Pentagon: When U.S. Troops Engage in Combat in Africa, We May Not Tell You

Susan Jones | March 16, 2018 | 6:04am EDT
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Pentagon spokesperson Dana White and Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, brief reporters at the Pentagon on March 15, 2018. (Photo: Screen grab/DoD video)

( - U.S. troops in Niger and elsewhere in Africa are there to train and advise, but sometimes they come under hostile fire, and when that happens, Americans back home may not be told about it, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

The Pentagon did not inform the public about a December 2017 firefight involving U.S. troops in Niger until the New York Times reported it this week. The December attack came just two months after four American troops were killed in an ambush elsewhere in that African nation.

On Wednesday, reporters asked Pentagon spokesperson Dana White why the public was not told.


"Our troops are often in harm's way, and there are tactical things that happen that we don't -- we don't put out a press release about," White said. "We also don't want to give a report card to our adversaries. They learn a great deal from information that we put out. And we don't -- they don't deserve a report card on how they can be more lethal."

According to White, "There's a lot of times where U.S. forces are defending themselves around the world, and we don't put out press releases every time."

"How can you say this is not a combat mission?" another reporter asked Lt.-Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff.

McKenzie responded: "The intent is for our partners to do the fighting, for us to support them up until the last covered and concealed position before they become engaged. We do not intend to seek combat with our forces in Niger.

"As you point out, the enemy gets a vote, and the situation’s uncertain. If the situation weren't uncertain or dangerous, we wouldn't be there in the first place. So it's simply a fact of life, we try to control an environment as much as we can, but if we get into a situation where we have a combat situation, we're prepared to react to that."

McKenzie said the December firefight, in which 11 ISIS fighters reportedly were killed, happened around 700 miles from the attack that killed four Americans in October.

Asked why American troops are patrolling and sometimes being drawn into firefights in Africa, White said, "The majority of our troops in Africa are on a train-and-advise mission. They are building capacity in those areas. There's a great deal of ungoverned space within Africa, and we're helping those security forces increase their capabilities that they -- so that they can manage the security situation themselves."

McKenzie told reporters there is a "very good global strategy" behind the troop presence in Africa, "and what you see happening in Niger is simply one of the manifestations of that.

"So I think we do have a plan, I think the plan is working. It's unfortunate that we have the -- the -- the combat action in October, where four soldiers lost their lives, and I'm aware of the accident -- or the incident you're describing in December, but patrolling with our Nigerian partners continues, not combat operations, we try to do it when combat is unlikely.

"It was unlikely in the...December event. When combat occurred, our forces reacted appropriately along with their Nigerien partners. No U.S. -- no U.S. soldiers were injured in that combat."

According to The New York Times:

Green Berets working with government forces in Niger killed 11 Islamic State militants in a firefight in December, the American military acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday (March 14). The battle occurred two months after four United States soldiers died in an ambush in another part of Niger — and after senior commanders had imposed stricter limits on military missions in the West African country.

No American or Nigerien forces were harmed in the December gun battle. But the combat — along with at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017 — indicates that the deadly Oct. 4 ambush was not an isolated episode in a nation where the United States is building a major drone base.

This week, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the United States Africa Command, said he has completed his review of the October ambush in Niger  and forwarded the report to the Defense Secretary, through the chairman the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Once the secretary completes his review and after the families have been briefed, I intend to provide a comprehensive and detailed account of the investigation to you as soon as practicable," Waldhauser said.

As reported last October, when four American troops were killed in Niger, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said they didn't even know the the U.S. had 1,000 troops in Niger.

"We don't know exactly where we're at in the world, militarily, and what we're doing," Graham told "Meet the Press" on Oct 22, 2017. "So, John McCain is going to try to create a new system to make sure that we can answer the question, why we were there. We'll know how many soldiers are there, and if somebody gets killed there, that we won't find out about it in the paper."

Following the deadly October ambush in Niger, the Trump administration said the 2001 and 2002 congressional authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) continued to be a valid basis for ongoing military operations against ISIS, which didn't exist in the early 2000s.

"The 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force...remain a sound basis for ongoing U.S. military operations against a mutating threat," Mattis told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year.

But the lack of a current AUMF remains a concern for some senators, including Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

On Wednesday, Kaine told MSNBC:

Since 2014, I have really pushed that we ought to rewrite the 2001 authorization to more explicitly limit and define what we're doing vis-a-vis the United States and terrorist actors. And it's kind of started and stopped in terms of whether I could find anybody else's interest, but right now on the Foreign Relations Committee, with Senator Corker as the chair, the effort is moving forward with more Republicans and Democrats joining partly because of, I believe, a concern about the mercurial decision-making of The White House.

So yes, the effort on the authorization is starting to move forward, but I'll tell you, this authorization that we're talking about is about the non-state actors.

We see a White House increasingly engaged in activity against state actors. So the Trump administration fired missiles at Syria a year ago, and then engaged in an air strike that killed 100 Syrian forces last month. That is not a non-state, that's military action on foreign soil against a state that has not declared war against The United States. So this raises a whole series of new issues.

We're going to have a classified briefing with the administration this week to try to understand what the Syrian strategy is, and I'm going to keep pressing it. There's apparently an internal memo that was given to the president defining what his kind of rights and responsibilities are and what Congress's are in matters of war. And I have been trying to get that memo from the administration so we can make sure that The White House is not in clearly unconstitutional waters in the views of their own powers.

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