The Pentagon is in the beginning of a full-scale investigation on what happened in Niger and why, but here is what we do know. Four U.S. special operations forces, advising their Nigerian counterterrorism partners in near the Niger-Malian border, were ambushed by a group of Islamic extremists on their way back to base. After about an hour, U.S. troops called French fighter planes in the area for backup, but the aircraft arrived roughly an hour later. When the team was finally extricated, four U.S. soldiers and five Nigerian troops were killed. It’s the kind of tragedy that the U.S. military has been forced to deal with throughout the long war on terrorism.
But if there is a silver lining to this horrible story, it’s that the shock and outrage of losing four Americans in an area of Niger that was previously deemed stable will wake Congress up to the constitutional responsibility it has during wartime. Yet even this silver lining is rusty; that it would take the killing of America’s most elite troops in a desolate part of the African continent to raise the the attention of lawmakers is itself a damaging indictment of how absent Congress as an institution has been since October 2002, the last time the body debated matters of war and peace in front of the American people.
The surprise with which senior lawmakers learned about the deaths of American servicemen in Niger is itself just as surprising. Despite the White House informing Congress in June that hundreds of U.S. troops were stationed in Niger “to provide support for counterterrorism intelligence collection and to facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting counterterrorism operations in the Sahel,” senior senators on the oversight committees were feigning ignorance last weekend about the U.S. force presence in that country. Asked whether he was aware U.S. forces were operating Niger, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Bob Casey replied that they did not. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top interventionist in the Senate, said he had no clue there were so many troops in Niger.
Where have these people been the last sixteen years?
U.S. counterterrorism policy since the September 11 attacks has generally centered on the United States serving as the firefighter with the big hose, extinguishing every spark that flares up in the world. One can have a serious discussion about whether this approach has made America safer or not; the membership of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has actually increased since Washington loosened its rules of engagement in Yemen.
But what can’t be debated is that the executive branch has been doing most of the work. If the Pentagon and intelligence community are the tired firefighters hauling the heavy equipment into the forest, Congress is the lazy comptroller who stays in the firehouse not bothering to balance the books. With the major exceptions of retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, Tim Kaine, Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, and Reps. Walter Jones and Barbara Lee, lawmakers have been so quiet on U.S. military operations overseas that it’s every. You could be forgiven for believing that the legislative branch has no obligations whatsoever on these matters.
Anyone who has read the U.S. Constitution during the course of their lives, of course, realizes that this is demonstrably false. If anything, the legislative branch has even more responsibility on war issues then the executive branch. While the White House sets the policy and the Defense and State Departments execute it in the field, the Congress approves the mission and funds it. This is exactly what occurred on September 14, three days after 9/11, when the House and Senate authorized the Bush administration to use military force against Al-Qaeda, the group that perpretrated the attack. At the time, regular order prevailed; after a day of debate on the floor of both chambers, Republicans and Democrats passed the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) and President George W. Bush signed it four days later.
Nearly sixteen years and two months Bush’s signature, multiple congresses up to the current session have been holding up that resolution as a catch all for every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted and will conduct. Regardless of where the operation happens - in the compact urban neighborhoods of Marawi, Phillipines or the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria - we are told the 2001 AUMF is good enough. Congressional leadership for the most part has been fine with the logic because it requires nothing from the institution other than tucking tens of billions of dollars of wartime spending into massive omnibus bills. No hard political votes are needed. The Washington Examiner editorial board has it right when it wrote, “Members of Congress have become lazy when it comes to military activity abroad because they know that their laziness will be rewarded.”
The incident in Niger last month may be the bucket of cold water splashing across Capitol Hill’s face that many of us have have been looking for. The keyword, however, is “may:” Congress has missed opportunities before and they could very well miss this one. If members of Congress don’t take back their war powers, nobody else will.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.