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The bigger question raised by the deadly ambush in Niger

The Pentagon blames a series of failures for last October's ambush deaths of four U.S. commandos in Niger. Citing poor preparation, communications and training, the investigation also found that the mission was not properly approved. Nick Schifrin gets analysis from Sarah Sewall of Johns Hopkins University.

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  • John Yang:

    As we reported earlier, the Pentagon released findings of its investigation into the terrorist ambush that killed four American soldiers last October in Niger.

    The catalog of grave mistakes is long, and many questions remain.

    We should warn you that some of the images in this report are disturbing.

    Foreign affairs and defense correspondent Nick Schifrin begins our report with what went wrong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On October 4, 2017, American and Nigerian soldiers were returning from what commanders had claimed would be a low-risk mission.

    This video is from Americans' helmet cameras posted online as ISIS propaganda. Today, the Pentagon released animation of what became an ambush. Two U.S. vehicles, in purple, drove south to escape ISIS fighters, in red, but a third U.S. vehicle got pinned down.

    In that vehicle were Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson, and Dustin Wright. This is believed to be Jeremiah Johnson's helmet camera. He takes cover behind the SUV as they tried to drive to safety. But they were outgunned and outmanned 3-1.

    Bryan Black was shot and killed instantly. In what's believed to be Dustin Wright's helmet cam, Wright and Johnson start running to escape through the woods, but they were both shot and killed.

    By this point, the rest of the team was about 2,000 feet away, with their Nigerian allies in green, firing at ISIS fighters, who threatened to overrun them. This is where La David Johnson was trying to get inside his vehicle to drive away.

    But the firing was overwhelming, and Johnson, in desperation, had to run. He ran for more than half-a-mile, by himself, until he took cover under a large tree. That's where he was killed.

  • General Roger Cloutier:

    The direct cause of the enemy attack in Tongo Tongo was that the enemy achieved tactical surprise there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Major General Roger Cloutier and the top U.S. commander in Africa, General Thomas Waldhauser, said today the team had failed to train enough with their Nigerian colleagues.

  • General Thomas Waldhauser:

    If you get to a position in an operation where you're under enemy contact, you need to be able to operate like clockwork, without having to speak with because you know the drills.

    And, in this particular case, the team didn't conduct those basic soldier level skills that are really necessary to go on an operation such as this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Pentagon investigation also found the team's commanders, two captains, mischaracterized the initial mission, claiming it was less dangerous than it really was.

  • General Roger Cloutier:

    And had the first mission been properly characterized, it would have been required to have been approved at a higher level. And by being approved at a higher level, it would have received more oversight from the chain of command.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This team is part of Special Operations Command, seen here training Nigerian forces.

    Today, General Waldhauser said the team's training and equipment deficiencies were the fault of multiple commands.

  • General Thomas Waldhauser:

    We have component commanders then who in their charge Special Operations Command Africa, in this particular instance, it's his responsibility, his job to conduct, oversee various — the special operations all over the continent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. commanders say, in response to the ambush, they have increased soldiers' access to armored vehicles, become more restrained in the kinds of missions they undertake, and are emphasizing that the goals of any mission should be advise and assist, not conduct combat.

    To discuss all that, I'm joined by Sarah Sewall. She was undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights during the Obama administration. She's now a distinguished scholar at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs — Studies.

    Sarah Sewall, thank you very much.

  • Sarah Sewall:

    It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Was this really a tactical surprise, as we heard the general say, or was this almost like a misunderstanding of the threat environment?

  • Sarah Sewall:

    Well, it's interesting, because it was obviously tactical surprise, to the extent that they weren't expecting the unit to be ambushed.

    But it does suggest the reaction, that we had never seen this large a group of terrorists gathered, some 50, armed and in an organized ambush, suggests that the level of threat had changed in a way that took people by a broader surprise.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And then what does that say that it took them by a broader surprise?

  • Sarah Sewall:

    That the rules of engagement possibly, that the level of preparations, that the kind of guidance they had in their ability to plan and conduct operations was perhaps not attuned to an increased threat environment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So it sounds like that means that the problem wasn't only just that four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerian soldiers died, but there is a bigger problem at the core of this, right?

  • Sarah Sewall:

    It's always a tragedy when people die, and we have to learn everything that we can from their deaths, which is clearly what they're seeking to do with this report.

    However, the larger question really is whether or not you can put people in vulnerable situations on the ground in the fight against ruthless terrorists, even if they're in a nominal supporting role, and expect them not to do everything they can to defend themselves and their partner forces when they encounter the enemy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, effectively, that means advise and assist does become a combat mission, right?

  • Sarah Sewall:

    Can become a combat mission.

    I think that the Obama administration before them and the Trump administration now both wish to keep the U.S. footprint small and wish to keep us in a supporting role, not a responsible role. France is really taking the major power lead in partnering with forces in the Sahel, government forces, to defeat terrorists.

    But there is always a desire on the part of our service people to get the job done, and there is always inherent risk when you have small units out and about facing uncertainty around the corner. And that's why I think one of the great innovations is to insist that each unit have its own drone, so it has greater awareness of the operating environment, so it can avoid the kind of tactical surprise that it so tragically encountered.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So that seems to reveal a tension between what the mission is stated to be, advise and assist, and perhaps a military desire to defeat the enemy, right?

  • Sarah Sewall:

    Well, the military is always going to desire to defeat the enemy. And part of what the report is wrestling with is, how do you put rules in place that help reinforce the support function and the constraints on that?

    But the broader question for the American people is, do we understand, when we ask Americans to play a supporting role overseas in the war on terror, do we understand the level of threat to which we may be exposing them?

    If, in fact, the threat changes, which appears to be the case in this instance, an unexpected increase in enemy capability, then we are likely to experience losses and we are likely to need to adapt. And that may be the broader lesson of what happened in Niger.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sarah Sewall, thank you very much.

  • Sarah Sewall:

    Thank you for having me.

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