The Pentagon’s Secret, Permanent Wars
Two months after the lethal ambush in Niger that killed four American troops in October, U.S. forces were involved in another skirmish in the central African nation with militants linked to the Islamic State. If this story sounds unfamiliar, that’s because it was first reported last week, fully three months after the battle.
Pressed for an explanation of the delay at a Defense Department briefing Thursday, chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White offered a stunning justification: U.S. “troops are often in harm’s way, and there are tactical things that happen that we don’t put out a press release about,” she said. “We also don’t want to give a report card to our adversaries. They learn a great deal from information that we put out.”
In other words: The military will decide whether Americans find out what the military is doing in their name.
White cast the secrecy as a matter of security, a characterization that is misleading at best: This is not a case of the public demanding notice before every troop movement in a known warzone. It is not analogous to announcing D-Day in advance. This is a secretive intervention in a nation where the military has no legal authority to act. It is a blatant disregard for the Constitution’s assignment of war powers to Congress and the Pentagon’s accountability to civilian leaders and the citizenry. It is reckless executive war-making concealed from the public eye.
The extent to which the DoD has kept Congress in the dark about its extensive operations in Niger (and 49 of the other 53 nations on the continent of Africa) became evident in the aftermath of the October ambush. Congressional leaders like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pleaded ignorance of the entire intervention—a project that never should have begun without their explicit sanction. (Like the mission creep across the greater Mideast, interventions in Africa are shoved into the jurisdiction of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that preceded the invasion of Afghanistan, a move that strains its scope beyond all reason, as U.S. forces are fighting in nations unrelated to the 9/11 attacks to which the AUMF responded.)
Since then, Graham, Schumer, and their colleagues have done nothing to constrain the Pentagon in Niger or even to investigate its value to American defense. Graham has conceded the ISIS forces in Niger do not “have the capability to attack the United States,” and yet he has no apparent objection to putting U.S. troops in their line of fire indefinitely. U.S. action in Niger and surrounding countries has continued unabated as Congress is unwilling to demand—and the Pentagon has made clear it is unwilling to supply—the most basic information about why Washington appointed the U.S. military the perpetual police officer of Africa.
And so White and her press briefing partner, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, assured their audience everything is well in hand. “I completely disagree with you that we don’t have a strategy,” McKenzie told a reporter. “I actually think we have a very good global strategy against violent extremist organizations and what you see happening in Niger is simply one of the manifestations of that. So I think we do have a plan; I think the plan is working.” White offered slightly more than laud and platitude, noting there is a “great deal of ungoverned space within Africa” and the U.S. is “helping those security forces increase their capabilities so that they can manage the security situations themselves.”
It all sounds very reasonable until you remember that this is precisely what the U.S. has been doing in Afghanistan (to the tune of $45 billion annually) and Iraq for the better part of two decades. The hope, writes military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, “is that training, equipping, advising, and motivating [local troops] to assume responsibility for defending their country may someday allow American forces and their coalition partners to depart.”
But the reality is a costly and dangerous stalemate. Solving other nations’ internal political, ethnic, and religious turmoil has proven well outside the U.S. military’s capabilities. “From on high,” Bacevich continues, “assurances of progress; in the field, results that, year after year, come nowhere near what’s promised; on the homefront, an astonishingly credulous public. The war in Afghanistan has long since settled into a melancholy and seemingly permanent rhythm,” and the interventions in Africa show every sign of doing the same. There will always be “ungoverned space” around the globe, and it is neither possible nor desirable for the U.S. military, peerless though it is, to go everywhere all the time to address each point of chaos by force. Such grand schemes are incompatible with a prudent, sustainable defense, and fiscally absurd for a nation with $21 trillion in national debt.
The Pentagon’s bold assertion at a routine presser that it has no obligation to inform the public about its wars—let alone to ask Congress for permission to fight them is a troubling sign that Washington has absorbed not a single lesson from the past 17 years of conflict. To accept an autonomous Pentagon ranging about the globe to address problems in distant lands regardless of their connection to U.S. security interests with secret and unfettered military intervention is to accept an endless, fruitless drain on American blood and treasure.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.