Why Is the U.S. in Niger?
Column written by Jenna Jordan, Margaret E. Kosal and Larry Rubin
For those seeking to understand why the American government is deploying military to Niger, it is important to examine trends in the implementation and execution of counterterrorism policy. Professors Jenna Jordan, Margaret E. Kosal and Larry Rubin from the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs explored the strategic issues of counterterrorism policy, including discussion of examples from other operations and efforts in Africa's Sahel, in a recent issue of The Washington Quarterly.
Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, United States counterterrorism policy has relied heavily upon military tools. From the 2001 war in Afghanistan to the 2003 war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror” was defined by a military response to militant violence. These military options were based on the belief that kinetic tactics were necessary to degrade and defeat al Qaeda and other violent Islamic extremist groups. Critical of involving the nation in another long-term war, the Obama administration articulated a counterterrorism strategy that would focus on more targeted operations rather than large scale military endeavors. The current administration appears to be continuing with a similar approach.
The kinetic option has become the default function in U.S. counterterrorism policy for three reasons. First, there is no clear definition of what constitutes a counterterrorism success or failure. Second, public opinion and institutional politics create an environment that encourages policies which reassure anxious audiences and produce quick, visible results and discourages policies which require long-term investment. Third, there is little public and political confidence in alternatives to the use of military force, such as a deterrence policy. When faced with uncertainty about to how to fight ISIS and other violent extremists, the United States knows how to successfully carry out kinetic operations. These combined factors have made kinetic action a strategy instead of a tactic and have resulted in an overreliance military force at the expense of other more comprehensive responses.
The U.S. reliance on kinetic responses to terrorism has come at the expense of more comprehensive counterterrorism policies. The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), created in 2005, is the government’s primary counterterrorism program in Africa’s Sahel and Maghreb across ten countries, including Niger. This multi-year, interagency program aimed to support diplomacy, defense, and development – by coordinating efforts across agencies and with local partner countries to combat regional threats of violent extremism. The purpose of this whole-of-government approach is to build a long term counterterrorism capability to bolster the ability of marginalized communities to resist radicalization and violent extremism. In that capacity, the TSCTP trains and equips security forces in addition to supporting efforts to limit radicalization of vulnerable populations. These programs aim to enhance youth employment, strengthen governance capacity, provide development infrastructure, and improve health and educational services.
The TSCTP exemplifies the effort to create a whole-of-government approach that emphasized interagency coordination, cooperation with regional allies, and the development of area specific metrics by which to evaluate the success of counterterrorism policies. While some of these programs saw a marked decline in militant activity, others suffered from some of the same institutional and public pressures regarding threat perception that have resulted in a U.S. reliance on military solutions against the threat of terrorism. While the U.S. has relied upon kinetic options in responding to terrorism, the use of military or covert forces for direct action is not the only answer and may result in suboptimal outcomes that weaken U.S. power in the long run.
The fight against terrorism will be a long battle. It requires medium and long term solutions that will address some of the root causes of terrorism, starting with good governance, to fill these ungoverned spaces. If even a few of these measures are tied to regional stabilization and prevent regional state and non-state adversaries from undermining our national security interests, there is a fighting chance for counterterrorism’s success.