US commandos in Africa told to avoid direct combat
WASHINGTON — The general in charge of US Special Operations forces in Africa has ordered US troops under his watch to “plan missions to stay out of direct combat or do not go,” according to two military officials familiar with the new guidance.
The order, issued by Major General J. Marcus Hicks, is among several new directives for the commandos in Africa after an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four US soldiers, including two Green Berets.
The series of directives, dated May 2, May 4, and May 5, were issued just days before the Pentagon is expected to release the results of an investigation into the soldiers’ deaths outside the western Nigerian village of Tongo Tongo.
Already, military officials from the US Africa Command have begun briefing Congress and family members of those soldiers on the lengthy report, which is expected to outline some of the changes to operations. A Senate Republican official who has read the Pentagon findings said they leave the decision to pursue disciplinary action to senior officials at Special Operations Command and the Department of the Army.
Additionally, the Army Special Forces Group that has been assigned to Africa since 2016 may close two outposts — one in northeastern Niger and another in an undisclosed location in North Africa, according to one of the military officials. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations.
Since the Oct. 4 ambush, Special Operations forces have gradually reduced the number of missions on which US advisers accompany African troops on risky operations. Those that are approved must first be vetted by officers up the chain of command who are required to take a tougher, more cautious approach when weighing the risks involved.
US commandos are now only sent on missions with local forces that are determined to have significant strategic effect, like building a new base or clearing extremists from a large area. Armed drones or other protective aircraft must accompany such missions.
If those conditions are not met, the US troops will work from fortified command centers to advise African forces on intelligence, logistics, artillery, and other aspects of big operations that are important — but not as flashy as front-line combat against a range of groups aligned with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.
Those changes were outlined in the new directives that Hicks issued last week, formalizing guidance he had messaged to commanders over the past few months. They also prohibited units from relying on a specific kind of mission planning process — as was used in the fateful Oct. 4 patrol — that gave more autonomy to troops on the ground.
That process had allowed units to go on operations that were approved by lower-ranking officers; a lieutenant colonel needed only to be notified about the mission. Now, missions may need to be approved by a colonel stationed in Germany.
That is a significant change for commandos who are used to making fast judgments about missions and the move reverses guidance issued last year by the Special Operations Command in Africa.
Two months after the Oct. 4 ambush, a firefight in a different part of Niger killed 11 Islamic State extremists. By then, senior commanders had imposed stricter limits on military operations in the West African country.
In that mission, 21 Green Berets and 12 US soldiers were working with a battalion-size Nigerian army force that was accompanied by armed Nigerian aircraft. No US or Nigerian forces were harmed in the December battle, which the Pentagon first acknowledged in March in a terse line in an unclassified report to Congress.
The combat — along with at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on US troops in West Africa from 2015 to 2017 — indicated that the deadly Oct. 4 ambush was not an isolated episode in a country where the United States is building a major drone base.
In the weeks after the ambush, Defense Department officials said they would complete its investigation of the soldiers’ deaths by January. Instead, it has taken almost seven months for the Pentagon to publicly release its findings, expected as early as this week.
The narrative of what happened in the African scrub in October has shifted several times and the investigation is expected to lay much of the blame on junior officers instead of senior commanders.