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Why did 4 US troops die in Niger? Even the military doesn’t know.

Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs Of Staff Gen. Dunford Holds Briefing At Pentagon Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The mysterious deaths of four US Special Forces troops during an early-October mission in Niger has gone from a military tragedy to a roaring political controversy because of President Donald Trump’s feud with the widow of one of the soldiers killed in the operation. The Pentagon just made things even murkier.

On Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford — the military’s highest-ranking officer — gave the most detailed account of the situation yet, including a timeline of the events that led to the killings of Sgt. La David Johnson and three other Green Berets. But what was most striking in his remarks was how little even the Pentagon’s top officer appeared to know about how and why the mission in the West African nation of Niger went so badly wrong.

Over and over again, Dunford repeated that he only had limited information about what actually happened in Niger. On perhaps the biggest outstanding question — how the elite US soldiers ended up coming into contact with hostile forces during what was ostensibly a noncombat mission — he professed complete ignorance, promising answers after the military concludes a lengthy internal investigation.

It felt, in many ways, like a repeat of the early days after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya: a situation where something went badly wrong but it’s not immediately obvious who’s to blame.

What we learned about the Niger raid — and what we didn’t

At its core, the US presence in Niger is about counterterrorism. Since the George W. Bush administration, the US has been working with governments in heavily Muslim West Africa to counter local Islamist groups. The US presence there ramped up considerably under the Obama administration, which sent special forces to train and assist local partners in countering both al-Qaeda and ISIS groups operating in the region. The first US troops arrived in Niger specifically in 2012.

Johnson and the rest of his 12-man squad were Green Berets, a branch of the Army designed specifically for training foreign militaries. They were sent out with Nigerien troops on October 3 for what, according to Dunford, was supposed to be a fairly routine operation.

"It was planned as a reconnaissance mission,” Dunford said. “Chances of enemy contact [were deemed] unlikely.”

That assessment turned out to be catastrophically wrong. The soldiers spent the night of October 3 in the field — Dunford wasn’t clear on whether this was planned or improvised — and came into contact with enemy forces the next day, October 4.

The enemies, Dunford said, were “local, tribal fighters” affiliated with the local ISIS group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS). He provided no identifying information beyond that.

After an hour of fighting, Johnson’s squad requested backup. The nearest air assets were French Mirage jets — France has an even larger counterterrorism presence in West Africa, its former colonial fiefdom, than the US. It took half an hour for French jets to get ready, and another half-hour for them to arrive on scene. Ground reinforcements from the Nigerien military followed sometime afterward.

Sometime during these hours of fighting, three soldiers — Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright — were killed or fatally wounded. Sgt. La David Johnson went missing during the chaos; the US spent two days searching for his body. It isn’t clear whether Johnson died during the attack or some time afterward.

And that was basically all Dunford would confirm.

“Everything beyond what I told you,” he said, “would be speculation."

What we don’t know about Niger is more important than what we do

If that account is unsatisfying to you, you’re not alone (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has reportedly been personally impatient for more answers). Dunford openly acknowledged during the presser that a lot of the vital details about the mission were still unknown, including:

  1. Were the US troops given faulty intelligence before the mission that led them to erroneously conclude it was low risk?
  2. Did the mission change from simple reconnaissance to something else? And if so, on whose orders?
  3. How did they basically lose a US soldier for two days?
  4. Why did it take a full hour before the troops on the ground called for help?
  5. Why did the US have to rely on French aircraft to save its troops?

These questions, according to Dunford, are all going to be investigated internally. For now, though, the information is just extremely limited: Something clearly went wrong, but nobody is really sure yet what it was.

"I don't know how this attack unfolded,” Dunford said bluntly, in one of the most honest moments of the presser.

This is eerily similar to the early days of the Benghazi attack. After US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other US citizens were killed on September 11, 2012, the American public rightly demanded answers about what they were doing in a chaotic Libyan city and how it led to such a disaster.

These legitimate questions quickly gave way to a partisan witch hunt, in which Republicans in Congress repeatedly and fruitlessly attempted to pin the blame for Stevens’s death on President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Today, the word “Benghazi” is as or more likely to conjure up that unseemly political spectacle as the actual tragedy.

If Obama or Clinton were president when four more Americans died in an African country under murky conditions, we’d no doubt be seeing a repeat performance. With Trump in office, Republicans are less likely to repeat this performance, but have an opportunity to provide real oversight; Sen. John McCain has already talked about issuing subpoenas to the Pentagon for more details about the mission. McCain, though, has been standing largely alone on his side of the aisle — in raising questions both about the mission itself and about Trump’s inexplicable and cruel fight with the family mourning a soldier who died on his watch.