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The top U.S. military commander has promised answers about the Niger attack. Here’s what we know so far

The details surrounding the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger this month remain murky, even as President Trump's response to the families of the fallen has been sharply criticized. For more on what the special forces were doing at the time of the attack, as well as the broader mission in Niger, Judy Woodruff talks to Eric Schmitt of The New York Times and Laura Seay of Colby College.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our lead story, the questions still surrounding the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger this month.

    The details of what lead to the ambush remain murky.

    This afternoon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford,said the military owed the families of the fallen and the American people answers. He laid out what is known now and what remains obscured by the fog of conflict.

  • Gen. Joseph Dunford:

    Early in the morning of 3rd October, as I mentioned, U.S. forces accompanied that Nigerian unit on a reconnaissance mission to gather information. The assessment by our leaders on the ground at that time was that contact with the enemy was unlikely.

    Mid-morning, on October 4, the patrol began to take fire as they were returning to their operating base. Approximately one hour after taking fire, the team requested support. And within minutes, a remotely piloted aircraft arrived overhead.

    Within an hour, French Mirage jets arrived on station. And then, later that afternoon, French attack helicopters arrived on station and a Nigerian quick-reaction force arrived in the area where our troops were in contact with the enemy.

    During the firefight, two U.S. soldiers were wounded and evacuated by French air to Niamey. And that was consistent with the casualty evacuation plan that was in place for this particular operation.

    Three U.S. soldiers who were killed in action were evacuated on the evening of 4 October, and, at that time, Sergeant La David Johnson was still missing.

    On the evening of 6 October, Sergeant Johnson’s body was found and subsequently evacuated. From the time the firefight was initiated until Sergeant Johnson’s body was recovered, French, Nigerian or U.S. forces remained in that area.

    Let’s keep in mind, although I talked about enemy contact being unlikely on this particular mission, the reason why we were in West Africa is because it is an area of concentration of ISIS and al-Qaida.

    The reason why our special operations forces are operating in Libya is because there is a threat of ISIS attacks from Libya. And the reason they are in East Africa is because there is an al-Qaida and a smaller ISIS presence there.

    So, to the extent that they are taking risks, we have sent them there to operate in areas within which there are extremist elements that, if we weren’t conducting operations, our judgment is that they would plan — have the capability to plan and conduct operations against the homeland, the American people or our allies.

    Man: Is this mission creep?

  • Gen. Joseph Dunford:

    In our judgment, we’re dealing with global threats in al-Qaida, in ISIS and other groups.

    And the theory of the case of our strategy is to be able to put pressure on them simultaneously wherever they are and, as importantly, to anticipate where they will be and to make sure that where they are and where they will be, when they get there, they are confronted by local security forces that have the ability to meet the challenges associated with al-Qaida, ISIS and other groups.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    Aside from the answers the Pentagon is seeking, President Trump’s response to the families of the fallen has drawn sharp criticism.

    This morning, Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, spoke of her frustration with the president’s call of condolence.

  • Myeshia Johnson:

    He couldn’t remember my husband’s name. The only way he remembered my husband’s name is because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him, and that’s when he actually said La David.

    I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name. And that’s what hurt me the most, because, if my husband is out here fighting for our country, and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We take a look now at what these Special Forces were doing at the time they were killed and the overall mission in Niger with New York Times Pentagon reporter Eric Schmitt. And Laura Seay, she is an assistant professor of government at Colby College, where she focuses on African politics and conflicts.

    Welcome to you both.

    Eric Schmitt, you have been following this story from the beginning. What did you learn today from what General Dunford said?

  • Eric Schmitt:

    Well, as your report indicates, still, many of the most important questions remain unanswered.

    But what the general did say was that these kind of missions in Africa are now under review. They will continue as scheduled, these advise-and-assist missions, these training missions, if you will, but the Pentagon is going to take a long hard look at the kind of support that these teams get when they go out.

    We also learned it took about an hour before the team came — after it came under fire called for help. We still don’t know what happened during that hour, whether they thought they could handle the threat on their own, whether there were — some of the injuries took place within that hour. We just don’t know.

    So, those are two of the main things we learned today.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    Laura Seay, you have been able to listen to what General Dunford said. Did you — and you have been following this, of course, too.

    What did you learn that raises more questions for you?

  • Laura Seay:

    Well, I think that we learned that there was more assistance initially available to these forces in the field once they asked for help.

    As Eric has pointed out, it did take an hour. And that is a big question as to why we don’t know what happened during that hour. But they did have almost immediate drone support. And the French were able to get there very rapidly.

