The real questions we should be asking about Niger

Lawmakers demand answers in Niger ambush
Lawmakers demand answers in Niger ambush

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Story highlights

  • Mudd & Liepman: In the wake of the deaths of four US servicemen in Niger, Americans are embroiled in a pointless political squabble
  • But we need to be focused on developing a greater understanding of the risks and benefits of US counterterrorism operations abroad, they write

Philip Mudd comments on counterterrorism and security policy for CNN. He was the deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and the senior intelligence adviser at the FBI. Andrew Liepman is a senior analyst at the RAND corporation and served for 30 years at the CIA, retiring as the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

(CNN)If you ask the wrong questions, you'll never get the answers you're looking for. In the wake of the deaths of four US servicemen in Niger, the caustic political climate in Washington has sparked questions ranging from why President Trump failed to acknowledge the tragedy for more than a week to whether this is a Benghazi entanglement for the President's team.

But Americans need answers to a different set of questions. We need a public and civilized discourse about why US troops are involved in counterterrorism operations around the world, including in Niger. We need to have a better understanding of the risks these operations entail and the security benefits that we might expect from them.
The sooner we get back to asking the right questions, the sooner we'll get the answers we deserve.

    Why are we involved? Why is this still America's fight?

    Over the past year, America has lost soldiers in battlefields as diverse Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and now Niger. Many Americans might struggle to articulate why Americans need to remain in places like Iraq and Afghanistan or be fighting in places like Niger and Yemen.
    Are these operations designed to eliminate imminent threats to America, or have they morphed into efforts to aid governments fighting al Qaeda or ISIS adversaries that are far more focused on attacking local militaries than sponsoring attacks in New York or Washington?

    Who are we still fighting? And do these overseas operations make us safer here at home?

    It was clear after 9/11 who the enemy was and why we needed to fight. US intelligence and military elements moved quickly into Afghanistan, but that intervention grew quickly into a full-fledged war, complete with massive bases and tens of thousands of US military personnel. In Iraq, the war featured overwhelming US air power, followed by a decisive American ground presence, against an identified enemy. We used both weapons and tactics our military knows well.
    In the most recent deployments in places like Libya, Niger, Somalia and Yemen, American forces are not in the lead. Rather, we are serving in support roles. We're advising, assisting and sometimes accompanying friendly forces in military operations they lead. And deaths over the past year -- in Syria, northern Iraq, Yemen, Niger -- often involve US forces deployed either as part of small special operations raids (sometimes dedicated to intelligence gathering) or supporting teams working behind or with local troops who are spearheading the fight.
    The key question behind these deployments centers on when the American military should deploy. Must the trigger be an imminent threat to the US, or reacting to an attack on America (Afghanistan in 2001)? Should Americans broaden the definition of threat to include the concentrations of terrorists overseas who threaten our allies and who are affiliated with our sworn enemies (Somalia); or where known terrorists who have attempted attacks on the homeland are known to be hiding (Yemen)? Or do we expand even further when we get involved in places where extremists threaten stability but are more focused on local or regional targets (Niger in 2017)? If the latter criteria meets our threshold of deploying forces, then the menu of possible staging areas expands exponentially.
    These local and regional groups are adopting the ISIS message -- and branding themselves as ISIS -- and they may morph to develop more potent cells directed against cities in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, some of these operations are killing terrorists who will never think more than locally. They are more insurgents vying for local turf than they are terrorists thinking about international targets.
    Expanding when and where we deploy of course raises the thorny issue of whether the current authorizations are sufficient to justify wide-ranging use of American military force. The legal underpinning of our deployments to Niger and Yemen is the same that authorized our conventional wars against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq.
    On its surface, that makes little sense. The enemy has changed dramatically since 2001 and 2002 when the original authorizations for the use of military force were approved by Congress to fight Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda. It seems high time to revisit, debate and update these crucial authorizations.

    Is whatever gain the US is seeking to accomplish worth the costs?

    The hardest question, and one to which no one has a good answer, is whether the cost, particularly the incalculable cost in human life, is worth the effort. To the family who loses a loved one, that's a personal and impossible question to answer. But to the nation at large, can we say that making Niger safe from the Islamic State, preventing al-Shabaab from taking over Somalia or pushing al Qaeda forces back in Yemen, are worth losing more American servicemen? Even one more?
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    There is no right answer to that last and most difficult question. But we should at least have the information about why we're fighting, who we're fighting and what we're accomplishing.
    Forget about the tactical questions, such as whether the Niger team had a perfect intelligence picture entering that tragic fight. Instead, step back and ask the real question: do their deaths offer us a chance to shine a light on whether America's fights all these years after 9/11 are the right fights?