Playing Zone Defense: Niger and the Risk Versus Reward of Remote Operations


The aftershocks of the combat deaths of four U.S. special operations soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4 are still shaking the Pentagon two months later.

The deaths prompted a familiar refrain from the American public: “Why are we there?” This expected, if fair, question reminds us of the precisely opposite question asked about Afghanistan after the shock of 9/11: “Why aren’t we there?”

To be there or not to be there? Either way you answer, you’ll find risk.

The devastating ambush in west Niger occurred on the 24th anniversary of another bloody day in modern military history. The Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia occurred on the third and fourth day of October 1993, leaving 18 American soldiers dead and 73 wounded. This ambush also triggered surprise, then outrage, then investigation — the “why are we there?” inquiry. As the grim tactical details of this mission-gone-bad come to light, a broader strategic question looms: Where exactly does the United States need to project power abroad to prevent strategic surprise?

If nine out of ten Americans could not find Afghanistan on a map in 2001, it is probable that ten out of ten cannot find Niger on a map in 2017. Count me among those who could not locate Niger on the map of Africa, much less make a case for the U.S. military presence there — at least until 2014. That is when I prepared to command U.S. special operations in West and North Africa, including Niger. I deployed in 2015.

A special forces soldier once remarked that Niger is not the end of the earth, but you can see it from there. Landlocked Niger is roughly three times the size of California, with a population of 20 million. In 2015, Niger ranked 188 of 188 on the U.N. Human Development Index. Two of Niger’s neighbors, Libya and Mali, are both in the throes of revolutionary upheaval. Three other neighbors — Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon — are joined with Niger in the fight against Boko Haram — a declared affiliate of the Islamic State and one of the world’s most lethal militant groups. Niger is at the center of a rough neighborhood.

Niger’s vast interiors and porous borders provide maneuver space for al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram. This trio of bad actors merits U.S. attention and, in my opinion, some measured level of military assistance to the African security forces fighting them. This assistance has a twofold purpose: to understand what threats exist in these remote spaces and to enable Washington’s African partners who are willing, but not fully capable on their own, of containing them. Less explicit is a third purpose that is invoked in extremis: to strike swiftly, unilaterally if required, at threats determined to present imminent danger to the United States or its citizens.

When commanding U.S. forces in remote regions, every day I asked myself both sides of this question. The “why or why not be there” inquiry considers available forces, physical access, foreign policy resolve, perceived risk to the U.S. homeland, and the quality and will of America’s host nation partners. Complex enough? Now add in the physics. Africa’s vast spaces empty of infrastructure make logistics, mobility, and medical support difficult.

To manage this problem with finite resources requires a zone-defense posture. Precision counter-terrorism operations (“night raids”) are like the one defensive basketball player chasing the ball around the court attempting to smother the ball handler. This player makes decisive and speedy moves, temporal in effect, yet often successful in disrupting the offensive scheme. But playing a zone means that other, less conspicuous, offensive threats are left uncovered. It is here we see the role of the rest of the zone defensive team: quieter, persistently present, and often plodding along, even forgotten, in uncontested spaces. Special operations forces, such as U.S. Army Green Berets, specialize in inhabiting these locales. Though night raid capable, their primary purpose is to play the under-examined corners of the zone defense.

The risk of the zone is the vulnerability of the off-ball player when the offense unexpectedly masses, achieving surprise overmatch. The U.S. special operations team ambushed in Niger encountered exactly this: vulnerable while covering immense and customarily uncontested “court space.”

Niger is one of a catalog of countries where U.S. military presence is proclaimed (not covert), yet garners little attention. Niger has the three main ingredients that call for a small, specialized U.S. military presence. First, there are lethal and expeditionary threats that require monitoring and, if merited, action. Second, Niger fields capable and willing host nation security forces, principally in the Forces Armees Nigierienes. Finally, the United States fields a skilled diplomatic team in Niger led by a respected ambassador. During my time commanding forces in Niger, these factors were adroitly in balance. For years, the best zone defense that you never heard of worked superbly.

