Senior commanders reportedly won’t be punished for deadly 2017 Niger ambush

"We can't continue to do these investigations and hold our subordinates accountable without holding our senior guys accountable. That's a bad message to send and we've been sending it in a number of investigations that have been done in the military and it's just plain wrong."
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No more commanders will be punished for the deadly October 2017 ambush in Niger, in which four soldiers were killed, Politico first reported on Tuesday.

Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, and Sgt. La David T. Johnson were killed when their convoy was attacked by an overwhelming force of ISIS fighters near the village of Tongo, Tongo, Niger nearly two years ago.

They were part of a group of U.S. and Nigerien forces that set out in unarmored vehicles for a reconnaissance mission that morphed into a disastrous attempt to capture a terrorist.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has accepted the findings of a review that he ordered into the incident, which did not recommend that any high level commanders involved in the planning and execution of the mission be disciplined, according to Politico.

In fact, Army Lt. Col. David Painter, who reportedly overruled the team commander in ordering U.S. and Nigerien troops to capture a high level terrorist, has since been promoted to colonel even though he received a letter of reprimand and was also relieved as battalion commander of a unit before it deployed to Afghanistan, Politico reported.

Army Col. Bradley Moses, who was briefed on the team’s missions, is still eligible for promotion and is taking a senior position in Afghanistan, according to Politico.

Defense officials did not respond to the Politico story. A person familiar with the Niger review confirmed to Task & Purpose that the review had been completed and the families of the four fallen soldiers were being briefed on its findings.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc told Task & Purpose that he believes the team’s detachment and company commander have been unfairly blamed for problems that were above their pay-grade.

“We can’t continue to do these investigations and hold our subordinates accountable without holding our senior guys accountable,” said Bolduc, who retired as head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa shortly before the ambush. “That’s a bad message to send and we’ve been sending it in a number of investigations that have been done in the military and it’s just plain wrong.”

Last year, defense officials announced that an investigation into the ambush found serious problems with how the team was trained, equipped, and prepared for the mission that went wrong, but those are senior leaders’ responsibilities, Bolduc said on Tuesday.

“It’s the responsibility of the battalion commander, the group commander, the two-star Special Forces commander, and the three-star [U.S. Army Special Operations Command] commander,” Bolduc said. “They’re responsible to the operational commander for this and they do this all the time – particularly with teams coming to Africa: They don’t think Africa is worth their time, so they short-change their teams on proper preparation. It’s only a matter of time before something like this happens. Our guys paid this price and – of course – they take the brunt of the blame.”

Some lawmakers also have been skeptical about the Pentagon’s previous investigations into the Niger Ambush. Rep. Ruben Gallego, (D-Ariz.) has gone as far as to accuse Shanahan and general officers of launching a “cover-up.”

Gallego has slammed Shanahan for not providing the families of the four fallen soldiers with redacted copies of an earlier investigation into the ambush.

“He should be worried about what lessons we could have learned from this Niger ambush and also who were the general officers that were responsible for making these big mistakes that cost these men’s lives,” Gallego told Task & Purpose on May 9. “We as a public have a right to know that and he is part of the problem and not the solution.”

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), who served in Special Forces, said on Tuesday that he is glad the soldiers’ families will finally see the Niger review’s findings, but he remains confused why some junior officers have been reprimanded for the ambush while defense officials have indicated that some of the troops involved will receive valor awards.

“So, did the team fight valiantly or did they make serious mistakes?” Waltz said in a statement to Task & Purpose. “I need more information to reach independent judgment, but we have a lot to learn from this. You’re always going to have special operators out in very remote locations that need support and the missions need to be done.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Col. Brad Moses was to be promoted to brigadier general. The story has been updated to reflect that Moses is still eligible for the promotion, but has not yet been nominated.

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