    So, the fact that one of the soldiers did become separated, that something happened in the recovery of the body, those are still open questions.

    But it is clear to me that the Pentagon both is conducting an investigation, and also realizes the importance of doing so, and realizes the importance of getting answers, not least for the families of the fallen.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    Eric Schmitt, I think there were a lot of questions from the reporters today about the length of time that it took that the — when the group was first attacked. And he said it took an hour. Then it took a half-an-hour for the French to acknowledge the request for help, and then another half-an-hour.

    It seems like a long time. Are there any theories going on right now about all of this?

  • Eric Schmitt:

     Well, again, what it indicates is that this is a part of the world, the African continent, particularly this very austere part of West Africa, where the U.S. operates in these relatively small teams, these Special Forces, with very scarce resources, scarce reconnaissance resources, medevac capability.

    This is not a full-blown battlefield, like Iraq or Afghanistan, where you have a lot more American assets. They had to rely on allies that were in the region, both Nigerian and French allies. And I think they have improved this capability over the last few years, according to the sources I talked to.

    But still it is long from the so-called golden hour that the troops in battlefields honor they get injured. That’s the so-called golden hour to evacuate wounded. In this case, it took more than two hours from the time that they initially came into contact.

    And, again, to stress, we don’t know when these soldiers were injured, but it took awhile for them to be evacuated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Laura Seay, how large is the militant presence, whether it’s an ISIS affiliate or an al-Qaida affiliate, in that part of the African continent?

  • Laura Seay:

    So, these are very complicated questions. And we don’t actually know because there are so many groups involved.

    We do know that the group that attacked American and Nigerian forces in this particular instance was probably around 50 people. But the size of the group that they are associated with, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, it is an amorphous group that is constantly changing, constantly bringing in members. People have falling-outs and go and join or start their others.

    They merge together. And so the number of threats that American forces are dealing with in Niger and in the region is very unpredictable. We are talking about several thousands of forces in some cases. But, you know, it can vary from day to day. And it’s not a guarantee that if you are attacked one day by one particularly group that that is the same group you will be dealing with a week or a month or a year later.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was struck, Eric Schmitt today and over the weekend in hearing how many members of Congress said they weren’t even aware the U.S. had forces in Niger taking on this mission.

    It’s not that it was operating in secret, so how do you explain that?

  • Eric Schmitt:

    Well, actually, there are about 6,000 American troops on the continent. All — about 4,000 of them are in Djibouti in the east — on the Horn of Africa. So, the other 2,000 are spread over maybe 50 other countries.

    There are 800 in Niger, and the bulk of them are working at a couple of different drone bases. These are surveillance drone operations through that region.

    But I think what it also says is that a lot of these missions are going on in Africa without a lot of notice. I mean, it doesn’t mean they’re secret. It just means that most of them are going on in a very unobserved way, both by members of Congress and the public, until you have a tragedy like this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Laura Seay, how much — I mean, were you aware of what was going on there, as an academic who pays attention closely to this?

    Because, again, I think many Americans have been caught off-guard by this entire incident.

  • Laura Seay:

    I agree. I think most Americans were not aware.

    I am aware. I’m writing a book on the way that U.S. security policy has changed over the past 20 years in Africa, and this is certainly a huge part of it.

    But I do think this is something that came about as a surprise to many Americans about the presence in Africa. And I think many Americans would be surprised to learn some of the statistics that Eric just quoted, that this is not just an operation in Niger, but that there are American forces of varying size.

    I mean, some of these deployments are very, very small, six, eight, 10 people. But they’re going on all across the continent in all kinds of murky missions that we may or may not be aware of. And I think this speaks to some of the challenges with this idea of a global war on terror that we have been under for the last 16 years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it also goes back, Eric Schmitt, to your first point, that you are hearing at the Pentagon that this entire mission is now under review.

    I mean, I think that says a lot, or it raises questions about how much thought went into the mission in the first place.

  • Eric Schmitt:

    Well, this is an administration, of course, that has made one of its top priorities of combating ISIS wherever it is in the world.

    And the generals have been given more authority. They have been delegated more authority and have been very forward-leaning. Secretary Mattis said over the weekend, for instance, that they were going to be stepping up activities in Africa.

    I think what you heard from General Dunford today was — going to say, we are going to look at these kind of missions. And we’re still going to go after the threat, but we’re going to have to maybe adjust some of the force protection measures, some of the surveillance measures, some of the support that goes along with the troops who are out in the field in these very remote places.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    Well, it certainly has raised a number of new questions that we are going to be following. And I know both of you are too.

    Eric Schmitt, Laura Seay, we thank you both.

  • Laura Seay:

    Thank you.

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