WASHINGTON – Earlier this year, the US military's Africa Command warned that its troops faced increasing risks because the command did not have the resources it needed to support its troops as they operated across a vast continent. It especially called attention to a lack of helicopters and other equipment used for search and rescue should a mission go wrong.
Now, two weeks after four US soldiers were killed in Niger in an unexpected battle near the border with Mali, those concerns seem prescient as questions swirl around the evacuation of dead and injured troops and why the body of one of the dead Americans wasn't recovered until 48 hours after the fight.
“For personnel recovery, Africa Command relies heavily on contract Search and Rescue assets due to lack of dedicated assets to support operations,” AFRICOM said in March in its annual posture statement to Congress. The assessment noted that the African countries with which the US partners lack the capability to help recover US troops if something were to happen.
That assessment illustrates that what happened in Niger — the delay in medical evacuations, the lack of intelligence leading to the ambush — was not so much a surprise, but a calculated, expected risk.
During the Oct. 4 attack in Niger, where a patrol of US special forces and Nigerien soldiers were ambushed by a group of ISIS-linked militants, a US private aviation contractor conducted evacuations, along with the French military, Pentagon officials said on Thursday.
Personnel recovery and medical evacuations "are a moral obligation and essential for the proper care of US service members who risk their lives to protect our nation,” the command argued in March.
That same assessment also raised concerns that only 20% to 30% of US Africa Command’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, requirements were being met.
“This limits situational understanding, support to operations, and fails to offer threat indications and warnings,” the command warned, adding that the situation is most dire in West Africa, where the US military has approximately 1,000 personnel involved in a dozen operations across a nine-country region. Nigerien officials have said that the Oct. 4 ambush was due to a "failure of human intelligence."
This resource gap “forces our personnel to revert to costly and ineffective ad hoc solutions,” the command told lawmakers.
Since AFRICOM was established in 2007, US special forces have taken on the lion’s share of the “train, advise and assist” missions with counterterrorism partners in the region, with little of the support the US military requires elsewhere. The scope of the task is vast — more than 1,700 US special operators are spread across 30 countries on the continent.
The Pentagon has launched a formal investigation into the attack, as pressure has mounted to explain how four elite US soldiers ended up dead and two wounded on a patrol that was thought to be routine. The body of one of the US soldiers was not recovered for two days. Four Nigerien troops also died.
“You have to ask, did AFRICOM see this coming, knowing that they’re taking a really big risk every single time they send troops forward because they know that they don’t have the assets that other commanders do?” said Alice Hunter Friend, the Pentagon’s former principal director for African affairs who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s a good thing that DC is really starting to think about the risks these forces are taking every day as part of our counterterrorism mission."
AFRICOM commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser has consistently listed medical evacuation capabilities as one of his top concerns.
“He has said that this is what keeps him up at night,” Hunter Friend said. “It’s an austere operating environment, and [AFRICOM’s) resources get cobbled together across a huge continent. The fact that we don’t encounter events like this often is a real testament to how professional the special operations forces out there are, and how close they have become with their partners.”
The French military came to the aid of the ambushed US and Nigerien troops, arriving 30 minutes after the firefight began.
Pentagon officials have long pointed at the effect that budgetary ups and downs have on available military hardware. This is especially true for the US Africa and US Southern Commands, which receive much less attention and resources than regions where the US is engaged in active conflicts.
Brigadier Gen. Donald Bolduc, who retired as commander of US Africa Command’s elite forces this summer, said he often told his team, “We’re not at war in Africa, but our African partners are.”
“That gives a sense of urgency to all we do,” he told the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point last year. “There’s no time to waste.”
The US military is still operating under the defense strategic guidance of former President Barack Obama’s administration, which stated “whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches.”
AFRICOM's main hub — Camp Lemonnier, with roughly 4,000 personnel — is in the small east African nation of Djibouti, more than 2,700 miles from Tongo Tongo, Niger, where the US troops were ambushed.