The Trump administration has not authorized any new missions in Niger since taking office in January, defense officials tell Breitbart News.
When four soldiers assigned to U.S. Army 3rd Special Forces Group were killed during a reconnaissance patrol in Niger earlier this month, Americans questioned why President Trump had put them there in the first place.
But defense officials say that since Trump took office, no new missions have been authorized.
“I can tell you our mission in Niger has not changed within the last year,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Audricia Harris told Breitbart News in an email Tuesday.
Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested earlier this week at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the soldiers were there on the same mission authorized by President Obama in 2013, when he first sent 100 U.S. troops to Niger by executive order.
Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) asked Mattis: “Can you just explain, very briefly, what our mission was in Niger, when the tragedy occurred, and under what legal authority those troops were there?”
Mattis responded: “I can, Senator. The troops are there under Title 10, in a train-and-advise role. The letter from the president — from President Obama in 2013 — to the president pro tem of the Senate and the speaker of the House, talks to the total number of U.S. military deployed there in 2013. It was a hundred, in furtherance of U.S. national security interests, as President Obama’s report to you. That continues to be the case at this time.”
During the Obama administration, the mission and troop presence in Niger seemingly operated on autopilot, without additional White House authorizations even as the U.S. troop presence grew almost sixfold — from 100 in February 2013 to 575 in December 2016.
And it’s not clear what authorities they were operating under — executive order, the Defense Department’s Title 10 authorities to train, advise, and assist foreign partner militaries, or both.
A spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command said 3rd Group began its current assignment in Niger in 2015, as part of an operation in support of the 2015 national security strategy.
“3SFG (A) deployed under named operation, Operation Juniper Shield, in support of the 2015 national security strategy,” said Lt. Col. Robert Bockholt, director of public affairs at U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
Although they arrived in Niger after June, their deployment was long scheduled and part of a regular rotation, according to Bockholt.
“The group has been on a rotational deployment so it has been a habitual relationship with [Special Operations Africa/Africa Command],” he said.
The Trump administration may not be responsible for putting troops in Niger, however the U.S. troop presence has continued to grow since December, and it’s not clear who has authorized it.
Defense officials said an increase from 575 in December to 645 in June was due to the “ebb and flow” of forces coming in and out of the country that sometimes creates “overlap.”
“It is important to remember that when the military gives you numbers, they are approximate and average numbers. The numbers are not static,” Harris said.
She said an 150 additional Air Force personnel has deployed there after June, to continue construction on an air base in Agadez, Niger, that began last year.
The additional 150 has brought the current U.S. presence of troops, civilian personnel and contractors in Niger up to 800, she said, but added, “This number has been consistent since 2016.”
Defense officials would not confirm whether the additional troops were ordered under the Obama administration, or whether the Trump administration has signed off on any troop increases for Niger yet. But, they said, any increases would be approved at the “DOD level” — versus by the White House.
There is no indication the Trump administration will depart from the mission in Niger anytime soon.
Since the October 4 ambush, both White House and Pentagon officials have defended the troop presence as necessary to help Nigerien forces fend for themselves, and make sure terrorists do not expand their foothold in Africa.
“What’s important to note is that our mission in Niger is train and assist, building partner capacity,” Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
“We do this throughout the world and like those mission they are within the Secretary authorities to approve or disapprove,” she added.