When US troops were ambushed in Niger on Oct. 4, the widespread reaction was surprise. The US has military forces in Niger? What are they doing there?
Yet in many ways, the Niger operation typifies U.S. military missions underway in roughly 20 African countries, mostly in the northern third of the continent. They tend to be small, they are carried out largely below the radar, and most are focused on a specific aim: rolling back Islamist extremism.
In almost all of the missions, the Americans are there to advise, assist and train African militaries — and not to take part in combat. Still, those supporting roles can often take U.S. forces into the field with their African partners, as was the case in Niger.
"The missions are different, but obviously if they're out in a high-threat environment, they're going to be prepared for combat as a contingency," said Dan Hampton, a retired Army colonel at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank sponsored by the Defense Department.
"It's hard to say it's not a combat mission when there's the potential for conflict and combat as they accompany these African troops," he added.
In Niger, about a dozen U.S. troops traveled with members of Niger's military to meet villagers in a remote southwest corner of the country, near the border with Mali. The entire contingent was ambushed as they were leaving. Four Americans were killed and two were wounded, and the Nigerien troops also suffered casualties.
The U.S. military established its Africa Command, AFRICOM, in 2007, in an effort to work more closely with African militaries that were often ill-equipped to deal with the emerging extremist threat.
While many African countries welcome the U.S. assistance, they aren't interested in a high-profile U.S. presence. AFRICOM headquarters has always been based in Stuttgart, Germany, and not in Africa.