Africa

We Know Now Why We Were In Niger

CNN:

The US Army team that was ambushed in Niger was gathering intelligence on a terrorist leader operating in the area when it was attacked, two military officials told CNN on Tuesday.

The officials said the unit was not under orders to conduct a kill or capture mission on the leader, since such missions are typically reserved for other elite special operations forces teams.

The new details come a day after Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters that the troops were on their way back to their operating base when they were ambushed by 50 ISIS fighters.

Four US and five Nigerien soldiers were killed and two Americans were wounded in the attack that occurred on October 4, but details of what happened remain murky more than two weeks after the incident as investigators work to determine precisely what happened, a US official has told CNN.

CNN also learned Tuesday that the Green Beret team was on one of their first patrols in the country after arriving just weeks earlier, according to two US defense officials.

That answers one question. Still it sounds like a SNAFU operation. Where was the support? The back-up? Why was Johnson’s body not air-lifted with the others? Why was his body found one mile away?

What Happened In Niger

The controversy has been Trump’s call to a bereaved family, which by all accounts bolluxed up.

But how did it come about? It came about because it took Trump twelves days to talk to this family, and a reporter asked about the delay. From there, Trump proceeded to bash Obama, saying (falsely) that Obama never called the families of fallen soldiers.  Then, when Trump DID call the family of Sgt. La Dave Johnson, he said “he knew what he was signing up for”, thus adding to a family’s pain.

But let’s go back even further.  Why did Johnson and three other soldiers die? Why were they even in Niger?

Here’s what we do know:

What were U.S. troops doing in Niger?

Niger, a landlocked country bordered by Libya, Nigeria and Algeria, is key to the fight against Islamic terrorists. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have both established transit routes that allow them to move money and people between the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. (Both groups have a training camp in Mali.)

U.S. troops arrived in 2013 to help the French military, which was running an operation against al-Qaeda in Mali. President Obama sent 150 service members to Niger’s capital, Niamey, to set up a surveillance drone operation over Mali. Today, there are about 800 soldiers assisting in the fight against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and Boko Haram, the Nigerian extremist militant group. Many have been tasked with setting up a drone base in the country’s northern desert or running surveillance missions out of Niamey. According to ABC News, less than 100 Green Berets are in Niger to help build the capacity of its military. Those troops can instruct their counterparts on skills from basic marksmanship to small-team maneuvering and calling in close air support. But clearly, the mission can turn dangerous and resemble something like combat.

What happened the day of  the attack?

It’s unclear, but we know that a group of eight to 12 U.S. soldiers were accompanying 30 to 40 Nigerien troops on some kind of mission near Tongo Tongo. (Other accounts suggest that only eight to 12 Nigerien and American soldiers actually entered the village and that the other Nigerien troops were stationed nearby.) The group met with leaders and collected supplies. As they were heading home, they were ambushed by about 50 militants.

There was a firefight. Witnesses said the assailants blew up their vehicles. The soldiers ran for cover and began returning fire. Apparently, a French military aircraft was on the scene within 30 minutes, but it didn’t fire on the attackers. (There are different accounts as to why. Reuters reported that the fighting was happening at close quarters, so the French aircraft couldn’t intervene. Others have said that Niger forbids air strikes on its soil.)

According to a CNN report based on military interviews with the survivors shared with the network by a U.S. defense official, some of the soldiers said it seemed like the local leaders were delaying the soldiers’ departure, which caused them “to suspect that the villagers may have been complicit in the ambush.”

But by the end of the fight, four Americans were dead. The remains of three — Staff Sgts. Bryan Black and Jeremiah Johnson, and Dustin Wright — were retrieved.  It took 48 hours to recover the body of Sgt. La David Johnson, who had been separated from the rest of the group.

There was also some initial disagreement about who flew the medevac helicopter to rescue the wounded and retrieve the dead. The Washington Post confirmed that contractor Berry Aviation conducted the casualty evacuation and transport.

Did the Army do enough to protect its soldiers?

According to the Pentagon, the answer is yes. Defense Department officials said that soldiers had carried out 29 similar operations in the last six months with no problems. By this time, they were considered routine.

But critics wonder if enough precautions were taken. The troops were armed only with rifles and traveled in unarmored pickup trucks. There was no U.S. drone flying overhead to track the soldiers. French officials told Reuters they felt the U.S. military acted without enough intelligence or contingency planning.

Who were the militants?

The Defense Intelligence Agency has said they believe the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was behind the attack. The group has been around at least since 2015, when its leader split from al-Qaeda. According to U.S. officials, this isn’t an “officially recognized” branch of the Islamic State — one American official called it a “wannabe.” In the past, the group has attacked French counterterrorism forces, but they’ve never before launched an attack on U.S. forces. (A rival group, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, kidnapped an American aid worker, Jeffery Woodkey, from his home in Abalak, Niger, in 2016. Woodkey is still being held with five other hostages.)

The men were carrying small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Pentagon said they were “well-equipped and trained.”

How has the U.S. government handled the fallout from the attack? 

Investigations are underway. The Department of Defense is conducting a review of what went wrong, and the Pentagon’s Africa Command has sent a team of investigators to Niger. (“We need to collect some basic facts,” a Defense Department official told NBC News.) The French military is also looking into it. The Senate Armed Services Committee has called on the Trump administration to lay out a  fuller explanation of what went wrong.

“I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told New York magazine. “They have to connect it to a strategy. They should do that. I think that the inattention to this issue is not acceptable.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been more blunt. When asked by a reporter whether he thought the Trump administration was being up front about what happened in Niger, he replied, simply: “No.”

What about Chad?

Here’s where things get even more interesting.

As we know, Trump has a list of countries that he wants to ban travel from. In his latest iteration, Chad was added to that list.

US officials say an office supply issue was a major reason the African country of Chad was hit with travel restrictions by the United States.

It turns out a seemingly pedestrian issue was to blame: Chad ran out of passport paper.

All countries had been given 50 days to take several steps that included providing a recent passport sample. Chad couldn’t comply, and its offer to provide a pre-existing sample wasn’t sufficient.

So they were added to the list.

In response, Chad then began to withdraw their troops from the fight against Boko Haram in Niger. In fact, Chad’s troops were gone a week after Trump added Chad to the ban list. According to Reuters, once the soldiers left, Boko Haram moved back in and people began to flee for their lives again.

And so…. shortly after the “battle-hardened” Chad fighters left, four American soldiers were attacked and killed in an ambush by ISIS extremists in Niger.

Trump’s Benghazi?

Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, tweeted hyperbolically on Wednesday: “We had about 4000 Benghazi hearings. Why isn’t there a single one on the deaths of soldiers in Niger?”

Sounds like we should find out what happened.