U.S. military probe recommends scaling down of West Africa missions after Niger deaths

American soldiers used to illustrate the story. [Photo credit: Google Play]

An investigation conducted by the United States military after last October’s deadly ambush of American troops in Niger by Islamist militants has recommended a reduction of the number of ground missions in West Africa, the New York Times is reporting.

The investigation also called on the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Defence, to cut some authority of commanders in the field to send soldiers on likely high-risk patrols.

The report, nonetheless, stated that US troops will continue to accompany local forces across West Africa and especially the Sahel region.

It however recommended that such patrols should be put through more rigorous vetting, an unnamed source knowledgeable about the yet-to-be-released report told the New York Times.

Four Americans and five Nigeriens, including an interpreter, were killed in the ambush in Niger’s remote southwest near the border with Mali on October 4, 2017.

The draft investigation stated that ‘higher-level commanders’ — in Africa and in Stuttgart, Germany, where the United States Africa Command is based, and if necessary, the Pentagon – must now approve mission that are deemed risky, unlike the current set up where field commanders can order and undertake missions without seeking approval from senior commanders from the headquarters.

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The findings and recommendations in the draft report await final approval by Thomas D. Waldhauser, a General and the head of Africa Command, the newspaper stated.

Bureaucratic complication between military officials in Stuttgart and troops operating in African nations has been a source of tension for American forces assigned to Africa Command.

According to officials, the draft investigation identified a string of errors and bad decision-making as being responsible for the ambush. The report also highlighted a breakdown in communications, which it stated was caused by the failure of the American and Nigerien team, and their superiors, to check their equipment before heading out on the mission.

As the unit came under attack, soldiers were unable to speak directly to a nearby French air support, which eventually flew out to rescue them, but their location coordinates were first sent to Niamey, the country’s capital, more than 100 miles away.

The public release of the report, which was concluded in January, is being delayed until, Mr. Waldhauser appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee to present the command’s annual “posture hearing,” scheduled for the last week of February.

Three versions of the report will be released: a classified version will be shown to lawmakers and others with security clearances and a public version will be given to the news media.

The third version will be given to the families of the four American soldiers who were killed, the Times claimed.

However, officials said that the scaling back of those missions would not apply to Libya or Somalia, where US troops are helping local forces in the fight against the Islamic State and the militant group aligned with Al Qaeda known as the Shabab.

Some current and former Pentagon policy officials and military commanders in Africa were skeptical about the recommendation of the investigation.

“I’m not sure retreating from programs is the answer. If we’re not going to do that kind of training, why are we there?” Brian McKeon, a former top Pentagon policy official who visited Niger in 2015, asked the newspaper.

Donald C. Bolduc, a former commander of United States Special Operations forces in Africa, said that at the time he left (last Summer), American advisers were accompanying specially trained and equipped counterterrorism units in Tunisia, Cameroon and Niger.

U.S. forces in the region have trained about 100 to 120 local soldiers over a two-year period. About a dozen American Special Forces are assigned to each unit, and the training costs “a few million dollars” to complete, Mr. Bolduc, a general, said.

Accompanying the local soldiers on live training missions is a key component of the training and it would be a mistake to curtail it, he added.

“They are a crucial program,” General Bolduc said in a telephone interview. “Those are our bread and butter.”

The Niger ambush was a hot political controversy toward the end of last year following the deaths of Jeremiah Johnson, a staff sergeant; Bryan C. Black, a staff sergeant; Dustin Wright, a staff sergeant and La David Johnson, a sergeant.

Mr. La David Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, said President Donald Trump called her 12 days later and said her husband “knew what he signed up for,” even as Mr. Trump struggled to remember the slain soldier’s name. Representative Frederica S. Wilson, Democrat of Florida, who listened to Mr. Trump’s conversation with Ms. Johnson, criticised the president publicly for his words.

There are about 6,000 American troops spread across Africa, the Pentagon said. Most of the forces, around 4,000, are at Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, the continent’s primary base of operations for Africa Command.

Countries in Africa where small teams of American Special Operations forces are deployed include Nigeria, Niger, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Chad and Mauritania.

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