- Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on Monday discussed the battle that left four US troops dead in Niger. Though Dunford shed some light on the fight, many details, such as why US forces were unable to locate Sgt. La David Johnson’s body for two days, remained unclear. Dunford asked for “a bit of patience” amid the continuing investigation.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on Monday held a press conference at the Pentagon in which he addressed reports that officials were holding back information surrounding the battle in Niger that left four US troops dead and two wounded early this month.
Though Dunford offered a general timeline of events involving what he said was a 12-person Special Forces detachment and 30 Nigerien partner forces, he refused to speculate on many details until the full investigation ran its course.
Dunford said the coalition force began a reconnaissance mission in Niger on October 3. He said contact with enemy troops was believed to be “unlikely” at the time, but as the force was returning to its operating base the next morning, he said, about 50 local ISIS-affiliated tribal fighters carried out an attack.
Asked why US troops were accompanying Nigerien forces, Dunford said US forces would “only accompany partner forces when the chances of enemy contact are unlikely.”
“If we have a specific threat to the homeland and local forces are unable to deal with that threat, United States forces are going to deal with that threat,” Dunford said. “But the bias is towards enabling local African partners to conduct operations in Africa.”
Dunford said US troops requested additional support about one hour after first taking fire from militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades, small arms, and civilian vehicles outfitted for combat. French Mirage jets responded about 30 minutes later, according to Dunford.
It is unclear whether the jets were armed with bombs or what effect they had on the battle.
Dunford said it was not yet known why the call for help came only an hour into the battle, but he suggested the coalition force may have initially thought it could handle the situation on its own.
“The one thing I would push back on hard is, I’m not putting any pressure on that unit,” Dunford said. “I make no judgment as to how long it took for them to ask for support.”
A remotely piloted aircraft was also dispatched after the call for backup, Dunford continued, but he said it only relayed intelligence did not strike at targets.
- REUTERS/Joe Skipper
US casualties were evacuated by French helicopters after the firefight, but it wasn’t until the evening of October 6, two days after the assault, that Sgt. La David Johnson’s body was recovered by Nigerien forces, Dunford said. Though Johnson’s body was found one mile from the scene of the ambush, according to administration officials in a CNN report, Dunford declined to comment on specifics, citing the ongoing investigation.
About 800 US troops are operating in Niger, along with 4,000 French troops in West Africa, Dunford said, adding that US forces had been in Niger “on and off” for more than 20 years and were stationed in the country to “defeat violent extremism in West Africa.”
“This area is inherently dangerous,” Dunford said, adding: “We’re there because ISIS and Al Qaeda are operating in that area.”
The White House has been criticized for its delayed response in offering a clear picture of the circumstances leading to the deaths of the US soldiers as well as five Nigerien troops. President Donald Trump delivered his first remarks on the attack about 12 days after it took place, and he eventually became mired in a dispute with a Florida congresswoman who took issue with his words in a call to Johnson’s widow.
Dunford said in carrying out the investigation, officials were “trying to balance the need to do this quickly with the need to make sure that it’s accurate.”
“We owe the families of the fallen more information,” Dunford said.
Lawmakers seem intent on receiving more information on the battle. Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has threatened to issue a subpoena.
On Wednesday, McCain said the White House was not being up front about the Niger ambush, and he said he would like the information his committee “deserves and needs.”
“I haven’t heard anything about it, to tell you the truth, except that they were killed,” McCain said in a Daily Beast report published last Tuesday.