On 4 October, a combined patrol of US soldiers and Nigerien troops was ambushed by about 50 heavily armed local jihadists suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, outside the village of Tongo Tongo in southwest Niger, near the border with Mali. An extended gun battle ensued, resulting in the deaths of four US Army Special Forces soldiers (informally known as Green Berets) and five Nigerien troops. The Pentagon is conducting an investigation into the incident because many details about the encounter – and why it resulted in American casualties – remain unclear. Even informed national security observers, including senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were surprised that the US had troops deployed in Niger. In fact, the approximately 800 US soldiers currently stationed there constitute the largest US deployment in a single country in Africa, except for Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa in Djibouti. The United States has also escalated its operations against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked group based in Somalia, and increased the number of US troops deployed there from 50 to 500 over the last six months. The total deployed on the continent is around 6,000.
The ambush in Niger raises several strategic, tactical and political questions, such as why US troops are in Niger in the first place, whether those ambushed were appropriately prepared and equipped for their designated mission, and whether the White House – or the executive branch more generally – should be more accountable to Congress and the public for carrying out combat operations as the United States’ military effort against terrorist groups spreads farther away from Iraq and Afghanistan. More broadly, controversial comments by President Donald Trump and his Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, have given rise to concerns about the state of civil-military relations in the US, given the number of current and retired general officers holding key national security posts in the current administration.