U.S. forces are in Niger for the same reasons they are present, in small packages, in the Philippines, Colombia, Chad, Lebanon, or any other number of sovereign countries who host U.S. forces, episodically or consistently. The United States assist these countries in their localized version of the zone defense. America’s military presence, very often special operations forces, contort into the narrow space where a muscular American presence is unwarranted or counter-productive. The strategic aim is to employ made-to-measure U.S. security teams that deliver outsized effects. When done correctly, the United States helps partner countries keep their threats as localized irritants and not bloom into transnational threats.

This formula, easy to articulate strategically, is difficult to template tactically. U.S. special operations forces are designed to operate effectively and discreetly in these tricky geographic spaces within tight policy guidelines. Tactical assistance might mean weapons, medical, and communication training on a secure base, or it could be more expeditionary where U.S. forces accompany local security forces on a ten-day, 1000-kilometer patrol, adding a valuable layer of intelligence, surveillance, and communications.

No matter how skilled, small teams always incur high risk. We do not yet know all the details of October 4, but we know this: Start with the fog and friction of an enemy-initiated ambush, add the difficult tactical task of responding under fire with language-differentiated partner forces, and then consider the human fallibility of even America’s most combat-tested small-unit leaders.

I served over two decades as a special forces officer in such remote places, weighing the risk-to-return decisions where fleeting opportunities always came with elevated risk. We learned that victories are as muted as they are frequent. Success is marked by non-events, inaudible acts of prevention, empathetic understanding, and nuanced tweaks that create sizable advantages. A lawful arrest in place of a violent firefight might be the culmination of three months of work.

Success over the long-term is a result of labored progress and is measured by both an intangible return on trust and a measurable improvement in partner force competency. Situationally dependent, a special operations soldier expects to see his host nation counterpart exhibit improved lethality, reduce corruption, or improve in human rights. A single deterred attack by a threat group is not decisive, but it often serves all interests better than a night raid. In this realm, triumphs are more often whispers than bangs. No one pens a best-selling book or makes a blockbuster movie about these types of wins. Predictably, the public and pundits only take interest when the zone defense is not exploited but exploded.

Why aren’t we there? This question, asked at a previous place and time, is likely what led to this special operations patrol on the Niger-Mali border. The point is not to poke every hornet’s nest. The method is the point. Developing high-trust, enduring relationships with partner nation forces means we don’t have to go everywhere. If the United States demonstrates — at the appropriate level — commitment and resolve to work in the trenches with Washington’s partners on their worst problems, then that trust is worth a hundred eyes in the sky. Critically, American forces gain an insider’s perspective on threats, movements, culture cues, and power dynamics that would otherwise be opaque to a western-molded, U.S.-bred mind. With zero presence, the United States has no ability to anticipate, much less disrupt, a 9/11-type plot.

So, to be there or not to be there? When man-to-man defense is neither affordable nor sustainable, America’s options are to play a zone or to walk off the court. Afghanistan showed us the cost of electing to leaving the court in the 1990s. Sixteen years later, America trudges on, retrospectively considering how a small, skilled investment in Afghanistan backed by political resolve decades ago might have altered a tragic history. In Niger, as in other countries difficult to locate on a world map, the middle ground is to play zone. This means incurring calculated risk to select Americans in order to hedge against strategic surprise.

This approach is not a call for perpetual war. It is a call for perpetual awareness. America does not need special operators lurking in every shadowy corner of the globe but good strategy relies on contextual and geographic awareness. Where antiseptic, risk-free methods like satellites, drones and e-monitoring can provide awareness, Washington should use them. In places where these measures fall short and where the United States needs sensors and actors who meaningfully engage in the messy human realm, Washington must shrewdly calculate the costs and risks of a steady and small U.S. presence.

Though the details of this mission remain disturbingly murky, the thematic approach in such locales is clear. Be there. Be there with the plainly declared purpose to understand and influence both those who would do us harm and those who ask for American help.


Brian S. Petit, CEO of Garfield Syndicate, LLC, is a security and leadership consultant based in Colorado. He is a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer and the author of a book on special operations in areas short-of-war, titled Going Big by Getting Small (Outskirts Press, 2013).

Image: U.S. Army/Zayid Ballesteros