthy. The other was likely being used for parts.
Why point this out? It is not a scandal that private contractors are being used. The US military are not omnipresent. They can’t send valuable resources, such as a Blackhawk and the dozens of personnel they need, to one of the least dangerous parts of western Africa to be used a few times a year if they are lucky. It’s much more cost effective and accomplishes the same thing to contract that work out.
Another critique I’ve seen is that they were in civilian vehicles, insinuating that they weren’t properly equipped. Anyone who’s operated in an area like this knows that’s normal. You don’t drive around in tanks, announcing who you are, in a country like Niger. Most of the soldiers I saw while there were also in civilian cloths. Again, this is normal and not a scandal.
The US’s main presence is on a drone base in Niamey, which is built on the north-western part of the airport. The French have fighters there and they operate routinely in Mali. From what I gathered, our main air assets in the area are drones and there are no combat aircraft available. Advisors are scattered to the east in cities like Maradi and Zinder as well. I believe we’ve pulled out of Diffa because it’s too dangerous, but I don’t have confirmation on that aside from what people in that city told me earlier this year.
To give a better lay of the land, Niamey is the capital and is mostly French speaking as it was a former colony. As you move east, most are Housa and speak that language. To the north, you find smaller people groups, some nomadic (the Fulani for example). North of Niamey, where these soldiers were operating, are the Groumanchema. They speak their own language and are not Islamic but have their own religion. In none of my experiences there did I ever feel threatened or that Islamism was a problem anywhere I went. The Nigerian people seem to be uniquely resistant to violence and Islamic radicalism. That’s to their credit, but it also gives us an idea of whether this was truly a hot zone where the US military would be expected to dedicate large amounts of resources.
It simply wasn’t and isn’t. The lack of forces there, QRF, air assets, etc. is not a scandal. It was to be expected given the facts on the ground.
Now, let’s deal with the dumbest conspiracy theory emanating from those who want to politicize this. Rachel Maddow shared a convoluted theory (which I guess has started to make the rounds) on her show a few days ago which basically goes like this:
- Trump put Chad on the travel ban list.
- Chad pulled their troops out of Diffa.
- Because Chad no longer had troops in Diffa, this loss of force in the country led to the ambush happening.
This is an idiotic theory that show’s Maddow’s lack of knowledge and experience with Niger.
Chad had put troops in the city of Diffa, which is on the Chadian border and a hot bed of Boko Harem activity coming from Northern Nigeria. US Special Forces (again, as far as I was told) pulled out a while ago due to the level of danger and it being so remote. Chad did indeed pull it’s troops out of Diffa, although the plans to do so predated the latest travel ban.
But let’s accept the premise. Chad got mad at the travel ban and pulled out. Why does this have absolutely nothing to do with US forces being ambushed north of Niamey?
The answer is geographic and mission related. Diffa is 730+ miles from where the ambush took place. To get from Diffa to Niamey is about 24 hours on some of the worst roads you’ll see. There is no reliable road through the desert that cuts the distance off. You must follow the Nigeria border across to Niamey and then go north. From Niamey, where the drone base is and from where the embassy, is about an hour just to get out of the city. Then it’s another several hours north on mostly dirt roads to reach where this ambush took place. I’ve been to the area one time.
This also happened immediately after the rainy season, which means many roads would be washed out and impassable. While the rain stops in September, rivers and roads remain affected well into November.
All told, it’d of probably taken close to 30 hours for any Chadian forces to reach the ambush area. Furthermore, Chadian forces were not fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS operatives from Mali. They were fighting Boko Harem from Nigeria. While they did indeed leave Diffa, Chad has not stopped fighting Boko Harem nor could any action by them logically influence the outcome of the ambush. These were two different terrorist groups operating on opposite ends of the country.
Lastly, I’ve seen the Chadian forces. They are better equipped than the Nigerian forces (and wore pretty cool looking grey camo), but they are still Africans with 60 year old AKs and PKMs with no real technology. Even if the Chadian soldiers were in Niamey, the US forces never would of called on them to respond to this situation.
In the end, attempting to link the ambush of US forces north of Niamey to Chadian soldiers leaving Diffa is ludicrous. To then connect that with the travel ban so as to blame Trump is partisan insanity turned up to eleven.
So what happened here? US forces were patrolling, most likely to gather intel and maintain relationships with the locals near the Mali border. Cross border attacks at night are a danger in that area. Anytime you leave the confines of a US military installation, there’s risk. Even in a country as quiet as Niger, there’s risk. In this case, due to the low risk level, we did not have a large, layered response presence in the event of an attack. Again, that is not a scandal. It was dictated by the facts on the ground.
I’ve seen CNN running with a headline that there was a “massive intelligence failure” (a line given by an anonymous Congressional staffer who couldn’t possibly know the nuances of the situation, but CNN ran with it anyway). That’s sensationalism and misleading. Combat is not a video game and it’s not a movie. Sometimes it’s simply not possible to know the location of the enemy, especially in a situation where you do not expect an attack.
Brave men died doing a necessary mission in an area of the world most couldn’t find on the map. They should be lauded but this should not be turned into a political football. This is not Trump’s “Benghazi.” There is no cover up and there were no lies. Libya was a terrorist hell-hole where decisions on the ground were logically wrong and negligent to the highest levels. That is not what happened in Niger. The military’s decisions, at least what we know of them so far, were logical. Even when you do everything right, things can go wrong.
The media continue to shame themselves in these situations.
Attempting to turn every military death under Trump into a scandal is dishonest and petty. We saw the same thing when there were special forces deaths in Syria earlier in the year. Everyone needs to take a step back here. People like Rep. Wilson and Rachel Maddow, who want to use this for political points, are doing a great disservice to the men and women who risk their lives every single day across the globe. This is not a game where high-minded ivory tower dwellers can have all the answers and they should stop acting like they do.