While the nation tears itself apart over the minutiae of how President Donald Trump delivers the news of U.S. service members’ combat deaths to their families and loved ones, the Department of Defense is trying to understand exactly what went wrong in Niger.
It’s been two weeks since four American soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group — including two Green Berets — were ambushed and killed by at least 50 al Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Niger during a reconnaissance patrol with partner forces on Mali border on Oct. 5, and the Pentagon is still short on details.
Speaking to reporters on Oct. 19, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that contact with militant forces — particularly al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been battered in neighboring Mali by French bombers — had been “considered unlikely”; hours later, Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. stated that U.S. forces “had conducted 29 partnered patrols in this general area without contact of any kind.” According to both, the Pentagon had launched a “full investigation” into the death of Staff Sgt. La David Johnson, the soldier whose body was recovered 48 hours by “local nationals” after he was “separated” from his unit during the firefight — and who has become the center of the political maelstrom surrounding Trump and Gold Star families.
Beyond the Trump controversy, lawmakers are pissed about the fatal incursion in Niger and the lack of answers provided by the Pentagon so far. An FBI probe is in the works (although it’s worth noting that the bureau frequently investigates military deaths, as it did with the deadly Marine Corps KC-130 crash that killed 16 in July). On Oct. 19, Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, even threatened to subpoena DoD officials to force them to share details on the Niger incident with the American people, accusing President Trump of “not being upfront” about the incident, prompting Mattis to trek to Capitol Hill in response.
But despite the mounting criticism of both the White House and Pentagon and the political mudslinging surrounding Trump’s treatment of Gold Star families, there’s little Mattis can actually do until the investigation is completed. Based on recent reports and what officials have told Task & Purpose, the DoD is more in the dark regarding the Niger incident than it has been with other past combat deaths. U.S. Africa Command has dispatched a team of investigators to conduct a “review of the facts,” according to NBC News. But according to several defense sources, Mattis is becoming increasingly frustrated with AFRICOM leadership, particularly Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the top general in charge of AFRICOM, over the ambiguity surrounding the Pentagon’s Niger narrative.
The message coming out of the Pentagon and various commands across the U.S. armed forces is simple: We don’t want to say anything until we know we can tell the truth. “The loss of our troops is under investigation,” Mattis said on Oct. 20. “We in the Department of Defense like to know what we’re talking about before we talk, and so we do not have all the accurate information yet.” Yes, the DoD conducts investigations into every troop fatality (“I don’t care if it’s in a car accident,” Mattis said), as it did with the two U.S. troops killed in Iraq this August (although not with the Navy SEAL raid in Yemen in February) — this in itself is not unusual.
The real outrage, from both lawmakers and the media, over the lack of detail is really a misplaced political fury, a panicked reaction to the sudden realization that, yes, some 8,000 U.S. special operations forces conduct operations in 80 countries each day — and many of those forces are deployed across Africa. The United States has had military personnel in Africa as part of those ever-expanding “advise and assist” missions and military exercises in the service of the Global War on Terror for years. Military operations in West and Central Africa — which began in 2004 under the President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s secret al-Qaeda Network executive order, Operations Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara executive order, and an AQIM executive order — are being conducted under the authorities of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. As recently as June 2017, President Donald Trump told the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate in a letter that are 645 U.S. military personnel in Niger “to provide a wide variety of support to African partners conducting counterterrorism operations in the region.”
All of this is to say that anyone who didn’t seem to know that the U.S. military has assets across Africa as part of the Global War on Terror simply hasn’t been paying attention. And given how little the American public truly understands about those American deployments in Africa, each passing day has potential to fuel a spate of curious (and often unfounded) theories — theories that threaten to not only undermine the Pentagon’s current investigation, but catapult a complex incident into a realm of political warfare that threatens to obscure the deaths of those four service members.
Consider MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who suggested during an Oct. 19 broadcast that U.S. and Nigerien forces may have been left under-supported and outgunned by the sudden withdrawal of Chadian forces from Mali. Chad’s battle-hardened troops have been leading the fight against militant groups like Boko Haram and AQIM in the region for years, but on Sept. 24, the White House announced that the “important and valuable counterterrorism partner” was now part of the administration’s new travel ban due to “not adequately [sharing] public-safety and terrorism-related information and [failure] to satisfy at least one key risk criterion.” According to the New York Times, officials in both the State Department and Pentagon argued the move “risked harming long-term national security interests.” By Oct. 12, Chad had completed a two-week withdrawal from Niger, where it once maintained 2,000 troops at the peak of its anti-Boko Haram fight in 2016, per Reuters. That “one key risk criterion” that the essential terror partner failed to complete? A shortage passport paper required by the State Department, one the government of Chad simply couldn’t produce, Associated Press reported on Oct. 19.
