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The question D.C. dare not answer: Why are we in Niger? | Will Bunch

The ugly mudslinging by the Trump White House against a war widow and her allies obscures the most important question: Why are we in Niger in the first place?

Myeshia Johnson cries over the casket of her husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in an ambush in Niger, upon his body’s arrival in Miami.
Myeshia Johnson cries over the casket of her husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in an ambush in Niger, upon his body’s arrival in Miami.Read moreWPLG

Myeshia Johnson has a lot of questions — damn good questions, actually — about why her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson, a member of an elite Special Forces unit, and three of his American comrades were killed during a murky military mission in the central African nation of Niger  this month.

"I don't know how he got killed, where he got killed, or anything," Johnson, who is six months pregnant with her late husband's child, said in a recent interview with ABC News. "I don't know that part. They never told me, and that's what I've been trying to find out since Day One, since Oct. 4."

What's appalling is that the powerful people who should be able to answer these simple questions seem completely clueless — and not just about what happened in the Nigerien town of Tongo Tongo on that fateful day. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee and the most influential member of Congress on defense issues, said the Trump administration had given him few details about what happened in Niger, while other key senators — including Democrats Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Republican Lindsey Graham — made the more shocking admission that, in Graham's words, they "had no idea" that there are more than 800 U.S. troops in Niger. Late Monday afternoon, the nation's top uniformed officer, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a muddled news conference that raised more questions about the deadly events of Oct. 4 than were answered and also failed to offer a rousing defense of this broader mission halfway around the world.

There's one question no one has adequately answered — the most important one of all.

Why are we in Niger?

More broadly, what is the explanation and the strategy behind the ever-expanding U.S. military presence in Africa, where an umbrella of American troops now spreads from parts of Somalia, a largely lawless nation that has famously caused America heartbreak, to Djibouti (where we have a large permanent base), Cameroon, and elsewhere, with a growing air force of drones that can spy on various African militias or villages or rain down weapons if need be — none of this debated by a largely in the dark American public, and none of this directly authorized by Congress, which is supposed to share in the power to wage war?

It's a serious, life-or-death question that calls for thoughtful answers from serious people — exactly what we've been lacking in the downward spiral of American discourse spinning out of control since the unfortunate events of 11/8/16. Instead, the nation has been insulted with the ugliest episode yet of the TV reality show emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with President Trump and an appalling assist from his overrated-from-Day-One chief of staff, John Kelly, telling untruths and waging an unseemly public relations war against a gold star mother and her allies. Trump's predictable crudeness has made the Niger ambush the main story on cable TV news for nearly a week — but for all the wrong reasons. It's more a case of the narcissist Trump being Trump than clever diversionary tactics — and yet it does still manage to divert the real conversation we need to be having about American militarism in Africa.

That conversation should start with this: Under what authority are some 6,000 U.S. troops (a level of strength that America didn't hit in Vietnam until midway through the JFK administration) and our fleet of flying death robots now serving in Africa? The pat answer you'd get from the Pentagon and previously from the Obama administration (which carried out a good bit of our military expansion in Africa with little or no fanfare) and now the Trump administration would be the near-unanimous 2001 congressional authorization for use of military force that launched what used to be called "the war on terror" and is now increasingly called our "forever wars."

That resolution, of course, really addressed only the original al Qaeda group that was led by the wealthy Saudi Osama bin Laden, and that was well-organized and well-funded and that showed not only on 9/11 but in lesser operations like the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that it was a threat to Americans at home and abroad.

That was 16 years ago this autumn. Now, bin Laden is dead, with his original group barely existent, and it's been replaced by various coalitions of bad actors and wannabe warlords who seem a lot less capable of striking U.S. citizens — until we send them into their remote villages on our military missions. Though the 9/11 attacks certainly gave weight to the argument that some terror threats are serious enough to confront on foreign soil, the biggest danger in the 2010s seems to be U.S.-bred "lone wolves" who say they hate America because of the way we're engaged in this "forever war" with elements of Islam. Our never-ending conflict has screamed out for both honesty from our presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump — and an open, democratic debate, but we got neither.

Obama did publicly announce in 2013 that he was sending 100 U.S. troops to Niger. "This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region," he wrote in a vague letter to then-House Speaker John Boehner. Since then, no one seems to know when or why that troop deployment has increased a whopping eightfold.

In failing to address a militaristic U.S. policy that sees every problem around the globe as a nail to be pounded with an $800 Pentagon hammer, Obama passed the torch to the reckless Trump, who has given the generals carte blanche to expand both the front line and the deadliness of our tactics; the number of innocent civilians killed by the American military has skyrocketed since January, and an expanded role for the Pentagon — from sending more troops into the sinkhole that is Afghanistan to putting America's nuclear bombers on 24-hour alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War — has become a dominant theme of Trump's America.

And yet with all these operations all over the globe for so many years — longer than a typical high school sophomore has been alive — do we feel any safer? Has resentment over America's drone strikes from Africa to Pakistan and so many civilian deaths created more U.S.-hating terrorists than we intended to kill? And how can we afford this — Congress recently showered the Pentagon with a whopping $700 billion, more than even Trump had asked for — when our trains and our train tracks are constantly breaking down, ridiculous college costs are bankrupting our youth, and health care for the working class is treated like a luxury?

If and when the despicable widow-bashing ever stops and after the Pentagon gets its story straight about what happened in Tongo Tongo, Trump — or maybe Defense Secretary James Mattis, who comes off as a lot more trustworthy and honest — should go on national TV with a sweeping address that, while not compromising military tactics, should answer these three seemingly simple questions. Why are we in Niger? Why are we in Africa? Against which  nations is the U.S. military — more than 16 years after the 9/11 attacks — still waging war against terrorism, and what are the strategy and perceived end dates of these conflicts?

Then that strategy needs to be written down in a new authorization for use of military force that needs to be sent to Congress and properly debated — not for a few hours but for several weeks, with committee hearings and expert testimony — and then voted up or down. Or, better yet, amended to an antiterrorism policy that actually makes sense, with more attention to diplomacy and fighting the causes of violence and anti-Americanism. That's the way the Founding Fathers envisioned it going down when it came to the United States fighting wars.

Though I've tried to ignore most of the back-and-forth, I was struck by Trump's apparent comment in his now infamous phone call with Myeshia Johnson, in which he apparently said her late husband "knew what he signed up for." Many said that was insensitive, but we're missing the broader point: La David Johnson didn't exactly know what he signed up for in Niger. None of us does. That needs to change right away.