WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jame Mattis is reviewing four separate reports triggered by the deadly ambush of U.S.forces in Niger last fall, reports that are likely to result in further changes in Pentagon policy for operations in Africa.
The reports may also lead to punishment for those in the chain of command for the October operation gone bad, in which four U.S. and four Niger servicemen were killed and others wounded.
On Friday, Mattis received the four individual and distinctive reports from U.S. African Command (AFRICOM), the Army; Special Operations Command, and Personnel and Readiness (P&R), Pentagon officials said.
There are 23 distinct findings in the reports, with 17 of the items “actionable,” meaning steps to address the issues can be easily made. One official with knowledge of the reports, speaking on background, said there are “no judgments” made in any of the four reports.
In May, the Pentagon made public a sanitized report on the October 2017 ambush at Tongo Tongo. It provided more detailed reports to Congress and family members of those slain in the ambush.
The reports blamed the deaths on the U.S. forces being outnumbered three-to-one.
Pentagon officials said then the operation was granted permission after commanders received paperwork outlining the goals without knowing the paperwork was bogus and copied from a previously approved mission.
Once the operation was underway, the goals shifted twice. It remains unclear if the original intent was reconnaissance, and then the mission shifted to a capture-or-kill operation, or if it always was a capture-and-kill operation.
Killed in the ambush were Army Sgt. La David T. 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 Niger troops were also killed, and two American soldiers and eight Niger forces were wounded.
That May report said three individuals took actions that could be faulted. Special Operations Command was said to be the entity to make any discipline decisions, as well as recommendations on awards for valor.
The investigation has initiated changes in how the Pentagon handles military activities in Niger and elsewhere in Africa, including giving teams the option to use heavily armored vehicles and beefed-up firepower, more intelligence information from drones and better ways to communicate and receive medical help.
“We are now far more prudent on our missions,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters in May. He took responsibility for what happened.
Since then, the Pentagon has cutback special forces operations in Africa, as well as other more general training operations. The shift is expected to result in more ISR drone action.
Waldhauser told Congress in March he had only a quarter of the reconnaissance flights he needed and had to rely on contractors for search and rescue missions.
AFRICOM had said that the Army Special Forces team set out on its October mission to meet local leaders, only to be redirected to assist a second unit hunting for Doundou Chefou, a terrorist believed to have led several strikes within Niger including the kidnapping of an American aid worker.
However, some officials have said it may have been a rogue operation from the start aimed at cornering Chefou, a fact hidden from higher-level commanders. That meant the true risk of the mission could not be gauged and a decision properly rendered.
Many questions remain unanswered, such as why the patrol had not expected enemy contact even though data outlined how 46 attacks took place over 20 months in that area of Niger.
Also not yet answered if why the patrol was caught by surprise, given they were in a village for hours as the militant took their positions to ambush and traveled over dusty roads to set up forces.
Last week, a study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, outlined how the Pentagon’s strategy for Africa has become crisis-driven, causing the effort to lose focus and waste resources.
It cited the Niger ambush as one of the five events that have impacted the haphazard AFRICOM policy.
“The desire for efficiencies and a low profile has driven the ‘light footprint’ strategy, at the expense of operational flexibility,” the study said. “Made consciously, this choice can be justified and objectives adjusted. Stumbled into, it prevents the realization of strategic goals and runs unseen risks that can eventually endanger U.S. personnel.”