The deaths of four U.S. Green Berets in Niger and the ensuing controversy have shined a rare spotlight on an obscure corner of America’s global war on terrorism. There have been calls, including here on Slate, to use this moment to reassess the hazy strategic objectives of our military operations in West Africa, and even to reflect more broadly on what we gain from our ever-expanding international counterterrorism campaign. But the much more likely response is that we’ll simply throw more guns, money, and manpower at the problem in hopes that it will improve, a continuation of the same impulse behind the recent escalation of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and loosened restrictions on deadly strikes outside of conventional battlefields.
“In the wake of the attack,” NBC reported Thursday, “the U.S. has been pressing the government of Niger to allow armed drones at the U.S. bases in that country.” This would be “a significant escalation in American counterterrorism operations” in a part of the world that has not previously seen drone strikes. As former National Security Council staffer Aaron O’Connell recently explained on Slate, the U.S. military is conducting at least five separate missions in Niger combating various jihadi groups, including Boko Haram and the ISIS-linked group suspected of this month’s attack. The ventures involve varying degrees of violence, but none is technically considered a combat mission, and the Obama administration stopped short of using armed drones in the region.
Amping up the war in Niger would be the latest example of Trump’s moves to expand the global battlefield. The current global covert war conducted via drones and Special Operations raids was born under George W. Bush and dramatically expanded by Barack Obama, but under rules in place since 2013, strikes conducted outside “areas of active hostilities”—war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—have been subjected to much higher levels of scrutiny and oversight, meant to prevent civilian casualties.
Trump has watered down these restrictions, first by designating parts of Somalia and Yemen as areas of active hostilities. He is also reportedly poised to dismantle some of the rules on strikes by the military and CIA outside of those areas, including requirements for high-level vetting of targets and a limiting of targets to only high-level terrorists rather than foot soldiers. In September, the U.S. military carried out an airstrike against an ISIS target in Libya, outside of an area of active hostilities, that reportedly was not explicitly approved by the White House—a dramatic sign of more relaxed rules. According to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, there were 102 lethal counterterrorism operations in the first 193 days of the Trump administration in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (the vast majority in Yemen), compared with 21 during the same amount of time at the end of the Obama administration.
As with Trump’s moves to cut out oversight of strikes in Iraq and Syria and put the CIA back in the targeted-killing business in Afghanistan, these moves are likely to put more civilians at risk. According to the New York Times, officials plan to keep the requirement that strikes conducted outside of battlefields only be carried out where there’s a “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed, but accidents can still happen. Military commanders said in June that standard is still in place in Somalia, despite its “active hostilities” designation, but a joint U.S.-Somali raid in August killed 10 civilians, including three children.
Beyond the risk to civilians, there’s also a reason for concern about the perpetual mission creep pushing U.S. counterterrorism operations deeper into Africa. An Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed in 2001 to combat the perpetrators of 9/11 is not only still in effect today, it also is the legal basis to go after African militant groups that didn’t even exist at the time. The lack of public or congressional scrutiny of these missions is such that many senators seemed surprised to learn about the Niger mission this month. “I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger,” Lindsey Graham, the Senate’s leading proponent of large troop deployments, told Meet the Press Sunday. (The actual number is around 800.)
Which is not to say that the president himself was all that aware of it either. Trump told reporters this week that he did not “specifically” order the Niger mission, adding, “I have generals—they are great generals. I gave them the authority to do what’s right so that we win.” There’s no reason to doubt that this is true. The overall troop presence in Niger predated Trump, and he’s made very clear that he has no interest in being consulted on specific military operations.
Under Obama, military commanders chafed under what they saw as micromanagement from an overly cautious White House, and there are times, no doubt, when Trump’s laissez-faire approach is more efficient. But Trump’s deference to the generals also lets him pass the buck to the military whenever an operation goes badly, while taking credit for successes. It also virtually guarantees that the scope of America’s military activities continue to expand, and that U.S. foreign policy will continue to be ever more militarized. (Trump has nominated ambassadors to only 15 out of 54 countries in Africa, and only five have been confirmed.) This isn’t an indictment of the military in particular: Virtually any institution will continue to ask for more authority and resources if they know they’re likely to get them.
Trump now is not only dismantling civilian oversight of military actions on the battlefield, he’s also gradually expanding that battlefield to country after country. The “forever war” is becoming the “everywhere war.”