More than two weeks after the attack, the how and why of what happened are largely fuzzy. The Pentagon’s inquiry will try to answer a series of questions, including whether the soldiers were put in unnecessary danger and whether they could have been better armed or prepared for such an encounter. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters this week “in this specific case, contact [with terrorists] was considered unlikely … But there's a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, because we carry guns,” he said. “We do these kinds of campaigns by, with, and through allies. It is often dangerous; we recognize that.”
Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rudy Atallah, the man Trump nearly hired as his National Security Council's’ senior director for Africa, said that Niger is a difficult posting for U.S. service members due to the lack of communication between their camps, the Nigerien military, and the civilians they are purportedly there to help protect. “We don’t have very good intelligence information on what the threat looks like or how it’s growing and [U.S. troops] don’t have the support of local population,” Atallah said. “Our folks don’t spend a lot of time gripping and grinning with the locals, and the locals don’t know what our guys are doing.”
Atallah was hesitant to suggest that the attack on the troops, which came immediately after a meeting with local leaders, was premeditated to specifically target them. While nailing down the motivation behind the assault will be difficult, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the attackers thought they were only attacking Nigerien troops.
Regardless, the Trump administration’s policymakers may now be forced to reassess the U.S. presence in the Sahel, Page said, although what that reassessment would entail remains unclear. And the U.S. presence, Atallah pointed out, is deeply tied to goings-on in Libya, where ISIS wants to carve out new strongholds. Even if the attack on October 4 was actually carried out by al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS just happens to be taking credit for it, Trump has made tremendous fanfare about wiping ISIS out wherever it lurks. “Anywhere ISIS goes, he’s gonna go,” Atallah said of Trump. “If these guys are gonna end up in Libya, he’s gonna laser-beam on Libya.”
Trump’s administration seems to be half-blind when it comes to acknowledging the strategic importance of West Africa and the Sahel, especially when it comes to military alliances and the fight against terrorism, experts said. For example, Trump added the nation of Chad to his latest travel ban—a move that is likely to have both surprised and infuriated its government. A U.S. judge has already shot down the ban; U.S. officials later said Chad was added in large part due to its inability to produce adequate passport pages in time for consideration by the Trump administration. Still, the move came at a time when Chad was already withdrawing its troops from the fight against Boko Haram. At a crucial moment, the Trump administration has caused unnecessary friction with Chad, whose military is the strongest in the region.
In the case of Niger, the deaths of four servicemen still seem to be not enough for Trump to offer further transparency or accountability for U.S. military activities in the region.
“This isn’t likely to cause some epiphany about the importance of Africa [in the White House],” Page said. “I don’t think this administration is self-conscious and self-reflective enough. Their worldview is their worldview, and at the end of the day, it’s a light nationalist foreign policy.”