The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reject a bill that would have mandated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Niger, where a coup has left the country in crisis since July.
The 11-86 vote followed a heated floor debate in which Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made an impassioned speech in favor of bringing U.S. soldiers home from the country.
“Does it make sense to station over 1000 troops in a country ruled by a military junta?” Paul asked. “We're in the middle of a potential war with 1100 troops in Niger where the democratically elected president has been deposed, and they're being ruled by a military junta and still our troops are there.”
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), who voted against the bill, argued on the floor that “a swift withdrawal from Niger, as proposed in this resolution, would weaken our regional reconnaissance efforts” and open the door to Russian influence in the country. Sen Ben Cardin (D-Mary.) also argued against the measure, contending that U.S. troops are not engaged in active hostilities and that American soldiers are there with the permission of local authorities.
Paul led the bill alongside co-sponsors Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Kennedy (R-La.), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) also voted in favor of a floor vote on the bill.
The proposal was endorsed by Just Foreign Policy, the Friends Committee for National Legislation, the Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm, and the Quincy Institute, which publishes RS.
The news comes amid growing pressure to reevaluate America’s war on terror, which has quietly hummed along in places like Somalia, Niger, and Syria in recent years with little attention from the U.S. public. Most deployments are justified under the broad authorization for the use of military force passed by Congress just days after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“Using an AUMF from 22 years ago, an authorization to get the people who attacked us on 9/11, to justify a war in Niger is a ridiculous notion and should be rejected out of hand,” Paul argued.
While these operations are largely confined to training and intelligence gathering, American soldiers have been involved in recent skirmishes in Somalia, and Islamic State fighters killed four U.S. servicemen in Niger in 2017. The father of one of those soldiers recently pleaded with lawmakers to reconsider America’s presence in the country.
“If a conflict is not worth the death of your own son or daughter, if you are not willing to send your own son or daughter to death’s door to return home in a flag-draped coffin, don’t send ours,” he wrote.
Observers initially speculated that the coup in Niger could make it more challenging for the U.S. military to operate, especially given the junta’s decision to expel French troops from the country. But U.S. officials reportedly struck a deal with coup leaders that has allowed the 1,100 American soldiers deployed in the country to return to their regular intelligence and surveillance work.
Further complicating the issue is the State Department’s decision earlier this month to officially designate the takeover as a coup, restricting the extent to which U.S. forces can provide security assistance to and coordinate with the Nigerien government. It is unclear whether the U.S. military continues to arm and train the Nigerien military.
Paul has previously raised questions about the secretive nature of the U.S. presence in Niger. As he noted in a recent letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, it remains unclear what authority underpins the operations, which must be authorized legally by an act of Congress.
Recent presidents have largely justified such operations using the broad authorization for the use of force passed in the days after 9/11. But legal experts have recently raised doubts as to whether that law remains applicable after more than two decades of global war.
New threat assessments “raise the question of whether the United States has passed the ‘tipping point’ such that U.S. counterterrorism efforts are no longer considered an armed conflict,” noted Brian Finucane of the International Crisis Group and Heather Brandon-Smith of the FCNL.In the case of Niger — a country that, by all accounts, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks — Paul argues that operations “circumvent our constitution, which was designed to ensure that the decision to engage in hostilities would be made only after serious deliberation in the legislature.”