Pentagon won’t seek disciplinary action for ‘failures’ in Niger
Multiple “individual, organizational, and institutional failures” were to blame for the deaths of four U.S. soldiers last year in Niger, but no disciplinary action is being recommended for those involved, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
Insufficient training and preparation, command mistakes, lack of attention to detail and an outnumbered force taken by surprise in an attack all contributed to the loss of the soldiers, according to an eight-page report summarizing an internal investigation.
U.S. Africa Command (Africom) head Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said changes have already been made in his command, Special Operations Command and the Army at large to improve troop safety and preparation in Africa.
“I take ownership of all the events connected to the ambush of 4 October,” Waldhauser told reporters at the Pentagon. “Again, the responsibility is mine.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis has directed Waldhauser to complete in four months a review of shortfalls in training, procedures and planning.
Waldhauser added that in the meantime, “we are now far more prudent in our missions.”
“We’ve increased the firepower, we’ve increased the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capacity, we’ve increased various response times,” he said. “We have beefed up a lot of things, posture wise.”
The four-star general also said the findings “call out individuals for certain activities,” but Special Ops “will have the responsibility for taking appropriate action to ensure accountability.”
“We don’t recommend punishment, we recommend appropriate action,” he said.
The report, pieced together over three months of investigation, details the Oct. 4 battle between 46 U.S. and Nigerien forces and more than 100 enemy combatants. The clash lasted more than an hour.
A chain of events across two days led to the firefight and ultimately the deaths of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, as well as four Nigerien soldiers.
The Army Special Forces team, assisting the Nigerien forces, initially left Camp Ouallam in Niger on Oct. 3 to hunt for a high-ranking Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant linked to the kidnapping of a U.S. aid worker, the military said.
Leaders of the team had submitted a different mission to higher command for approval, according to the report.
Evidence “does not indicate” the leaders deliberately lied about the mission; rather, “it was a lack of attention to detail” that led to a mix-up, Africom chief of staff and lead investigating officer Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier told reporters.
In addition, the report found only half of the U.S. team involved had conducted any collective training together due to personnel turnover, and they didn’t complete pre-mission drills with the Nigerien forces.
When the ISIS militant was not found, troops were ultimately redirected to a mission to gather intelligence on the militant, which they completed before stopping near the village of Tongo Tongo to get water. The group then conducted an impromptu meeting with village leaders and were ambushed after leaving.
“There is insufficient evidence to determine if villagers aided the enemy or participated in the attack,” the report states.
“No single failure or deficiency was the sole reason for the events of 4 October 2017,” the summary states. “It should not be overlooked that American and Nigerien forces fought courageously … despite being significantly outnumbered by the enemy.”
The four U.S. troops killed in action “sustained wounds that were either immediately fatal or rapidly fatal,” and were not captured alive by the enemy, according to the report.
The soldiers “gave their last full measure of devotion to our country and died with honor while actively engaging the enemy.”
The United States has about 800 troops in Niger, with about 6,000 across Africa.
Senators who were given a closed-door briefing of the findings on Tuesday questioned the broader mission on the continent, including whether the Pentagon has concealed from Congress the true nature of its operations in Africa.
“I have deep questions on whether the military is following instructions and limitations that Congress has laid down about the mission of these troops in Africa, and I’ve had those questions, and I think this hearing raised a lot more in a pretty explosive way,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters.
Asked directly if he thinks the military was hiding from Congress what it was doing, Kaine responded, “Yeah.”
Following the Pentagon briefing Thursday, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said “no amount of investigation or corrective action will ease the agonizing grief that the families of our fallen must feel.”
“This report documents critical lessons learned for the continuing fight against violent extremist organizations around the world,” White said in a statement. “As painful as the loss of our soldiers is, it is our duty to honor their sacrifice and learn from this operation in our constant effort to improve our training, tactics, techniques, procedures and operations.”
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