Friday, 11 May 2018

The Washington Post/Alex Horton: The Pentagon answered some questions about the Niger ambush. Many more remain.

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Checkpoint Analysis
The Pentagon answered some questions about the Niger ambush. Many more remain.
by Alex Horton May 11 at 5:00 AM Email the author
3:35
Here’s what the long-awaited Pentagon report on the 2017 Niger attack said

On May 10, the Pentagon released details of its investigation into the October 2017 ambush of U.S. soldiers in Niger. The Post’s Missy Ryan explains the report. (Joyce Lee, Missy Ryan/The Washington Post)

The Pentagon released a slim, eight-page executive summary of a larger report detailing the disastrous Special Operations mission in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead on Oct. 4.

New information, such as how Sgt. La David Johnson fought off Islamic State-linked militants until his death and how long responding units took to arrive, has answered some lingering questions about the ill-fated mission.

But in the absence of the full 180-page report — which officials have said must be carefully reviewed and redacted before it is publicly released — many other questions and concerns are unaddressed.

How did the enemy gather in such a large group and remain undetected?

The summary and official remarks Thursday did not shed much light on a major issue: how roughly 100 militants were able to mass, plan and coordinate a complex assault with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and trucks with mounted heavy weapons.

That kind of activity would have created dust clouds as pickup trucks and motorcycles with roaring engines crisscrossed the shrub land. Militants at one point set up in a wooded area near the road to attack from multiple angles, as the team grasped that the attack was much larger than they first anticipated.

[Pentagon grapples with a thorny question after Niger ambush: What next in Africa?]

Some members of the 11-man team had left the ambush site, unaware three soldiers were left behind 700 meters away. They also came under heavy fire in their position, indicating enough enemy forces effectively coordinated to break off and pursue the second group of soldiers.

Killed in the battle were Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29; and Johnson, 25. Black and Wright were Special Forces soldiers, while both Johnsons were conventional soldiers assigned to the same 3rd Special Forces Group team.

Why did the commander pull surveillance aircraft away?

Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, revealed a key detail about the surveillance posture.

Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212 commander Capt. Michael Perozeni directed a surveillance aircraft to head north of their position and monitor “crossing points” at the Mali border after they reached their objective the night before the ambush, and believed enemy forces were not in the immediate area.

But Waldhauser did not explain why the aircraft was diverted. That aircraft may have helped spot consolidating enemy forces or other activity that would have warned about an imminent attack.

It is possible Perozeni was concerned enemy troops would mass in Mali and head to their position, but officials did not elaborate.

How did senior commanders respond during the attack?

The patrol on Oct. 3 was initially filed as a routine reconnaissance mission near Mali’s border by Perozeni and another Army captain planning it. No one higher in the chain of command was “aware of the true nature of the mission,” which was actually designed to pursue a high-value target, according to the Pentagon summary.

Yet after they came up short and left to return to their base, the battalion commander overseeing those forces, based in Chad, ordered the team to pursue a target on recent intelligence showing he was at a camp.

The team was to back up an air assault force, but bad weather forced them to turn back. The commander in Chad still ordered the team to pursue the target.

That means he would have understood his forces faced increased risk, and likely, other senior commanders did as well.

But it is not clear if the battalion commander revised the plan to accommodate for increased danger with resources like more intelligence aircraft, or if he notified reaction forces they should be on alert in case enemy forces were encountered.

Delays in friendly response during and after the ambush were significant. A Nigerien helicopter took off 40 minutes after the request for support, and left the area to avoid a collision with responding French Mirage jets.

[Congresswoman close to soldier killed in Niger raises suspicions about Pentagon investigation]

Those jets were armed but could not engage because they did not have radio contact with U.S. troops and could not identify their positions. A Nigerien ground force arrived more than six hours after enemy contact.

The report does not say why senior commanders did not coordinate details with those aircraft beforehand. Synchronizing radio frequencies with ground and air support and ensuring their communication is a fundamental task for commanders in operations centers.

Will anyone be punished for command failures?

The report summary did not recommend punishment for any command decisions. That is left up to Special Operations Command and the Army, Waldhauser said.

A video image from the Islamic State-affiliated Nashir News Agency purportedly shows the Oct. 4, 2017, ambush of U.S. and Nigerien soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger. It includes footage from a soldier’s helmet camera.

A military official said the full report singles out three people for possible fault, though it is unclear if that includes Perozeni and the other captain.

Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor, told The Washington Post that even with no official punishment, the episode will likely permanently blemish their careers.

The executive summary revealed little about how much accountability should rest on the battalion commander who ordered the capture mission, or other senior leaders responsible for ensuring troops were adequately trained and had ready and timely support.

Perozeni had warned commanders before the mission that his team was not adequately provided intelligence or equipment necessary for a kill or capture mission, the New York Times reported.

Notably, the investigation was handled by Army Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., who is Waldhauser’s chief of staff at Africa Command.

Put another way, the command investigated itself amid questions its senior leaders could have contributed to failures of situational awareness and command oversight in this mission and in Niger itself.

Christensen said Africa Command has shied away from publicly blaming senior commanders, saying it is an example of “different spanks for different ranks” — military parlance for meting out harsh penalties for junior troops while senior leaders escape accountability.

“It seems like an intentional avoidance. There is enough smoke there to make you think: ‘why aren’t you looking above them?’” Christensen said, referring to the two captains.

Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.
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Alex Horton is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. He previously covered the military and national security for Stars and Stripes, and served in Iraq as an Army infantryman.
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