They arrived in early 2013 to help the French military that had intervened in neighboring Mali the year before. The French had moved into Mali after an Al Qaeda affiliated group and tribal groups took over the vast northern part of the country and were moving toward the capital of Mali. As part of the U.S. effort to assist that mission then-President Barack Obama ordered 150 U.S. military personnel to set up a surveillance drone operation over Mali that would fly from Niger's capital of Niamey.
There are now about 800 troops in Niger. Most are involved with the construction, maintenance and operations of a drone base in Niamy. There are about 100 Special Forces soldiers in Niger as part of a Mobile Training Team which is trying to enable the Nigerien army to defend its own territory.
A Special Forces team, seemingly all or most of the twelve men assigned, accompanies a Nigerien force on a patrol near the border with Mali. The area was considered safe. The area had been patrolled by joint US-Nigerien forces, reportedly, 29 times in the past six months. Details on the engagement are skimpy but this is what was leaked from Capitol Hill soon after Defense Secretary Mattis briefed Senators:
There was no U.S. overhead surveillance of the mission, he said, and no American quick-reaction force available to rescue the troops if things went wrong. If it weren't for the arrival of French fighter jets, he said, things could have been much worse for the Americans.
This is sort of meaningless. You wouldn't expect a drone to accompany a routine vehicle patrol in an area that was considered safe. We don't know that no quick reaction force was unavailable because US, French, and host nation troops arrived on the battlefield. The French air force action was reportedly limited to flying low, no ordnance was expended. Maybe it scared the bad guys off, maybe they decided to get while the getting was good.
The aide said questions are being asked about whether the U.S. soldiers were intentionally delayed in the village they were visiting. He said they began pursuing some men on motorcycles, who lured them into a complex ambush. The enemy force had "technical" vehicles — light, improvised military vehicles — and rocket-propelled grenades, the official said.
After the rescue when it became clear that one soldier was missing, "movements and actions to try and find him and bring him back were considered. They just were not postured properly [to get him]." The body of Sgt. La David Johnson was not recovered until nearly 48 hours after the Oct. 4 attack.
Technicals are pretty commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa and would explain how a hostile force suddenly materialized in a place they'd never operated. The last statement seems to be false:
Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Thursday that the "US military does not leave its troops behind" but did not provide additional details into why the body of Sgt. La David Johnson was recovered nearly 48 hours after his 12-member team was ambushed by 50 ISIS fighters in Niger.
"The US military does not leave its troops behind and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once," he told reporters.
Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie told reporters Thursday that US, French and Nigerien forces "never left the battlefield" until Johnson was found.
But later officials said the 12-man Green Beret-led team were actually not in the trucks having just completed a meeting with local leaders and were walking back to the unarmored pick-up trucks when the unexpected ambush resulted in a firefight that lasted 30 minutes until French Mirage jets arrived overhead to fly low passes in an attempt to disperse the attackers.
Sgt. La David Johnson was separated: A large-scale search-and-rescue operation involving US, French and Nigerien troops was launched soon after US officials realized one of the US service members was unaccounted for.
This contradicts the complex ambush hokum and indicates that troops arrived to rescue the force rather than the picture of them running away in vehicles. The important thing here is that the director of the Joint Staff and the Defense Secretary is willing to go on the record in one case, in the other case you have what appears to be a Democrat staffer leaking.
The bottom line is that Sergeant Johnson was not abandoned on the battlefield. We don't know if he was captured and mutilated before his death as some on the left are alleging, or if the alleged mutilation was the effect of weapons plus 48-hours of exposure in equatorial sun.
After the bodies of three American soldiers were brought out, Pentagon officials believed that Sgt. La David Johnson was still alive somewhere on the battlefield. For several hours, they tracked a locator beacon, which then became intermittent and finally faded out. By the time they found him two days later he was dead, raising the awful possibility that an American soldier was left behind -- a possibility which the Pentagon's Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie flatly rejected.
"I'll tell you, categorically, that from the moment of contact, no one was left behind, neither U.S. -- our partner Nigerian forces or French forces were on the ground actively searching for this soldier," McKenzie said.
So no, there was no locator beacon activated. And no one seems to think that Johnson was captured. I think the separation of Johnson from the others is not all that mysterious. Three of the dead soldiers were from 3d Special Forces Group. Johnson was a wheeled vehicle mechanic attached to the SF team. This is not an unusual arrangements and when carrying out mounted patrols in remote areas a mechanic is nice to have. SF teams regularly end up with mechanics, communications personnel, interpreters, medical personnel, etc. attached. When the crap hits the fan, however, the SF guys are going to react in the way they have been drilled. The attachments are going to react by instinct. It is not hard to imagine how an ambush, which is disorienting as hell, could have resulted in Johnson being separated from his team.
Medevac support was provided by a contract air service and by the French Army. Expect to hear more about this as "contractor" is like waving a red flag at a bull when you deal with progressives. I haven't heard "Halliburton!!!" screamed yet, but it is inevitable.
According to some reports the US Ambassador to Niger, career foreign service officer and Obama appointee Eunice Reddick refused to allow more military assets into the country. That may or may not be true. If true that may or may not be important. Often nations that accept US military assistance want a very small footprint because the presence of US troops can serve as a flashpoint for discontent or for political mischief. There is no evidence that I see that more troops would have made a lot of difference. There is less evidence that more drones available would have meant one covering a routine training patrol rather than out looking for bad guys.
In time, we will learn what happened. Mattis has made it clear that he wants to know and he seems to be less than satisfied with the quantity and quality of information emerging from AFRICOM.
Try as I may, I don't see the relationship the left is trying to draw to Benghazi. Four armed soldiers on patrol in a friendly area of a friendly country were killed in an ambush. A successful rescue attempt was made of the survivors. Two wounded solders were evacuated. Susan Rice was not sent out to lie to the American public. No YouTube video was made. No hapless fraudster/producer was packed off to prison. No ambassador died. No US facility was sacked.
But there are things that, again, to me, are unfathomable. The White House had a statement prepared on the the casualties and never released it. This makes no sense to me. It isn't like people are going to forget their soldier was killed. The delay in facts arriving creates a lot of questions. Sure, units are hesitant to give quick reports because inevitably a formal, and quite possibly career-ending, investigation is inevitable. But still, when the SecDef expresses frustration at the pace of getting questions answered, there are problems.
And, of course, there is never anything to small to try to push the fantasy that Mattis is not supporting Trump. This, from the SecondMostSlappableFaceOnTheInternetTM
General Mattis wouldn't say whether Trump authorized the mission in Niger. pic.twitter.com/pbH9XC6sgo
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 20, 2017
The bottom line is that everytime you shrug on your gear and move beyond the wire the enemy has a vote. All it takes is a little bit of bad luck and bad things happen. That's just the way it is. There is no guarantee that even if you do everything right, something is not going to go desperately wrong.