WASHINGTON — The Pentagon saw its worst African disaster of this century in Niger, yet that very nation may prove to be the positive template in working to combat and check cross-border terrorism.
A new analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said Niger is “a bulwark against further instability in West Africa.” The analysis concludes that Niger and its international partners such as the U.S. “have an opportunity to improve security but should take care to avoid steps that could make violence worse.”
The fulcrum for that success hinges on balancing additional investments in military capacity with accountability and governance, civilian protections and finding ways to address conflict through local political solutions, CSIS said.
Niger is where U.S. forces were ambushed in October 2017 near the town of Tonga Tonga during a misapplied mission. Four U.S. soldiers and four Niger soldiers were killed, and other U.S. personnel were wounded.
No senior U.S. military officials were held accountable for the mistakes and failures that led to that ambush. On Friday, U.S. Africa Command received a new commandant, Gen. Stephen Townsend.
That same area of Tonga Tonga was the scene where ISIS terrorists ambushed Niger troops on May 14, 2019, resulting in at least 28 deaths.
Yet despite those high-profile attacks, the CSIS analysis said Niger has performed “better than its neighbors in managing the interlocking conflicts, and the government and its people possess resiliencies which can, and should, be built upon.”
Niger sits at a pivotal crossroads between North Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin — one reason U.S. and French forces have continued to deepen their relationship with Niger forces. “The nation is surrounded by intensifying conflicts in neighboring nations, hostilities which are increasingly spilling over the borders into Niger,” the CSIS study said.
Niger’s president has unveiled a historic plan to grow the army through an increase in spending of roughly 17 percent of the country’s national budget. He also has declared a state emergency in some border areas.
CSIS said that while both steps are understandable, other steps must be taken to ensure that the military is not left unchecked and that local leaders do not take advantage of a state of emergency.
“There have been few positive examples of local leaders relaxing provisions pertaining to market days where civilians can attain food and trade goods, and most citizens live under the full force of the policy,” CSIS wrote. “The longer the state of emergency is in place without concessions to local needs, and the more places it affects, the more severe the impact, and the more unpopular it will become.”
Nevertheless, the CSIS analysis said Niger remains clearly capable of continuing its stability while increasing awareness and operations against terrorists — a critical function for the region.
“Niger is situated as a bulwark—perhaps the last—against the further spread of violence in the region,” CSIS said. “Its stability is critical to preventing a more operational and detrimental geographic connection between armed groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin; its security is fundamental to stemming the flow of human beings and illicit matériel to North Africa.
“But paradoxically, the most ineffective strategy for bolstering Niger is continued militarization of the conflict without accompanying investments in mitigating the impact of the conflict on civilians and putting in place associated political measures,” CSIS said. “It is time to recognize that the best strategy for ensuring that Niger supports stability in the Sahel is doing what is best for the people of Niger, those who daily suffer the consequences of the conflicts.”