It will take many weeks to resolve the unanswered questions about the loss of four American soldiers in Niger. But having studied U.S.-Africa policy, I think one thing is abundantly clear: Our military engagements in Africa, while dangerous, are critical to national security.
I’ll always remember speaking with the president of Niger shortly after 9/11, when he warned me about the extremism spreading across the continent. After meeting with the president of Uganda a few years later, I saw the brutality of the Lord’s Resistance Army long before splashy advocacy campaigns made Joseph Kony a household name. The U.S. military has aided regional forces in hunting the LRA, but Africa still has many more violent extremist groups, which makes American partnership critical.
In 2007 the Pentagon created the U.S. Africa Command, better known as Africom. Its mission: to train and assist regional partners so that they will be capable of handling security threats before they become global crises. The worst possible scenario would be for multiple African countries to turn into failed states, giving terrorists a place to take root, as they did in Afghanistan before 2001.
This strategy is working. In Somalia a consortium of troops from Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi (among others) is helping to bring stability. In the fledgling democracy of South Sudan, mired in conflict since its creation, an African Union-led regional force has joined United Nations peacekeepers, using strategies learned in a previous U.S. partnership. Mali’s instability makes American assistance to neighboring Niger a strategic imperative.
But the four American deaths in Niger also underscore weaknesses that must be addressed at Africom. It is the only combatant command without dedicated troop resources. It lacks basing and strategic access: Africom’s headquarters are in Germany, and the U.S. has just one base on the entire continent, in Djibouti, limiting its ability to respond to crises in a timely manner. For years, Africom’s requests for additional resources—specifically, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets—have been repeatedly denied. While such denials aren’t unique to Africom, that its resources are already limited makes the effect on its long-term mission more severe.
The troops in Niger had to rely on French jets for air support, and then the U.S. had to contract with a private company to airlift the wounded to a military hospital in Germany. Until Africom is provided stable and dedicated resources, it will continue to fall short of its potential.
Still, stability on the continent has improved since Africom was established. Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana have enjoyed democratic transfers of power. Rwanda, which I visited two weeks ago, has experienced a renaissance under the tenure of President Paul Kagame, who led the nation out of genocide.
Great progress like this will only be enhanced by President Trump. He understands that the chronic underfunding of the U.S. military during the Obama years degraded readiness and left America unprepared to fully address the most dangerous global landscape in modern history.
As chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, I am working with the president to get the military—including Africom—the funding it needs. Africom is vital to America’s national security, which is why legislators must make it a priority.
Mr. Inhofe, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Oklahoma.