- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Pentagon is launching an inquiry into the chain of events that led to the deaths of four Army Special Forces soldiers during a military adviser mission in Niger earlier this month.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said the incident, in which Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson, Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson were killed, is currently under investigation.

“I don’t care if it’s in the a car accident, in [the Defense Department] we investigate the circumstances surrounding and see how we can address the very questions you brought up about what can we do in the future,” Mr. Mattis told reporters Thursday.

“At the same time, war is war and these terrorists are conducting war on innocent people,” he added just before a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the Pentagon.

The four special operations troops were embedded with a Nigerian unit conducting a counterterrorism patrol near the country’s border with Mali, when the patrol was ambushed by al Qaeda fighters on Oct. 4. The attackers were reportedly members of the terror group’s west African cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, or AQIM, which is headquartered in Mali.

At the White House, Chief of Staff John Kelly reiterated the need for the Defense Department to figure out what exactly happened to the joint U.S.-Nigerian patrol and why did the operation end with four Americans dead.

“There’s an investigation … the fact is they need to find out what happened,” he told reporters Thursday.

The bodies of Sgts. Black, Johnson and Wright were recovered immediately after the attack, while the body of Sgt. Johnson was found days after the deadly strike. U.S. special operations forces, under U.S. Special Operations Command-Africa, have been conducting military adviser missions in Niger and elsewhere in Africa for the past decade.

“Mostly we’re providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support, but also we have troops on the ground,” Mr. Mattis said of the ongoing military adviser operations on the continent.

“Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves,” the former four-star general added.

In May, President Trump ordered an acceleration of American-led operations to dismantle and destroy the al-Shabab terror network in Somalia. American special operations troops have been assisting the Somali military in battling al-Shabab since 1993.

The White House has come under fire in recent days over Mr. Trump’s decision to not contact the families of the fallen Special Forces soldiers in the days and weeks following their deaths.

Mr. Mattis declined to comment on why Mr. Trump waited so long to reach out to the deceased soldiers’ families. But Chief of Staff Kelly lashed out at the administration’s critics for politicizing the deaths of American service members.

“I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield … was sacred,” he said.

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