Why We Have Troops In Niger

J. Michael Waller Center for Security Policy
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American troops are in Niger because the US didn’t listen to a wise African leader who wanted to stomp out regional jihadists before they became a real problem.

If the United States had accepted an offer of strategic partnership six years ago, it is unlikely that American troops would have been sent to Niger. That is because the impoverished, landlocked country would have been helped by its oil-rich neighbor to the south, Nigeria.

The Nigerian government deserves its bad international reputation. But back in 2010, Nigeria’s otherwise dithering president, Goodluck Jonathan, had a forward-looking national security adviser. That man, a retired general and military intelligence chief named Owoye Andrew Azazi, developed a workable, proven plan to prevent jihadist networks in the region from taking root. I know because I worked with General Azazi at the time.

Boko Haram, the soon-to-be infamous jihadist group, had started a terrorist campaign in Nigeria in 2009. From 2010 to 2012, Azazi tried to develop relations with the Obama Administration to build what he called “a strategic security relationship” with the United States. He saw the new jihadist violence of Boko Haram as a threat not only to his country, but to the region and beyond.

Azazi’s unprecedented offer would have changed the dynamics in West Africa. It would have empowered Africa’s most populous country – with more people than Russia or Japan – to become a regional power as a partner with Washington. Nigeria knew the territory: its citizens in the north belong to some of the same tribes as their northern neighbors in Niger. Azazi’s human intelligence networks stretched across the sahel of Niger – a land-locked country three times the size of California – into neighboring Mali, Libya, and elsewhere.

It was plain to the outside observer that the Nigerian military lacked effective special operations and logistical capabilities. Most of its equipment was a hodgepodge of poorly maintained vehicles and aircraft, with obsolete or incomplete technology.

Fallout from Libya’s disintegration

In September, 2011, I sat with Azazi in his Abuja office as we watched the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya disintegrate. The US led a coalition to topple Qaddafi. It pushed a bizarre plan to replace what was left of Qaddafi’s anti-jihadist forces with jihadist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by the terrorist sponsoring regime in Qatar. A month later, Qaddafi died a gruesome and humiliating death.

Reviewing initial reports of the spillovers of Qaddafi loyalists and jihadists into Niger, Azazi saw where the region was headed. He named individual terrorist leaders from a list and said, “I can send squads into Niger and grab them. We know where they’re hiding. But they aren’t Nigerian citizens. We can get them, but we’ll need some backing from Washington.”

Washington wasn’t listening. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton didn’t see Boko Haram as a threat.

Finally, in frustration, Azazi spelled out his bold plan in public. “We can destroy Boko Haram in its early stages, before it goes truly international,” he wrote in a January 4, 2012, Washington Times op-ed. “We don’t want or need American troops. But we would benefit greatly from American know-how and other forms of support as we develop our new counterterrorism strategy. We have much to offer through our own expertise, human resources and experience,” he said.

Heartened by similar views from some American lawmakers and the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), Azazi said, “Like other Islamist extremists, Boko Haram sees itself as fulfilling part of a global mission.”

“Those who fail to understand the enemy threat doctrine will fail to see the danger until it is too late,” Azazi warned. “The State Department,” he noted, “has yet to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization.”

Azazi’s terrorism-prevention plan worked – but US had to watch his back

Circumventing his own inefficient government institutions, Azazi developed a unique terrorist-prevention campaign of his own at home. It cost almost nothing and harmed no innocents. All he did was meet personally with the top imams in 11 of Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated northern cities, have confidential one-on-one discussions with each, and empower them personally to keep the jihadists out.

The ingeniously simple Azazi plan worked. It kept 11 northern Nigerian cities free of Boko Haram violence and radical Islamist subversion.

Azazi knew he had to act in Niger while things were still quiet. He planned to export his simple and successful terrorist-prevention model north to Niger, with help from trans-border tribes and cooperative imams. But he knew that his preventive plan would be insufficient against a feared jihadist influx.

To Azazi’s horror, the Obama administration was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Qatar-backed jihadist factions in Libya. Niger was a vacuum between Nigeria and Libya, and something had to fill it. Nigeria had no tradition of invading its neighbors. It wouldn’t need to this time, apart from some small snatch-and-grab operations as jihadists moved in.

“With recent developments reverberating across Africa,” Azazi said in his op-ed, “Nigeria is working out strategic partnerships with key players to track and neutralize extremists wherever they may be – before they become violent.”

At the time, Nigeria was the fourth largest foreign oil supplier to the United States. Its government was willing to pay American companies for the needed equipment and expertise in cash, as part of Azazi’s proposed new strategic partnership. Those sales would require State Department approval.

“Nigeria can defend its interests without US support. But the United States cannot well defend its homeland from Boko Haram and other threats without Nigeria,” Azazi wrote. “We welcome a mutually beneficial partnership with the US against terrorists like Boko Haram while there is still time.”

But Washington wanted no strategic partnership. Before year’s end, Clinton’s effort in Libya collapsed in Benghazi, and Azazi died in a helicopter crash.

Without his visionary and firm national security advisor, Nigeria’s feckless president Jonathan let the Azazi plan fall apart. Boko Haram exploded, kidnapping more than two hundred girls and terrorizing the country.

After Clinton resigned as secretary of state in early 2013, her successor John Kerry designated Boko Haram as a terrorist group. By then, the jihadist threat had spread just as Azazi had warned. Soon, Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists would plague the area, with Boko Haram alternating its allegiance between the two.

The Obama administration took a problem it could have helped Nigeria prevent, and turned it into a multi-country military expedition. A US contingent quietly grew in Chad, with an effective local military partner. Obama sent US troops into Niger to support French operations against jihadists in Mali, to the west, originally to operate and protect a drone base, and then to help fight Boko Haram on Nigeria’s northern front. Obama then dispatched hundreds more to Cameroon, to help fight Boko Haram on Nigeria’s east.

As with any mission creep, the US military presence in Niger grew and grew, until the force reached about 675 by the time Donald Trump became president. The Obama strategy remains in place. Now, instead of the Azazi plan, American troops are part of the fight against Boko Haram, al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadists in Niger.

Initial reports say that the jihadist group that ambushed the American soldiers last month came from among the tribes that populate both sides of the Niger-Nigeria border. Those are the same tribes that General Azazi had networked successfully. The loss of four Americans, some reports say, was due to “intelligence failure.” The far greater failure was to take Azazi’s proposal seriously.

Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.