Of all the questions that linger over the loss of four Special Operations soldiers in Niger, perhaps the most persistent is: Why are we there?
We're used to having U.S. troops in Asia and the Middle East, but Niger? Is our national security enhanced by what they were trying to do there?
The short answer is yes. To understand why, take a closer look at what our troops were doing — and why.
The mission in Niger, which began in 2013, was a classic Special Operations operation more specifically known as a "foreign internal defense."
That's an old-school term for the most fundamental task we give our Green Berets (I served as one for 28 years). A small team goes into a foreign country to work with that nation's military to better prepare it to deal with its own problems.
This occurs during what the military calls "phase zero," which is prior to when a bigger conflict emerges. It's done in coordination with the host nation's civilian government and the entire country team at the U.S. embassy.
This is not a clandestine Hollywood commando mission, or a suicide raid. It is overt and open. Its purpose is to build rapport with the host nation's military, to improve its capabilities, to gather open source intelligence, and to learn both the lay of the land and the local players.
The United States has conducted these kinds of missions worldwide since the 1950s. At times, we have had as few as a dozen of these operations, and at others several hundred in as many as 80-plus countries simultaneously.
These routine missions have short-circuited conflicts on nearly every continent in the world at one time or another.
They are also inherently dangerous. The teams are small, ranging from a pair of operators up to a few dozen. There are seldom more than 100 U.S. troops.
So why do we put such small teams at risk?
The answer is simply that the return is worth it. Often, the use of a small, mature, and low-profile group of quiet professionals can have greater success than a large, high-profile deployment on a massive scale.
Particularly today, as terror groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda move to numerous small or underdeveloped countries, these phase-zero Special Operations missions allow the U.S. to mitigate the threat before it grows — and they do so without making the U.S. the "world's policeman."
Instead of fighting the terrorists everywhere ourselves, these missions help our friends to better police their own backyards.
These missions have been extremely common since 9/11, so it is ludicrous for legislators to claim ignorance of their existence and purpose. Nothing about these missions is new, little is "hidden," and none of it should surprise anyone who has spent more than a week on Capitol Hill.
To repeat, these missions are dangerous. The teams that execute them lack the huge support mechanisms Americans have come to associate with military operations. Our troops know this, and regularly volunteer for the opportunity to participate in the missions simply because they know they work.
They also know these are the kinds of missions they have trained for, and which they execute with greater skill than anyone in the world.
They know that if trouble occurs, support is further away than in conventional operations. Intelligence is superb, often better than in regular military activities, but the logistical and response functions are thin and distant.
That's why we only send professionals on such missions. These are not "kids" who just joined the military six months ago. They are hardened professionals who, yes, "know what the risks are" and go without hesitation.
Yes, we need to know what happened in Niger. Any time military members die in action, a full investigation occurs. A full post-mortem of the deadly ambush in Niger needs to take place so that we can do better on the next mission.
The media and politicians should stop the showmanship and game-playing. Let Defense Secretary James Mattis do his job, and let the brave men and women of the U.S. military do theirs.
Grandstanding senators and talking heads don't help make America safe. Missions like the one in Niger do.