The deaths of three Green Berets in Niger on Wednesday—along with those of several Nigerien soldiers—is raising questions about the US mission in the African country, reports the Washington Post. The incident, involving what are believed to be the first hostile-fire casualties in the country for US troops, took place 120 miles north of the capital of Niamey near Niger's border with Mali. An official tells CNN that US forces were ambushed by as many as 50 ISIS fighters, though earlier reports suggested they met with al-Qaeda militants. Reuters reports they may have fallen victim to a "trap." So why are they there? A rep for US Africa Command says "US forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, including support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts," in the battle against extremists.
According to the Post, 800 US personnel are in Niger, with most involved in the gathering of reconnaissance from Niamey. The US is also working on a base for surveillance drones in Agadez, closer to northern Mali and southern Libya. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, stressed that the overall mission in Niger wasn't considered combat. He added that the relationship between Niger and US forces is "a very good success story." But Andrew Lebovich of the European Council on Foreign Relations tells the Atlantic the incident "seems to sow some potential confusion: It was reportedly a training exercise very close to where jihadist groups are very active." He concludes that "the US seems to be getting closer and closer to combat operations," per the Post.