Shanahan’s Review of Niger Ambush Seen as ‘Rubber Stamp’

Pentagon chief declined to recommend further punishments for senior officers involved in the fatal incident.

U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan writes in a guest book before a ministerial talk in Seoul. SEUNG-IL RYU/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES
U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan writes in a guest book before a ministerial talk in Seoul. SEUNG-IL RYU/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES

Nearly two years after an October 2017 ambush that left four American soldiers dead in Niger, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has approved the decision to discipline eight military officers over their role in the deadly incident. But in a move that has angered some lawmakers and former defense officials, Shanahan declined to recommend further punishments for senior-level U.S. Special Operations officers involved in the operation.

The decision, which comes two months after Shanahan’s surprise April announcement that he had ordered a review into the original investigation, is seen by some as a “rubber stamp” of U.S. Special Operations Command’s previous accountability plan for the incident, according to one former senior defense official. The plan, which was informed by U.S. Africa Command’s investigation into the incident, is being criticized for punishing low-level officers but letting their commanders off the hook.

“Nothing was changed,” the former defense official said. “Service members and families have been in limbo because Shanahan said he wanted more accountability than what was previously outlined by SOCOM leadership. That was his prerogative, but he accepted the exact same recommendations, so what was the point?”

The results of the new review were first reported by Politico and confirmed by the Pentagon.

“Having examined an independent review by a senior general officer of the investigation into the 2017 ambush in Niger, I am satisfied that all findings, awards, and accountability actions were thorough and appropriate,” said Shanahan in a statement. “The investigation identified systemic areas for improvement and the Department of Defense has taken corrective action – specifically in the areas of training, risk management, operational procedures, field discipline and leadership. ”

The new review delayed the release of the findings of the Africom investigation, as well as awards of valor, to the families of the soldiers who were killed in the ambush.

Seven Green Berets and Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, the senior commander for special operations advisory teams in Africa at the time, were reprimanded over the incident. But the previous investigation spared two other Green Beret commanders involved in authorizing the mission, Lt. Col. David Painter and Col. Bradley Moses.

Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Marine infantry veteran of the Iraq War who took Shanahan to task over the Niger incident at a March hearing, called the decision to blame junior officers and enlisted personnel for the fatal incident “a shirking of responsibility to the memory and families of the deceased.”

Gallego blasted the Pentagon for failing to provide Congress with a “comprehensive account” of what went wrong.

“From the beginning, the investigation into what happened that day has been poorly handled at all levels. Nearly two years later, we are still waiting for answers,” he said in a statement. “One thing is clear: mistakes were made that cost these men’s lives. Their families–and the American public–deserve clear answers about what happened, who will be held accountable, and what will be done to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Special Operations Command presented the initial recommendations regarding the incident to then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2018. Mattis was livid that junior officers were punished while officers directly above them were not, said the former defense official.

“He was seething. When he is silent like that, I think, ‘You are going to die next,’” the former official said.

Mattis had lost confidence in Special Operations Command’s leadership and was considering a change, the former official said, but before he could move forward he resigned over President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. In April, Shanahan told Congress he would initiate a new, “narrowly scoped” review of the incident because he did not find the initial findings “sufficient.”

The review was to be led by Gen. Michael Garrett, the commander of U.S. Army Forces Command. But soon after, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Army chief of staff and Trump’s pick to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, intervened, the former official said. At Milley’s urging, Shanahan chose Gen. Robert Brown, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific, to conduct the review.

In choosing Brown to lead the investigation, the Army did not want someone “who was looking to shake the trees,” said another former defense official who worked on special operations and low-intensity conflict.

“It seems like [Shanahan] basically put a check box on the old report and said, ‘Let’s move this train down the road,’” the former official said.

The second former official also expressed disappointment that the new review did not go further than the original investigation in addressing gaps both in training and in the planning and approval process for military operations. The original inquiry found that the team members were not able to train together before leaving for the deployment, and that the initial plans for the mission were not approved “at the proper level of command.”

“The failures here are really of senior leadership oversight both on the civilian and the military side,” the former official said. “It is unimaginable to me that there would have been a [concept of operations] like this without anyone at [the Joint Staff] or [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] looking at it.”

Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a veteran of the Afghanistan War and the first Green Beret ever elected to Congress, also took issue with the decision to reprimand junior officers.

“I’m not sure yet–and I’ve never been sure–that the junior-level officers were at any type of fault,” Waltz said. “It seems to me that the investigation found that there was an overall lack of understanding of the original approval process and that this team was pushed beyond its limits for what it was prepared to do in Africa.”

This article has been updated with a statement from Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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