With criticism mounting over the Trump administration’s handling of the Oct. 4 Niger ambush that left four U.S. service members dead, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford laid out the clearest timeline of the attack by ISIS-affiliated militants — and, in the process, hinted that such incidents may become more likely as the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria winds down.

On the evening of Oct. 3, 12 military personnel deployed under Joint Special Operations Task Force – Juniper Shield shadowed a contingent of 30 Nigerian civilian forces in what Dunford, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Oct. 23, characterized as a “civil reconnaissance mission” to collect information from several villages in the Tongo Tongo region near the Mali border. While traveling south to their operating base, the U.S.-Nigerien force came under fire from “about 50” fighters from an “ISIS-affiliated group” armed with small arms, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades.  

The attack caught the contingent totally by surprise, as Dunford described it, lending credence to reporting from NBC News that the ambush resulted from a “massive” intel failure. “We don’t accompany local partner forces [on patrol] when contact with the enemy is expected,” Dunford said. “Either we stay back in cover and conceal positions, or we don’t even go.”

An hour after the special operations force made contact, things started to go downhill, and U.S. military personnel called in support from the French-led counterterrorism coalition in the region. A remote U.S. aircraft was overhead within minutes, Dunford said: An hour later, French Mirage jets appeared to provide close air support.

“My judgment is that the unit thought they could handle that situation without support,” said Dunford of the hour-long delay before the U.S.-led troops called in French air support. “We will find out. I’ve been in these situations before: You get enemy contact, you believe you can handle it with the resources you have … at some point in the firefight, they decided they needed support.”

Later that afternoon, French helicopters and Nigerien search and rescue arrived to medevac the wounded. The bodies of three U.S. military personnel assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (including two Green Berets) and five Nigerian troops killed in the firefight were extracted by French aircraft; the body of Sgt. La David Johnson was eventually found and recovered on Oct. 6 with the help of “local nationals,” although Dunford could not say “definitively” where Johnson’s body was located after the initial contact.

niger ambush dunfordPhoto via DoD
Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, and Sgt. La David T. Johnson

Addressing reporters, Dunford emphasized that the current Pentagon investigation, led by U.S. Africa Command, would yield more definitive answers to the ambiguities that have launched the United States into the latest cycle of political insanity. But like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, Dunford was clearly tasked with playing defense for the Trump administration, dismissing allegations that the Army Special Forces personnel in the region somehow behaved recklessly or somehow deviated from its “advise and assist” mission in Niger (a mission few Americans seemed to grasp in the first place) as “speculation.”

Related: How The Media Is Making The Situation In Niger Worse »

“I have no indication that they did anything but operate within the orders that they were given,” said Dunford. “Did the intelligence change? Did they decide to do something different? Did the partner forces make a sudden change? These are key questions the [AFRICOM] investigation needs to uncover.”

But in addressing questions about the Pentagon’s broader mission in Africa, Dunford ended up hinting at the next stage in the Global War on Terror: A patchwork of “advise and assist” missions spread across the planet not just to fight terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, but to prevent them from ever emerging in the first place.

niger chad africa pentagon operations AUMFPhoto via Defense Intelligence Agency
Current U.S. military areas of operations authorized under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed after the 9/11 terror attacks

There are 6,000 U.S. military personnel spread across 53 countries, mostly deployed as part of similar training missions like the one that brought the 800 U.S. troops to Niger in the first place, for a simple reason: because of the “concentration of ISIS and al-Qaeda,” Dunford said. “They’re in Libya because of ISIS … they’re in east Africa because of al Qaeda. To the extent they are taking risks, they’re operating within areas where there are strategic elements.

“Are they taking risks? They are,” Dunford added. “Are they taking unreasonable risks? I don’t have any reason to believe that.”

The Niger incident has put America’s quiet shadow campaign against terror in Africa in the spotlight, and it’s clearly forcing military leaders like Mattis and Dunford to craft a theater-wide dogma for a command that’s historically low on ISR assets facing an influx of far-flung jihadists with the decimation of ISIS strongholds in Mosul, Raqqa, and Marawi. Dunford acknowledged that ISIS “is shifting” to theaters beyond the Middle East, following al Qaeda’s bid to “leverage local insurgencies and connect them globally,” in Dunford’s words, recruiting franchises from among local tribal militants like those likely beyond the Oct. 4 ambush.

A 2013 U.S. Army Africa briefing slide detailing U.S. efforts to aid the African-led International Support Mission in Mali

But when taken with the Army’s recently unveiled modernization push and related emphasis on specialized training brigades to take over advise-and-assist functions traditionally held by special operations forces, Dunford’s vision captures yet another glimpse at the future of America’s forever wars. Speaking at AUSA in Washington on Oct. 9, Army Chief of Staff Mark A. Milley stated that advise-and-assist missions “will increase and not decrease,” and the branch on Oct. 16 announced that the 92nd Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade — the first of its six training forces — would enjoy accelerated fielding, a decision made by Mattis and Milley over the summer.

Related: SOCOM Has More Troops In Africa Than Anywhere Except The Middle East »

The SFAB “are not Special Forces,” as Brig. Gen. Brian Mennes, director of Force Management with the Army’s G-3/5/7, said at AUSA, but that certainly doesn’t preclude a long-term special operations forces presence in the Africa counterterrorism partners where the Pentagon seeks to prevent ISIS from gaining new ground. A recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report found that the only Afghan security forces detachment to grow into a formidable force since the outset of Operation Resolute Support was the Afghan special forces, trained by both the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and the very Green Berets currently tasked with similar functions in Niger. U.S. Special Operations Command currently has more forces in Africa than anywhere else but the Middle East, and for those SFABs to prove successful, they’ll likely have to remain there.

niger chad africa pentagon operations AUMF maliPhoto via DoD
Nigerien soldiers gather before small unit tactics training during Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, March 3, 2017. Flintlock is an annual Special Operations Forces exercise designed to enhance the military capability of partner nations throughout North and West Africa.

And this, inevitably, could mean more deaths in combat. Despite those operational guidelines among U.S. deployments in West Africa to only accompany partner forces “when the chance of enemy contact are unlikely,” as Dunford put it, the operational priorities of each country-level advise-and-assist deployment are animated by two principles: to not just put pressure on global threats like ISIS’ burgeoning terror franchises, but to “anticipate where they will be.”

“With a relatively small footprint, we are enabling local forces to deal with these challenges before they become threats to the American people,” Dunford said, adding that U.S. advise-and-assist forces “will do whatever’s necessary to address a specific threat.”

Dunford added: “If we have a specific threat to the homeland and local forces can’t handle it, the U.S. will deal with it.”

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