SF Deaths in Niger – The Aftermath

SF deaths in Niger

A lot of second-guessing is taking place about the SF deaths in Niger where four members of the 3rd Special Forces Group were killed by militants on October 4, 2017. The media has taken an unfortunate event and politicized it. One of the dramas on the airways and in print is the (delayed and clumsy) communitcation of President Trump with the families of the deceased Soldiers. The other dramas are about the mission itself – such as why are we in Niger, how could things go so wrong, and of the presumed lack of transparency by the DoD and Trump administration.

Politicizing Families of the Deceased. The media has spent considerable time on President Trump’s interaction with the families of the deceased Soldiers. Trump didn’t help himself in this instance. During this time following October 4th he was tweeting about the November 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, the NFL, and other (some very trivial) topics. When he finally did rise to the occasion (weeks after the incident) to contact the families to offer his condolences it was not without controversy. He politicized the process when he compared his actions with those of previous presidents. That didn’t go very well for him. A great segment of the media seized the opportunity to analyze his words to one Soldier’s widow and imply that he was flippant in his conversation and wording. When the offending phrase is taken in the context of the complete sentence it seems much less damaging. To his credit White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (a retired general and Gold Star Father) came to his defense about the phone call and explained in detail the family notification process to members of the press during a press conference. [1]

Why are we in Africa? Many Americans did not know of the extensive involvement of the United States military in Africa – both conventional and special operations forces (SOF). In addition, they are unaware of the enormous threat posed by the various extremist militant groups scattered in many of the countries across western and northern Africa. Still further, there are many questions about what our Special Forces are doing in Niger. Some people are now able to accurately locate Niger on the map – even while a few major news networks appear to have difficulty with this mapping process. [2]

What Went Wrong With the Mission? The media has been hammering the DoD and White House on how the SF mission in Niger went bad. Naturally the Pentagon, AFRICOM, SOCAfrica, 3rd Special Forces Group (forward), and other organizations are all participating in a detailed examination of the mission. Some of the results of that investigation will be classified and surely there will eventually be an unclassified report and briefing as well.

Congress. The U.S. Congress seems to be annoyed with the Defense Department and the Administration in the lack of information about the SF deaths in Niger and on the conduct and purpose of the overall mission. Some members of Congress are accusing the Pentagon for a lack of transparency. Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is requesting some specific information and appears to be getting a bit impatient.

FBI Investigation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is getting involved and conducting an investigation of the SF deaths in Niger. Apparently it is not unusual for the FBI to take a supporting role in the investigations of deaths of US troops overseas. The investigators are helping to gather and evaluate evidence about the insurgents / terrorists that killed the four American military members and how the terrorists obtained information that about where and when the SF team would be so they could conduct the ambush. [3]

How Did One Soldier Get Separated? It is the policy that the United States does not leave its troops behind. But . . . that may have happened. One of the dead Soldiers – SGT La David Johnson – became separated and his body was not recovered until 48 hours later. Many of the questions revolving around the mission are on how this happened. The defense department has since stated that there was always troops in the battle space where the ambush took place. One spokesmen said that there were either American, Nigerien, or French troops at the site of the ambush throughout the entire time when SGT Johnson was missing and there was a constant effort to find him. [4] The DoD is using the term ‘separated’ while the media appears to favor ‘left behind’. While ‘No Man Left Behind’ is a good policy and great soundbite it sometimes is not achievable.

Lack of Intelligence? Surely one of the aspects of the investigation will be the use and availability of intelligence about the area the SF team was operating in and about the presence of the militant group (presumably an offshoot of the Islamic State) that attacked the team. Did the special operators have an incomplete intelligence picture of the operational environment? Did they have enough drone coverage? Was there an adequate risk assessment conducted prior to the mission. These are some of the questions being asked. The answers to these questions will likely not be disclosed in an unclassified report.

Medical Evacuation. Africa is a big place subject to the ‘tyranny of distance’. Performing medical evacuations of wounded or injured personnel is challenging and most of the locations where small special operations teams work are not within the ‘golden hour’ of receiving medical care for serious wounds or injuries. A lot of questions are revolving around the topic of medical evacuation . . . and even further . . . personnel recovery assets (men and aircraft) and close air support.

Conspiracy? Rachel Maddow of MSNBC goes so far as to suggest that President Trump is hiding something about the SF deaths in Niger and about the overall mission purpose. She seems to be going off the deep end on this incident. A big segment of the media are making some political hay out of this unfortunate mission. [5]

DoD Response Thus Far. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is very attuned to the need to find out what went wrong with the SF deaths in Niger. Certainly he is demanding an accurate timeline and circumstances of the incident. Mattis has said that the Defense Department will make a report on the incident when it is appropriate. He also asked the media not to second-guess the leaders of the operation on the ground. [6] There is a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking being done but eventually the investigation will be completed and the relevant military organizations will take measures to mitigate risks in future operations on the African continent.

Footnotes:

[1] In his press conference Kelly said that he was “. . . stunned and broken-hearted . . .” over comments by a Democratic representative from Florida and that “There’s no perfect way to make that phone call”. For more see a news report by USA Today, October 19, 2017 on the topic.

[2] NBC Nightly News recently showed a map outline of Mali and labeled it Niger.

[3] See ISIS Attack on American Soldiers in Niger Still Murky but FBI Now InvestigatingNewsweek, October 20, 2017.

[4] Pentagon: Troops never left battlespace in Niger during nearly two-day search for mission soldierStars and Stripes, October 19, 2017.

[5] See Rachel at her best (worst) in this video clip. Begins at 5:00 min mark and ends 14:00 min mark in “Maddow: What is Trump hiding about U.S. military in Niger?”, MSNBC.com, October 18, 2017.

[6] Mattis Discusses Niger Operation, Asks Media to Stop Second-Guessing, Department of Defense, October 19, 2017.

References:

Attack on U.S. Soldiers in Niger: Context and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service (CRS), October 5, 2017.
www.sof.news/pubs/Attack-US-Soldiers-Niger-CRS-20171005.pdf

About John Friberg 109 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.