It’s not an unplausible theory — on paper. It might explain why Trump declined to deliver a drafted statement prepared by the National Security Council to the families of the four Army soldiers killed, sparking the entire political drama involving Gold Star families in the first place. And it also plausibly explains why, after 29 previous patrols, U.S. and Nigerien forces were pinned down by “overwhelming force” in an unexpected, unanticipated ambush, rescued by French fighter aircraft providing close air support and medevaced thanks to an anonymous contractor.
But at the same time, well, no. The southeastern Diffa region where those 2,000 Chadian troops were concentrated is a 24-hour, 733-mile land journey from Tongo Tongo on the Mali border where the Green Beret attack went down. Currently, the Defense Intelligence Agency suspects that the ambush was carried out by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, an ISIS splinter group not covered by the Chadian military’s enduring mission in Niger. Chad’s mission was “limited to the fight against Boko Haram … in northwest Nigeria, southeast Niger, southern Chad, and northern Cameroon,” as Africa conflict expert Laura Seay observed in Slate, while U.S. and Nigerian forces were more focused on “protect[ing] communities from other extremist groups.” The geography of conflict matters, especially in Africa, and the only time U.S. military personnel worked alongside Chadian troops in Diffa was during the multinational Exercise Flintlock in March of this year.
It’s more likely that a lack of intelligence, rather than a lack of manpower, led to the ambush. But while U.S. defense officials told NBC News that the massive ambush was the result of a “massive intelligence failure,” it’s not as though the Chadian withdrawal put AFRICOM in the dark: In its 2017 posture statement, the command confessed that only “20-30%” of its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance requirements have been met, despite the ongoing construction of a $100 million drone base designed to turn Niger itself into major hub for U.S. operations in the region. “For personnel recovery, Africa Command relies heavily on contract Search and Rescue assets due to lack of dedicated assets to support operations,” AFRICOM wrote. “Furthermore, African partners lack the capability and capacity to assist with personnel recovery missions.”
The Chad theory, as parroted across cable news channels on Oct. 20, goes “beyond uninformed conjecture and approaches BS,” a former defense intelligence attaché with service in the region told Task & Purpose. “It’s 800 miles from where Chadian troops are operating in Niger (near Lake Chad) to where the attack occurred.” A U.S. military veteran of West Africa, the attaché suggested that based on the DoD’s count of 29 patrols over six months, the ambush was likely planned well in advance to take advantage of this fact.
“Given its the end of the wet season and trafficability across the desert is more limited, this looks like a recurring patrol which let its guard down because it had done this multiple times and forgot it was working inside the enemy’s combat zone,” he told Task & Purpose. “If you take the same route in and out, and there are bad guys around, eventually the bad guys are going to be successful.”
Especially when framed in the political context of “Trump’s Benghazi” by Democratic lawmakers, the Chad theory captures the real long-term problem with the ambiguities surrounding the Niger incident: the potential for politically-tinged speculation, in an era defined by the ongoing Russia investigation, that threatens to derail our national focus from what actually went wrong there. This isn’t just the media’s fault, naturally: Trump’s ongoing Twitter brawl with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, Florida Democrat and friend of the Johnson family who listened in on the commander-in-chief’s condolence call this week, has cast a pall of suspicion and skepticism over the entire affair. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, dragged into the debate by Trump’s invocation of his dead son and tasked with focusing national attention on the service members killed in action, only made things worse by lying about a speech Wilson gave at the opening of a new FBI building in 2015.
The ambiguity of the Niger incident has only given way to political insanity — a contagion that threatens to infect and subvert the DoD investigation. The Pentagon, as Mattis stated, will eventually provide a tick-tock of the events surrounding the Niger incident as more information becomes available through the AFRICOM investigation. But the fog of war itself, as the Gold Star family imbroglio reveals, may simply create more distrust, confusion, and anxiety across U.S. political institutions, an atmosphere that may hinder the American public from ever gleaning a believable, credible explanation as to what happened in central Africa.
To be sure, these won’t be the last combat deaths among not just the U.S. special operations forces increasingly deployed to the continent in the “advise and assist” missions that define the Global War on Terror, but regular Army training brigades stood up by the branch to commit to long-term training missions. In time, and with some luck, the incident in Niger may end up more of a Battle of Mogadishu, a come-to-Jesus moment for the American public, than a nefarious Benghazi-like fever swamp — but nobody’s patient enough to wait and find out.
The Pentagon, State Department, and AFRICOM all declined to comment, referring back to Mattis’ Oct. 19 remarks. But as one defense official told Task & Purpose, the Niger incident is actually similar to Benghazi in one important, overlooked way: As AFRICOM drags its heels in providing a rundown of U.S. combat deaths in a previously ignored African nation, America’s political elites are whipping themselves into a frenzy, out for blood, revenge, or merely just to “win” the daily media cycle.
“They need to find a narrative, period,” the official told Task & Purpose. “Right now, they have nothing.”