Pentagon and White House officials have been circumspect about the reason behind the deaths of four US Green Beret troops in southwestern Niger, said to be on a “routine training mission.”
There is a very good reason why the Trump administration is doing its very best to cover up the reason for an ambush that killed Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Sgt. La David Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright in the Tillabéri region of Niger. The Pentagon first hauled out the usual bogeyman of “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) as the culprit. When that notion was debunked, the Trump White House, in coordination with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, created a new Islamist organization out of whole cloth.
What the Pentagon pulled out of its hat was the Islamic State in the Sahel, conveniently abbreviated as "ISIS." With the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the original ISIS, on the run in the Middle East, the Pentagon saw an opportunity to give the terrorist group a rebirth in West Africa, while also blaming it for the deaths of the US servicemen. But the actual reason for the obfuscation from the Oval Office was to avoid having one of the Pentagon’s most fraudulent and discredited programs making it back on to the front pages of the newspapers.
There is every indication that what transpired near the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger was the result of a decision by the Trump administration to bolster the costly and dubious Pentagon program called the Human Terrain System (HTS).
Using anthropologists, sociologists, and linguists possessing higher degrees, the Pentagon created HTS to conduct ethnographic surveys of conflict zones in order to take advantage of inter-tribal conflicts to achieve quick military dominance over a targeted region. HTS has been charged with exacerbating tensions between various indigenous groups and tribes to create intelligence "opportunities" for the US military. In 2012, the Pentagon announced that HTS would be extended from South Asia and the Middle East to Latin America and Africa.
The Army supposedly ended HTS in 2014. However, in March 2016, the Army announced that the program was not only still in operation but was expanding. The Pentagon deceived the Congress into believing HTS was dead, but the program was simply given a new name, the Global Cultural Knowledge Network (GCKN). The new HTS has been particularly active in the Niger Delta of Nigeria and western Cameroon, where secessionists are trying to break free from Nigeria and Cameroon, respectively. AFRICOM and HTS appear to be a neo-colonialist enforcement operation whose primary mission is to protect US oil and mining companies in Africa.
The clue of HTS involvement in the Niger attack by irregulars armed with machine guns and grenade launchers came in a statement by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Marine General Joseph Dunford. In revealing that the joint US-Nigerien patrol, consisting of 12 US Army and 30 Nigerien army personnel, was attacked by 40 armed men shortly after meeting with village leaders in Tongo Tongo. Under the HTS program, it is routine for US military personnel deployed to a targeted country to meet with village leaders and tribal elders. US military teams are often accompanied by US civilian sociocultural personnel, called Human Terrain Teams, for "intelligence support" purposes.
After questions were raised about the presence of the Green Berets in Tongo Tongo, the Pentagon indicated that someone in Tongo Tongo must have tipped off nearby AQIM guerrillas that an American military unit was in the village. After it was determined that AQIM was nowhere near Tongo Tongo, a village that does not even have roads, the Pentagon quickly created a decoy in the Islamic State in the Sahel (ISIS). Rather than walking into an Islamist terrorist group’s trap, it is more likely that the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) failed to adequately brief the Niger government and military on a mission that involved the HTS.
It is quite possible that the U.S-Nigerien patrol ran into armed opposition from smugglers who ply a region that includes Niger, nearby Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria. In one of the poorest places on the planet, illicit commerce is the only way for some tribes to survive. These include the Zarma people who populate the Tillabéri region of Niger and neighboring Mali and Benin. The Zarma once rented their cattle, sheep, goats and dromedaries out to Tuareg and Fulani tribesmen. Today, it is more lucrative for the people of the Sahel to deal in weapons — including those looted from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's massive arms warehouses after the overthrow of his government — and drugs. Add smuggling to a Tuareg secessionist rebellion in northern Niger and Mali, uranium mining in Niger, and increased oil exploration in Niger, Chad, and northern Nigeria and a perfect toxic brew emerges. It is in this environment that AFRICOM is now wading with a discredited HTS playbook.
The Tuaregs who populate northern Niger and have been agitating for independence have long memories about what they consider to be US meddling in their affairs. In 1995, Niger's Tuareg leader Mano Dayak was killed in a suspicious plane crash in Niger. The Cessna 337 carrying Dayak and his Tuareg delegation crashed shortly after taking off from Agadez airport. Dayak was engaged in peace negotiations with the central Niger government and he and his party were on their way to Niamey for peace talks. An autonomous Tuareg government threatened to undermine the plans of Exxon and other US oil and mineral companies to have a free hand in exploiting oil and mineral resources around Lake Chad. Some Tuareg leaders suspected CIA involvement in the crash that killed their leader. Ironically, the same runway from which Dayak took off has been improved and expanded in order to handle Pentagon and CIA drone missions over the Sahel region. Google’s problematic search engine, when queried for Dayak and the plane crash is hampered by the fact that Agadez airport was re-named Mano Dayak International Airport. Therefore, search results provide flight and airline information but little on the suspicious plane crash.
With little congressional oversight, there will be more incidents like that which saw the deaths of four Green Berets and 30 Nigerien military personnel. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where US military commanders like General David Petraeus placed a high degree of confidence in HTS, the program resulted in massive numbers of civilian deaths. Rather than report on the failures of HTS, the media, including The New York Times and the New Yorker, gave the program high praise. Today, the media is falling for the "ISIS did it" canard when many corporate reporters had to locate Niger on a map when the first reports emerged about the ambush on the Green Berets.
HTS predecessor programs used in Southeast Asia, the Pentagon's Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) and the CIA’s counterpart, the Phoenix Program, were responsible for some of the worst genocide carried out by the United States during the Vietnam War. Before Phoenix, the CIA dabbled in anthropological operations in Latin America with Project CAMELOT.
In 2007, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists called HTS "dangerous and reckless," as well as an unethical use of anthropologists by the Pentagon. Professor David Price of Saint Martin's University, a leading critic of HTS, called the program a neo-colonial "mission to occupy and destroy opposition to US goals and objectives." Professor Hugh Gusterson of George Mason University said HTS was akin to "asking an anthropologist to gather intelligence that may lead to someone's death or imprisonment . . . it's like asking an Army doctor to kill a wounded insurgent." Members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) have, as they did with the CIA's projects CAMELOT and PHOENIX, condemned HTS for its reliance on what the AAA has described as “mercenary anthropology."
While the Army and its special operations forces, including the Green Berets, continue to value the program, it has met strong opposition from the Marine Corps. In 2009, one Marine Corps officer, Major Ben Connable, wrote that HTS undermined the Army's "cultural competence." The ambush in Niger appears to be more and more the result of "cultural incompetence."