Niger: The ghost of Benghazi and the danger of mission creep
Special by Congressman Gerry Connolly
Four brave American service members were killed in an ambush near the Niger-Mali border last month. The American people deserve to understand how this tragedy occurred, and the U.S. Government must ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes going forward. Democrats should not, however, follow the example of those in Congress who cynically exploited the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
We should not embark on a highly politicized investigation that drags out just long enough to win a few elections. We should not establish an expensive congressional select committee that uncovers no new major revelations. We should not cast aspersions on the patriotism and integrity of the Cabinet officials who oversaw the operation. And we should not threaten to cut funding for our soldiers’ personal protective equipment just as Republicans proposed cuts to our diplomatic security efforts in the wake of the Benghazi investigation. We should not follow their example. It was a disgraceful chapter of congressional oversight that denigrated the sacrifice of four brave Americans.
Instead, I hope this tragedy informs a constructive response from Congress that examines how the Global War on Terror has evolved into a sustained, complex, and often under-the-radar campaign, the low visibility of which has stunted congressional and public engagement.
The controversy surrounding President Trump’s insensitive suggestion to Myesha Johnson, whose husband Sgt. La David Johnson was killed in the Niger attack, that he “knew what he signed up for” has obscured a far more serious question: do we, the American people, know what we have signed up for with regard to a possible war in Niger?
I have no doubt in the Pentagon’s ability to investigate what happened in Niger, what went wrong tactically, and how to prevent such ambushes in the future. But Congress has a responsibility too: to look at the big picture and consider the larger strategy in Niger and in our war against nebulous, non-state actors that continue to ignore borders as they seek to do us harm.
As any military commander can attest, mission creep can be among the most dangerous features of prolonged war, which is why it is critical at times to pause, reflect, and update one’s strategy in light of a changed landscape.
With the deadly ambush in Niger, I believe it is time for Congress to do exactly that. In doing so, there are two key questions every member of Congress must consider: what ought to be the legal basis for the next phase of our war against terrorism and how do we achieve the right balance among the allocation of military, diplomatic, and development resources.
The Niger incident is a perfect example of the way military operations can unwittingly snowball into a far larger, sustained engagement. According to media reports, the Pentagon established a drone base in Niger four years ago to target terrorists operating in the region. The mission increased the number and visibility of American military personnel in Niger and generated some local opposition to the deployment. Local elements then attacked Nigerian and U.S. military forces. Already in the wake of these attacks, our military is reportedly considering expanding operations in Niger. This self-perpetuating cycle, evident in places like Mali and certain areas of Afghanistan, risks endless mission creep and unnecessary risk to American military personnel.
Congress must look closely at whether we are truly engaged in a "whole-of-government" approach to defeating terrorism. The Niger ambush raises questions about whether the State Department is truly exercising its authority to set foreign policy or merely playing a supporting role to our military in these conflict regions. We also need to ensure that the State Department has adequate visibility and input on where the Pentagon is deploying forces in non-battlefield environments and to understand whether the Trump administration has a clear strategy to guide these missions.
Congress must not abrogate its role overseeing decisions to deploy American servicemembers into harm’s way. Our founders placed responsibility for decisions of war and peace in the hands of the American people’s Representatives. Let’s use the aftermath of this tragedy in Niger to reflect on where we stand, how to address the challenge of terrorism, and ensure that we are pursuing the best strategy moving forward.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat, represents Virginia's eleventh congressional district.