In Wake of Ambush, US Will Keep Small Troop Presence in Niger

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)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday that the U.S. will maintain a long-term but smaller troop presence in Niger, where serious command failures reportedly led to the deaths of four members of the Army's Third Special Forces Group last Oct. 4.

Currently, there are about 800 U.S. troops in Niger, according to U.S. Africa Command, but many of them are involved in the construction of a drone base near Agadez, Mattis said.

"And they will come out when that construction is done," he said.

"I do not see any significant increase" on the horizon in the number of troops that would remain, Mattis said, but "there could be temporary increases" as the U.S. works with local forces to combat an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) offshoot and other terror groups in the trans-Sahel region.

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At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, he said the Pentagon's focus is on working "by, with and through" partners in Niger, and "that is something that does not call for large numbers of U.S. troops. Our Special Forces are ideally suited for that sort of thing."

Mattis spoke as several news outlets reported that an Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation into the four deaths last year concluded that command failures, poor attention to the rules of engagement, and a "culture of excessive risk" in the Special Forces contributed to the ambush of a joint patrol near the village of Tongo Tongo.

The reports cited officials who had reviewed the 6,000-page investigation led by Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, chief of staff to Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander. The Wall Street Journal was first to report on the investigation's findings.

The patrol of 11 U.S. and about 30 Nigerien troops set off in pickup trucks from a base near Niamey, the Nigerien capital, on Oct. 3 on a mission to meet with local village chieftains. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford has said that mission was expected to pose little risk.

The patrol had no air cover or nearby ground backup, but lower-level commanders worked through the chain of command to get approval for a change in mission to one involving a search for a local militant leader.

At least one of the low-level commanders copied and pasted orders from a separate mission onto the assignment for the joint patrol, in order to get approval from his superiors for the raid on the military leader's suspected compound, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The patrol found only an abandoned camp but was later ambushed by a force of more than 50 fighters, suspected to belong to a group called ISIS in the Greater Sahel.

Helmet-camera video included in the investigation report showed the Americans taking fire behind the pickups while fighting back in an attempt to break out of the ambush.

In addition to the Article 15-6 investigation, the FBI conducted a review of the national security implications from the ambush that killed Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.

Four Nigerien troops and a Nigerien interpreter also were killed in the attack.

The body of Sgt. La David Johnson was not found until two days after the ambush in northwestern Niger near the Mali border, about 120 miles north of Niamey.

Despite the command failures, the Article 15-6 investigation did not recommend disciplinary action against those involved. However, the Army or Special Operations Command could eventually pursue court-martial actions or other disciplinary measures, the Journal said.

The investigation, which included an animated video reconstruction of how the ambush took place, also listed a series of directives from Mattis on training and operational guidance to improve communications across the chain of command.

It was unclear when a redacted version of the classified Article 15-6 investigation would be released to the public. The Pentagon's priority is to brief the families of the fallen first on the findings; the family of Sgt. La David Johnson is scheduled to be briefed next week, the Journal said.

The sergeant's death set off a bitter dispute between his widow, Myeshia Johnson, and the White House over a condolence call President Donald Trump made to the family.

The president said, " 'He [Sgt. Johnson] knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway,' " Myeshia Johnson said in an ABC News interview. "It made me cry because I was very angry at the tone in his voice and how he said it."

She also said that Trump "couldn't remember my husband's name. The only way he remembered my husband's name is because he told me he had my husband's report in front of him and that's when he actually said 'La David.' "

Trump denied that he forgot the name and that he said Sgt. Johnson knew what he was signing up for. He said, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation."

Currently, there are about 6,000 troops deployed or on temporary assignment in Africa, many of them at the major U.S. base in Djibouti on the Red Sea.

President Barack Obama first sent U.S. troops to Niger in 2013 as unrest spread in the region.

Under Trump, U.S. troops have been given wide discretion to act without first getting approval from Washington.

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

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