Report

Used to Afghanistan, Special Operators Suffer From Lack of Support in Africa

Now they fear restrictions on their mission.

French and U.S. Army soldiers bed down during a field training exercise in Arta, Djibouti, on March 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force)
French and U.S. Army soldiers bed down during a field training exercise in Arta, Djibouti, on March 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force)

Fighting for their lives after driving with their Nigerien partners into a withering ambush, 11 members of the 3rd Special Forces Group called for close air support. Two French Mirage jets arrived an hour later. And when they showed up, the jets merely buzzed the battlefield and didn’t drop any bombs on the militants attacking the U.S.-Nigerien patrol.

Four U.S. soldiers, four Nigerien troops, and an interpreter died in the Oct. 4 battle. It was a bitter reminder to the 3rd Group that it was no longer in Afghanistan, the combat theater where the Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based unit had been focused from 2002 until late 2015. There, its teams could call in airstrikes often instantaneously and almost always within minutes. But since switching from Afghanistan to North and West Africa, the group has had to grapple with what its veterans repeatedly refer to as the continent’s “tyranny of distance,” combined with a paucity of resources when compared with mature combat theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has been a steep learning curve.

“In Afghanistan, you can pretty much do whatever you want with impunity because you always have access to precision air power stacked up,” said a former 3rd Group officer with extensive Afghanistan experience. “So we’re lured into this complacency, and now you’re lured into this situation on the ground in Africa where there was parity, or even a disadvantage, and we got smoked for it.”

In Africa, a field grade Special Forces officer who also served in both Afghanistan and West Africa said, “Special Forces are deployed significantly farther forward than you would see elsewhere and are more reliant upon their own capabilities.”

In addition to much longer waits for close air support, the expectations for medical evacuation are vastly different. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the standard for getting a wounded service member medically evacuated was 60 minutes, a time known as the “golden hour.”

“The golden hour is no longer even a thing,” said another former 3rd Group officer with extensive experience in both theaters. “Now that could be the golden 48 hours.”

While most of the U.S. team was airlifted from the battlefield within hours by French helicopters, an aircraft flown by a private company under contract to the American military had to carry the dead Americans away, according to Robyn Mack, a spokesperson from U.S. Africa Command. 

The stark differences between operating in Africa and operating in mature combat theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq presented the 3rd Group with what its veterans say were some of their biggest hurdles. Those differences include working in a theater where the State Department, rather than military, calls the shots.

This calls for a “completely different” mindset on the part of the special operators, said retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who until June headed Africom’s special operations component.

The sheer vastness of the area of operations, combined with the lack of resources when compared with Afghanistan, can be a shock to special operators used to having drones and strike aircraft available to get a team out of trouble.

A former 3rd Group officer with extensive Afghanistan experience said for special operators who have spent their entire military career fighting in Afghanistan, the adjustment to Africa can be jarring.

“You had a shitload of resources in Afghanistan — even when it was underfunded, compared with Iraq — that you don’t have in Africa,” the former officer said. 

How the ambush and its aftermath will affect the U.S. mission in Africa is unclear, since the U.S. Defense Department is still trying to pin down exactly what took place and why. More than three weeks after the battle, official and unofficial accounts of the fight continue to evolve, and many outstanding questions remain.

Speaking at the Pentagon on Oct. 23, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the patrol to the Nigerien village of Tongo Tongo as a “civil-military reconnaissance mission.” Other accounts have said the patrol was helping another team consisting of U.S., French, and Nigerien forces hunt for a senior militant operating in the Niger-Mali border area.

The combined U.S.-Nigerien force left Niamey, the capital, early on the morning of Oct. 3 and drove about 50 miles north to Tongo Tongo, Dunford said. Just before noon the next day, after leaving the village to return to Niamey, the patrol came under attack from about 50 militants armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and riding in pickup trucks.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, the Americans did not request support until an hour or so into the fight. After the French jets finally showed up, French helicopters and a Nigerien ground force arrived later that afternoon to relieve the beleaguered patrol and evacuate the wounded, including two U.S. personnel. But one American, Sgt. La David Johnson, remained missing.

Fearing that Johnson had been captured, a task force from the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg was launched that evening, flying to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, a U.S. official said. Meanwhile, two officials told Foreign Policy, Africom deployed its crisis response force — another 3rd Group unit — that specializes in no-notice direct action missions like hostage rescues. It is unclear what role that crisis response force, launched from Baumholder, Germany, played in the search for Johnson, but when his body was found on the evening of Oct. 6, the JSOC force was still in Sigonella, a U.S. official said.

As military investigators now pore over the details of the ill-fated patrol, 3rd Group veterans are concerned that the publicity surrounding the incident will change their mission, leading to tighter restrictions on operations in West Africa.

“That concerned me the entire time I was commander there — that any actions would result in a knee-jerk reaction of becoming more risk-averse,” Bolduc said.

“That’s why I told these guys, ‘Hey, man, our credibility hangs with every single patrol — it hangs with everything we do — and if we don’t acquit ourselves properly, then we’re going to get shut down unnecessarily.”

Active and retired Special Forces soldiers said controversy had led to the battle being given more weight than it might otherwise deserve. A former 3rd Group officer with experience in both Afghanistan and West Africa pointed out that when a Jordanian soldier shot three 5th Special Forces Group soldiers in Jordan in November 2016, the incident did not attract the “same level of scrutiny.”

A recently retired 3rd Group noncommissioned officer (NCO) said the focus on the casualties has taken away from what he called the “other side of the story” — the survival of most of the patrol in an ambush where U.S. soldiers were outnumbered and outgunned. “Usually if you have a 50-person ambush, everybody in the kill zone is dead,” he said. “Most of them got out of there.”

Nonetheless, “that team had a bad day,” he acknowledged.

Like other special operators, the 3rd Group NCO expressed concern that what he termed the “politically charged” fallout from the battle will mean that U.S. special operations forces in West Africa will be subjected to extra scrutiny and micromanagement.

What’s probably going to happen is the guys have to wear all the body armor and look like crazy guys,” he said, adding that it would be a mistake for higher headquarters to impose blanket requirements like that on Special Forces teams.

“These guys know when to put it on,” he said. “The judgement should be left up to the team leadership based on the mission.”

The soldiers were not wearing body armor at the time of the ambush, CNN reported.

Bolduc, the former Africom special operations boss, said if operations are curtailed in the wake of the battle, those orders were unlikely to come from Africom head Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, “but from Washington, D.C., and the Department of State side of the house, and certainly there could be other places in Washington, D.C., as well that could be a bit risk-averse.”

The former 3rd Group officer with experience in both Afghanistan and West Africa agreed. “That will probably happen initially,” he said of possible restrictions. “It would be a mistake if it did.”

Placing more restrictions on special operations forces in Africa would be a “worst-case scenario,” said a U.S. official familiar with missions on the continent. “We’d really be making a bad mistake by saying, ‘All right, that happened in Niger. Now everything on the African continent has to meet these criteria.’”

The official was concerned that the light, agile mission in West Africa would be forced to adopt some of the force protection measures troops were ordered to undertake in Iraq during the height of the American involvement there.

“You couldn’t leave the wire without six gun trucks and this many machine guns and this amount of people, and you had to check in 13 times, and you had to have ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft], and you had to have close air support within a certain range,” he said. “If you apply that to the African continent, we’d be left without the ability to do much.”

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. @seandnaylor

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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