Commentary from a former Green Beret who helped start the mission a decade ago
I’ve been watching the news with clenched teeth and a heavy heart for the past few weeks, hearing all of the nonsense regarding the tragedy in Niger and understanding just how juvenile both the “journalists” reporting on the subject and politicians discussing it are. I say this because as a U.S. Army Special Forces Medic (18D) I was attached to one of the first ODAs into Niger a decade ago, and wrote about that experience in my book, “Love Me When I’m Gone: The True Story of Life, Love and Loss for a Green Beret in Post-9/11 War,” published in 2012.
I actually took the time to go through the Pentagon’s Office of Security Review and receive clearance for that book, meaning, not only is the fact that Special Forces have been there for over a decade completely open-source, but also cleared me to discuss the following specifics.
An article on CNN, “Deploying U.S. Armed Forces in Niger is Unlawful,” by Jimmy Gurule does what the children at CNN are best at, using the breadth of it to talk about how awful President Trump is for deploying U.S. soldiers to the African nation of Niger. He even goes so far to ask if Congress provided “specific authorization for President Trump to introduce American armed forces into hostilities in Niger.”
The problem, Jimmy, is that Trump didn’t originally deploy them. I went to Niger under President George W. Bush. The number of Green Berets in Niger increased under Obama. And now Trump is merely continuing a mission that’s been going on for over a decade.
What bothers me even more than spineless politicians like Lindsey Graham and journalists pretending they didn’t know we had troops there (what does that say about the bang-up job journalists have been doing) is the fact that we lost soldiers in Niger while I was assigned to that unit, and a friend I went through the Special Forces Qualification Course with died there many years ago. And yet, the clueless continue this narrative to make it seem like this is a new thing under President Trump, and somehow try to pin this tragedy on him.
MRE’s on the arifield in north Africa en route to Niger
So why are Special Forces in Niger?
In the grand scheme of things, what America wants as a defense strategy is simple: stability.
You see, Americans tend to forget that the rest of the world isn’t quite like us. In America, if you do something bad or Big Brother wants to find you, it’s pretty simple … we have traffic cameras all over the place and you need to show a photo ID to enact a large number of daily transactions in this country.
But Africa, particularly Trans-Sahel (below the Sahara Desert) Africa is a different story. On the DoD list of nations, Niger was the poorest of the poor nations on this planet in the year I went. And in that part of the world (Trans-Sahel Africa), a person who wants to go unseen can easily do so … there is a lot of open terrain.
Let’s add a simple formula to this equation: the formula for breeding terrorists. There is a well-known formula for the factors which, if present, will most likely lead a portion of the population into extremism and possibly terrorism: poverty, heat, illiteracy and Islam. Let’s add ease-of-access from the Middle East directly into Africa via several routes (Yemen to Djibouti, Saudi Arabia/Jordan to Egypt and Spain/Portugal to Morocco) and you have what some may refer to as a “rat line” for terrorists who either need to get out of the Middle East or would-be terrorists who want to travel from Europe to go on the Jihad.
Take all of these factors together, and you have a hotbed of future activity. Because of the U.S. and NATO presence in the Middle East they can’t exactly set up terrorist training camps in Afghanistan like pre-9/11 days, so where is a terrorist to go if he wants to set up shop and train others? Africa.
One of the benefits of being on the most corrupt continent on the planet is that it isn’t too hard to pay the local officials to stay away from a certain part of the desert or outskirts of their village. On top of potential want-to-be terrorists, Niger is one of the places on this planet that has substantial uranium deposits, so again, falling back to the stability argument this is something that, unless we want the craziest of crazies to become nuclear powers, we need to keep a lid on.
And finally, add to the equation that the Chinese are all over Niger (and the rest of Africa). We are locked in the midst of a low-intensity cold war, of sorts, with China, desperately grasping for resources wherever they can be found. And many of them can be found in Africa.
Given that Green Berets are the masters of Unconventional Warfare, our main purpose down there, as in many other nations, is to link up with local forces and befriend, train and equip them as partners in our mission of Foreign Internal Defense to help our partner African nations defend against foreign invaders, coups or militant forces attempting to enforce a caliphate in their backyards.
As a medic, I spent much of my time treating patients in impromptu clinics in the farthest reaches of the nation. We would proceed to see (and feed) every single person that we could, from sunup to sundown. We met scores of people who had never seen a real medic or doctor, and many more who had never seen white people before. We met locals who had been told that Americans were evil and would eat their children, but after showing them that we truly were there to help, they would go home to tell their friends that we were good. We’d have triple the patient load the next morning.
Our morning crown when the populace began to understand that we were there to help
If you want more detail you can pick up my book (which I will reiterate was cleared by the Pentagon OSR in 2012) and read about the specifics of our trip (and my other deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan).
Please see through the political grandstanding and nonsense for what it is. Operation Flintlock is a non-classified operation that has been bringing Special Forces to Trans-Sahel Africa for over a decade, so this is nothing new. It’s not Trump’s fault these heroes met their end in the African desert, nor was it his decision to be there in the first place. And no, my friends and brothers dying there a decade ago was not his fault either.
U.S. Special Operations were deployed across 138 countries in 2016, and many of my brothers are among those numbers bedding down tonight in the furthest reaches of the globe. We thrive in these environments, and the men who volunteer several times over know exactly what they have signed up for. And they love it. General Kelly and President Trump were 100 percent correct in their comments that those men were with exactly who they wanted to be, doing exactly what they wanted to do and that our nation owes them a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid.
The motto of Special Forces is “De Oppresso Liber: To Free the Oppressed.” I’ve had many a discussion with fellow Green Beret veterans about the difference it would make if every American could visit Africa just once to see what oppression and poverty truly look like.
So the next time you hear a journalist or politician trying to blame this on Trump, know in the back of your mind that this has been going on for over a decade, and they are doing what journalists and politicians do and bending the truth. Significantly. And the sooner the journalists and politicians get out of the way, the sooner my Special Forces brethren can get back to freeing the oppressed.
De Oppresso Liber and God Bless America.
Robert Patrick Lewis is a Green Beret OIF/OEF combat veteran with 10th SFG(A) and is an award-winning author of The Pact and Love Me When I’m Gone: The True Story of Life, Love and Loss for A Green Beret In Post-9/11 War. Follow him @RobertPLewis on Twitter or on his RobertPatrickLewisAuthor Facebook page.