After New Ambush in Niger, Pentagon Defends Withholding News of Attack

U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers observe as Nigerien service members fire their weapons with the assistance of Illumination rounds during Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, March 9, 2017 (U.S. Army/Spc. Zayid Ballesteros)
U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers observe as Nigerien service members fire their weapons with the assistance of Illumination rounds during Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, March 9, 2017 (U.S. Army/Spc. Zayid Ballesteros)

Pentagon officials took the stance Thursday that the military can decide when and if to tell the American people that U.S. troops have been in combat.

The officials briefly outlined the policy in confirming that they withheld news that an attack on a joint patrol of U.S. and Nigerien troops had been repelled Dec. 6, about two months after the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four members of the Army's Third Special Forces Group.

"Our troops are often in harm's way, and there are tactical things that happen that we don't put out a press release about," Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White said, defending the Pentagon's silence on the second attack in Niger.

"We also don't want to give a report card to our adversaries," White said at a Pentagon briefing. "They learn a great deal from information that we put out. They don't deserve a report card on how they can be more lethal."

Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Pentagon's Joint Staff director who joined White at the briefing, rejected charges that the Defense Department lacks a strategy for the estimated 800 U.S. service members in Niger to carry out.

"I completely disagree," McKenzie said. "I think we do have a plan and the plan is working."

He said this despite the Oct. 4 ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo in northwestern Niger that killed four U.S. and five Nigerien troops on what had been expected to be a routine joint patrol with little risk.

McKenzie said the mission in Niger is to advise and assist local forces, and joint patrols are assigned "when combat was unlikely." It was also unlikely, he said, in the recently revealed December combat incident when fighters believed to be linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked a U.S.-Nigerien patrol.

"Our forces reacted appropriately with their Nigerien partners and no U.S. soldiers were injured in that combat," McKenzie said.

He could not say whether any of the fighters from the Oct. 4 ambush were involved in the December attack, but noted that the Dec. 6 attack occurred about 680 miles to the east of the first incident.

In Niger, "The intent is for our partners to do the fighting, for us to support them up to the last covered and concealed position before they become engaged," McKenzie said.

"We do not intend to seek combat with our forces in Niger," he said. But if U.S. forces are attacked, "we're prepared to react to that."

U.S. Africa Command confirmed the Dec. 6 combat action in Niger only after The New York Times reported that it had occurred.

AfriCom estimated that 11 extremists had been killed and a weapons cache had been destroyed during the firefight, according to a Stars and Stripes report.

"The purpose of this mission was to set the conditions for future partner-led operations against violent extremist organizations in the region and, based on currently available information, we assessed this attack was launched by ISIS-West Africa," AfriCom spokeswoman Samantha Reho said in a statement.

The U.S. often withholds information on special operations actions for security reasons, but the Pentagon has also become more secretive on the dispositions and actions of conventional forces in recent years under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The Pentagon routinely declines to comment or gives vague estimates on the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan, the number of U.S. troops is capped at 8,400 but that number is routinely exceeded by labeling additional troops as "temporary" personnel.

In unveiling his new "conditions based" strategy for Afghanistan last August, President Donald

Trump declined to put a figure on the number of additional troops to be deployed or define his benchmarks for success.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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