Basic Questions Remain Unanswered In Deadly Niger Ambush Probe

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's top military adviser acknowledges that he too has questions about the deaths of four Americans in Niger. General Joseph Dunford spoke to reporters as lawmakers and the public focused on a mission in West Africa that went wrong.

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JOSEPH DUNFORD: Did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence, equipment and training? Was our a pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area accurate?

INSKEEP: Some of the questions on the mind of Joe Dunford. NPR's Tom Bowman was in the room as he spoke. Tom, what struck you there?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, what struck me is how many basic questions are unanswered at this point more than two weeks after the incident. General Dunford talks about, did the mission change? Well, the mission was to go on a reconnaissance patrol, and there were some reports that maybe they were actually chasing terrorists - suspected terrorists on motorbikes. Now, presumably, we would have an answer to that question two weeks later. I know there's an investigation going on, but for - to have this many basic questions unanswered is surprising.

INSKEEP: Well, let's pursue some of those questions with retired Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc. Until June, he led Special Operations Command Africa, and like some of the men killed in Niger, he was a Green Beret. General, good morning.

DONALD BOLDUC: Good morning, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Let's start with this mission described as a reconnaissance mission to a very remote village on the border with Mali. Was that a normal operation for special operations troops to be doing in Niger?

BOLDUC: Yes, sir. That's part of the normal types of operations that are done, and as General Dunford laid out yesterday I think very succinctly, there are limitations to how U.S. forces participate in that. And, you know, he laid those out. And so I would call this, yes, a typical advise and assist and support of our partners to enable them.

INSKEEP: Limitations meaning they're supposed to be helping troops from Niger do their jobs better, not generally supposed to be in a combat role.

BOLDUC: That's correct because we're not - that's not a combat environment there. However, it is, you know, very volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It replicates the environments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but the United States is not at war there. Our partners are, so we're there to support them.

INSKEEP: So one question on General Dunford's mind is did the mission change? Meaning, did they decide to pursue some target of opportunity? Would that have been normal if they did that?

BOLDUC: Yes. It's a dynamic and fluid situation out there where, you know, you're surrounded by the populace and you're surrounded by the threat. And, you know, they'll do things in order to - in order to get our partners to adjust in their mission. If it was a reconnaissance mission, then that's specifically what our partners were doing and our, you know, soft forces were advising and assisting in that reconnaissance led by our partners. So that is typical.

INSKEEP: Are you surprised, General - if I can put it this way - are you surprised that the Army troops could be surprised? Because you could imagine a circumstance where they've got drone coverage, they've got somebody essentially looking down on the ground and able to see that an ambush might be coming.

BOLDUC: Yes. This is - the - you know, the terrain, the geography, the distance, the enemy operating in and among the populace - they dress like them. They look like them. They're from there. They can blend in. You know, these things - you know, these things are part of the operational environment. That's why our partners lead. They're the ones most likely to be able to pick this up. So it is conceivable that, you know, our partners can be surprised and therefore the advisers are surprised.

INSKEEP: And then there's the next phase of this, which is the difficulty in getting help. And we should be clear - Niger's a huge country. We're talking about a very wide area and a very small number of troops. You can't necessarily have backup that they can call on within five minutes, but it took about an hour. What was that acceptable waiting time to get French assistance here?

BOLDUC: Well, as we plan those missions, I would - I was not surprised by the timeline that General Dunford - that General Dunford laid out. You know, our partners came into contact - communications internal to them, communications internal to the advisers. There could have been a number of things going on at the time of the attack. You know, we just don't know if they were moving, if they were stationary, if they were - you know, some of them were supporting our partners in engagements with the populace. There's just a number of things that could be going on. So the timeline that was laid out is not surprising to me giving the time and distance factors.

What should be noted here is that our partners are responsible for security. We're responsible for security. We integrate everything that we do with our - with our French partners. And we complement each other's operations, and we balance out the resources - shortcomings that each force has in order to be able to - in order to be able to get down to an acceptable level of risk to be able to conduct a mission. If it's not acceptable, then we just don't do the mission. But working together, we're able to support our partners in a more comprehensive way. And this is very important to note.

INSKEEP: When you departed the Special Operations Command Africa at the end of June, did you feel that the resources were sufficient? And I ask this because General Tom Waldhauser, who's in charge of U.S. operations in Africa, described this in his confirmation hearing as an economy theater where you have to make do with less.

BOLDUC: Yes, it is - it is a economy theater and one of our operating principles is we have to do more with what we have, and how we do that is leveraging our partners' capabilities, which they do have very good capabilities, we leverage French capabilities, we leverage U.K. capabilities, we leverage international - other international partner capabilities. And we come up with a plan by integrating and working together that allows us to be able to operate in this area. Everybody's going to want more. There's just not enough out there. But the way General Waldhauser characterized the command as an economy of force command is accurate and that, you know, soft forces on the ground don't have everything that they want, but they're not going to do a mission unless the risk is acceptable and the resources are sufficient.

INSKEEP: General, thanks very much, really appreciate your time.

BOLDUC: Well, thank you, Steve. And, Tom, it's great to hear your voice again, and God bless you. And if I could just say one thing, sir, and that is my sincere condolences to the family members and the 3rd Special Forces Group and all that are operating in Africa that are feeling this loss to include our Nigerian partners.

INSKEEP: Absolutely, glad you added that. Brigadier General Donald C. Dolduc. And let's hear Tom Bowman's voice one more time. Tom, what struck you about what you just heard?

BOWMAN: Well, what struck me is, as the general said, there's not enough out there, not enough equipment for these special operators. One question I would have - would a mission like this have had drone coverage? Should it have had drone coverage? Because clearly, a drone would have picked up 50 fighters and also with vehicles and heavy weapons. It would have picked it up before they entered that ambush.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Tom Bowman this morning with some of the questions still unanswered about four Americans killed in Niger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.