Nation

Top US general says families and Americans deserve answers after deaths of soldiers in Niger

General Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press/File 2017
General Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said an early October patrol made up of US troops and forces from Niger set out with expectations that contact with the enemy was “unlikely” and that a probe into an ambush of the patrol, which left four special operations troops dead, may take weeks.

The patrol didn’t seek additional support until about an hour after coming under attack, Marine General Joseph Dunford Jr. told reporters at the Pentagon Monday, indicating the reasons for that delay would be among the topics of the inquiry. A US surveillance drone arrived minutes later and French Mirage jets came on the scene after about an hour after the request for help and provided streaming video of the engagement, Dunford said.

Lawmakers have questioned whether the troops that were ambushed had adequate support and whether there’s been sufficient congressional review as the Trump administration backs more aggressive rules of engagement in Africa and in the broader fight against terrorist groups globally.

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Dunford said about 800 US troops operate in Niger in support of more than 4,000 French and 30,000 local soldiers. That is part of a US force totaling about 6,000 troops in Africa. Asked if the US presence in Niger is a sign of “mission creep” in the region, Dunford said, “With a relatively small footprint we are enabling local forces to deal with these problems before they become a threat to the American people.”

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He said the initial assessment is that the Americans were killed by a group affiliated with Islamic State, which is trying “to leverage local insurgencies.” Five Nigerien troops also were killed in the ambush.

The general described operations like the one in Niger as a reminder that threats to the US from terrorist groups haven’t dissipated with the capture of the group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

“We have to acknowledge that our work is not done, even with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa,” Dunford said. “We are at an inflection point, not an endpoint."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Oct. 30 to explore whether the expanding US operations against terrorism require a new congressional authorization for the use of military force.

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The fatal attack has prompted a political feud over President Trump’s conversation with the widow of one of the soldiers killed, Army Sergeant La David Johnson. Myeshia Johnson has said she was hurt by the tone of Trump’s comments during his call and she suggested that the president “couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”

Trump has tweeted about the episode repeatedly, saying Monday that “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the intelligence U.S. forces had before the patrol set out, whether they were wearing body armor and whether the troops were separated before or during the attack.

Dunford acknowledged that “there’s been a lot of speculation about the operation in Niger, and there’s a perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming.” He said information would be be made public once the facts are determined and the families of the fallen soldiers are informed.

Despite a state of emergency, the closing of markets, and a night ban on motorized traffic, there have been almost 50 militant attacks in Niger’s two southwestern regions since February last year, according to the UN humanitarian office. The jihadists are often believed to come from neighboring Mali.

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Niger said Oct. 22 that 13 members of its security forces were killed in the region where the American were killed. Gunmen opened fire on a post of the national gendarmerie, or paramilitary police, in the town of Ayorou, about 125 miles northwest of the capital, Niamey, according to Karim Boureima, a deputy for the southwestern Tillabery region. Five gendarmes were injured in the attack early Saturday, Defense Ministry spokesman Amadou Samba Gagara said on state TV.

Five West African nations are preparing to set up a joint anti-jihadist operation before the end of the year, with each government providing a battalion of 750 soldiers that will operate in the border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to stop a surge in militant attacks.

While Niger is one of the world’s poorest nations, it accounted for 8 percent of global uranium output in 2013, ranking as the fourth-largest producer, according to the World Nuclear Association.