The top US general said on Monday that the American people, including the families of the fallen soldiers in Niger, deserve answers about this month's deadly ambush which claimed the lives of four US soldiers, including that of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, whose widow Myeshia Johnson has been involved in an escalating feud with President Trump over the contents of his controversial phone call meant to deliver condolences.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, acknowledged that there was "a perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming"about the mission and said that "we owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened. The only thing I'm asking for here today is patience so that the information we provide you is factual."
The general said that the four U.S. special operations personnel died Oct. 4 amid a "complex situation" and a "difficult firefight" and explained that they were ambushed by ISIS fighters with rockets and machine guns while leaving a village on a reconnaissance mission and heading back to their post.
12 US special operations forces accompanied by 30 Nigerien troops departed Oct. 3 on a reconnaissance mission from the capital to an outlying village. They left Oct. 4 to return to their operating base, and after leaving the village came under fire from about 50 local tribal fighters affiliated with ISIS and armed with rockets, machine guns and small arms. He said that they had set out with expectations that contact with the enemy was “unlikely." The contact with the enemy happened south of the village and outside of the village borders.
At the beginning of the attack, a drone was not overhead but was sent up immediately after it started. The intelligence on the ground earlier in the day and before the mission did not indicate an incident would occur.
"I don't have any indication right now to believe or to know that they did anything other than operate within the orders they were given," Dunford told reporters.
Dunford also said that his assumption is that the troops originally thought they could handle the resistance, and didn't call for support for an hour. An hour after that (two hours after the fighting began) French French Mirage jets arrived on the scene. As a result of the firefight, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright were killed. Sgt. La David Johnson was reported missing, and troops stayed in the area until his body was recovered on Oct. 6.
Dunford acknowledges many questions remain about what happened near Niger's Mali border, including whether the U.S. had adequate intelligence and equipment for its operation, whether there a planning failure and why it took so long to recover one the bodies. He also said US forces have been in Niger intermittently for more than two decades, and that some 800 U.S. service members are supporting a French-led mission to defeat the Islamic State, al-Qaida and Boko Haram in West Africa.
Many Americans have expressed surprise about the U.S. military operating in Niger. Congress has been repeatedly briefed about American presence on the ground, but Dunford explained why units are in country and said the U.S. can be proud of its counter-terrorism operations in the region. “The reason we’re in West Africa is because there’s a concentration of ISIS and Al Qaeda,” Dunford said, adding that the U.S. has had troops in Niger on-and-off for 20 years. “We have sent [U.S. special forces] there to operate in areas where there are extremist elements.”
Dunford said the Pentagon is still investigating the following open questions involving the ambush:
- Did the mission change during the operation?
- Did they have sufficient intelligence, equipment and training?
- Was the pre-mission assessment of the threat accurate?
- How did Sgt. Johnson become separated?
- Why did it take so long to recover his body?
Dunford concluded that once all of the information about the situation is gathered, he will sit with the families who will have him in their homes to go over the details. After that, he will relay the details to the press.