See more of the story


Niger incident shows need for updated congressional measure

The death of four U.S. servicemen in Niger has prompted questions inside and outside Congress about U.S. military operations in Africa. Some seem misinformed: A couple of senators have protested they were unaware of the extent of U.S. deployments in West Africa, despite regular Pentagon briefings to Congress. Other questions appear to be based on unfounded speculation. While the incident that led to the soldiers' deaths is still under investigation, Pentagon officials say it does not result from an expansion of U.S. combat missions in Niger or in Africa more generally.

About 800 of the 6,000 U.S. military personnel posted in Africa are now in Niger; most of the rest are at a base across the continent in Djibouti. But only in Somalia and Libya are U.S. forces authorized to carry out direct action against terrorist groups. The Trump administration has announced its backing for a five-nation West African force to combat extremists and will continue training and intelligence missions. The administration inherited this prudent approach from the Obama administration and has done little to alter it.

But the debate sparked by the Niger incident will be helpful if it motivates Congress to take up a long-neglected piece of business: updating the legal authorization for U.S. military action against terrorist groups. U.S. drone and commando strikes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other far-flung places are still conducted under the aegis of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As several senators pointed out during a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee last week, few who voted for that law imagined it might be used to justify operations far from Al-Qaida's 2001 base in Afghanistan. Legal experts divide over the Obama and Trump administrations' judgment that the law covers action against the Islamic State, which did not exist in 2001. But Trump administration officials agreed during the hearing that a new AUMF would, at least, reinforce the political mandate for defeating Islamist terrorism.

The problem is bridging the gap between legislators who want to provide clear authorization for military action and those who want to constrain it. But the absence of a time limit would allow presidents to wage war for decades across the world without congressional reauthorization. Whether or not that's constitutional, it's unwise.