At the same time that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is issuing dire warnings to Congress about the impact of the sequester cuts on the military budget, the Pentagon is also building up a U.S. presence in places of only remote interest, the African Sahara desert nations of Niger and Mali.
Mr. Hagel's message to Congress, in an eight-page letter Wednesday, claimed that under the proposed cuts the state of America's ground combat units, jet fighter wings and even Special Operations forces would "plummet." Congress had to give them "their" money back, or else. Mr. Hagel's whine reflected not only sentiment within the defense establishment, but also that of America's defense industries, opposed to being affected by the cuts decreed for the rest of the government.
Seemingly in contradiction of the priorities reflected in Mr. Hagel's lament, the United States has been increasing its military presence in Mali and Niger, two former French colonial territories that feel threatened by small Islamist movements. The French have responded militarily, particularly in light of their economic interests in Mali and Niger. The growing American presence in the region can be seen as support of the French intervention, although the reason for U.S. support is not clear. If the French wish to protect their interests in their former colonies with military assets, that is surely their affair and not America's.
In the meantime, the United States has established a busy drone base in Niger, staffed with 120 U.S. troops -- "boots on the ground" -- and Reaper and Predator drone aircraft that fly missions over the Sahara. One has been lost already. A Reaper costs $16.9 million; a Predator, $4.5 million.
If the U.S. defense establishment were flush with cash, and if events in Mali or Niger posed a threat to the United States, perhaps what is taking place there would make sense. If Mr. Hagel's dire statements on how the sequester is degrading America's defense posture are accurate, then U.S. involvement in the two nations is an expensive and unnecessary military adventure.