2018/05/11- The Department of Defense just released the public report on the ambush in Niger last October that killed four U.S. soldiers — a succinct eight-page summary of the reportedly 6,000-page classified version. If the The Wall Street Journal’s coverage earlier this month was any indication, the public conversation over the next few days will likely extend existing debates about the U.S. military presence in Africa, President Donald Trump’s delegation of authority to combatant commanders, and legal authorities for the use of military force abroad. But I hope the report will spur debate over another, less-often discussed question: Where is the line between so-called “accompany missions” and combat?
It seems like the kind of thing the secretary of defense should be able to answer. On Oct. 19, Secretary of Defense James Mattis responded to press queries about what happened in Niger by stating that “war is war.” He explained: “There’s a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there… because we carry guns and so it’s a reality, part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorist campaigns.” Soldiers with guns conducting campaigns sounds to many people like combat. Yet the next day, U.S. Africa Command released a carefully parsed statement asserting that “The U.S. military does not have an active, direct combat mission in Niger.” Eleven days later, Mattis’ references to war were gone, and he instead told a Senate panel that U.S. forces in Niger were operating “in a train-and-advise role.” Despite the apparent contrast between these statements, they can be and are true simultaneously. And that is a problem the Defense Department should, at long last, address out in the open.
The difficulty lies in our tendency to define contemporary military missions in at least three different contexts, serving at least three purposes: the conceptual, the legal, and the operational. Too often we assume that definitions are common across these contexts, until we are surprised to find they are not.
There are huge disagreements — even in the national security community — about what military activities “really” are. The general ideas we hold about them often do not link up with their legal and operational definitions. And too often we assume those definitions are common across those categories — until we are surprised to find they are not.
What counts as combat to the general public? Most civilians think they know combat when they see it, and they know what the word is describing when they hear it. Merriam-Webster defines combat as “a fight or contest between individuals or groups” and “active fighting in a war.” Meanwhile, the popular and political notions of “assistance” generally do not entertain combat. And while U.S. national security interests are central to both combat and assistance, they coexist in the mind distinctly, if imprecisely.
Yet the Defense Department must act within a legal framework, and precision is a vital element of the law. To an authorizer on Capitol Hill and a lawyer across the river at the Pentagon, security force assistance is one thing, building partner capacity is another, and combat is neither of those things. An authorization to use military force is an expression of intent as well as an approval of the methods for meeting it. These two things — intent and method — are inseparable in a legal sense, but entirely separable in a military context. And yet we tend to think of combat as something that happens intentionally. Opposing forces are armed and shooting at each other for wider socio-political reasons sanctioned by those with the formal power to endorse the activity on behalf of society. Even U.S. Africa Command slips into this usage of the term, implying that “combat” means “looking for a fight.” And until last October, no one, including leaders in the Pentagon, seemed to think that was what the U.S. military was doing in Niger.
What were U.S. personnel doing in Niger? Before the Pentagon dropped the public report, media accounts had demonstrated that public perceptions and legal categories do not map neatly onto what happened. Among other things, last October’s ill-fated operation that passed through the village of Tongo Tongo was initially thought to be an accompany mission — that was what Gen. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained at his press conference in late October. This claim was consistent with Mattis’ assertion that it was not a combat mission. As Dunford described at the time, “when we’re conducting these kinds of operations which we call ‘train, advise and assist,’ we don’t in the normal course of events accompany those local partnered forces when contact with the enemy is expected.”
But then, how did those soldiers wind up in a combat situation anyway? How did an accompany mission intended to avoid enemy contact evolve into what the Defense Department report refers to as a capture mission? Was it an accident, a case of misjudgment, or even, as at least one member of Congress briefed on the classified report has suggested, a result of deception? It seems possible the Oct. 3 mission was still intended to be conducted like other accompany missions in West Africa. Again, according to Dunford, “we either stay back at what we call the last covered and conceal [sic] position, right – so that’s before enemy contact is made – or we don’t even go on an operation…”
Doctrinally, accompany missions generally fall under the category of foreign internal defense, or FID. This includes a spectrum of activities from low-risk training and equipping to higher-risk operational advising. The joint doctrine for special operations explains that two of the three categories of military-related foreign internal defense do not involve U.S. combat operations — but they do involve “indirect” and “direct” support to partner forces as they conduct their own operations. U.S. rules of engagement vary based on the context, but when it comes to FID, situations tend to reflect that U.S. forces are there to advise the partner rather than engage as combatants themselves. So, accompany missions are not necessarily intended to involve U.S. personnel in lethal contact with the enemy — just as Dunford explained. Thus, mission objectives do not assume the necessity of U.S. use of force.
But, as the cliché goes, the enemy has a vote. And since U.S. forces’ standing rules of engagement permits self-defense under any circumstance (unless otherwise specified), American accompany missions inherently combine hazard with permission to use force if attacked. In such a context, armed engagements are simply a matter of probability. It’s important to note that by the time the ambush started, the unit was on its way back to camp. The engagement with the militants did not happen in the course of conducting a raid; it happened during a movement very much like those Dunford described.
Given the association between the use of military force and war, many analysts focused primarily on the legal frameworks for events in Niger, wondering whether the lethal engagement occurred outside the scope of Defense Department’s authorities. Yet in this case, policymakers appear to have acknowledged the necessity of alerting Congress about the potential for the use of force abroad. Deployments to Niger had been notified for several years by the Obama and Trump administrations consistent with the War Powers Resolution notifications.
Under that law, the president is responsible for consulting with Congress “in every possible instance” prior to “introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.” The law does not fully define what constitutes “hostilities,” but the term has come to be understood as referring to situations in which there is a risk that U.S. troops may need to use force while deployed, including in self-defense. Since 2013, troop deployments to Niger have been included in these regular reports. As Dunford noted in a press conference after the October attack, the U.S. advisor deployment in Niger was intended to help counter terrorist groups, and thus the area where advisors were present is “inherently dangerous.”
Separately from the War Powers Resolution, Congress has enacted provisions in recent National Defense Authorization Acts that require additional reports and information-sharing by the executive branch regarding the use of military force. In its 2018 NDAA Section 1264 report on the legal and policy frameworks for the use of military force, the Trump administration asserted that the secretary of defense’s Title 10 train, advise, and assist authorities, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the president’s Article II authorities, and the right to self-defense all justified the soldiers’ deployment to Niger. The administration further asserted that the troops’ use of force in response to being attacked was justified both by the principle of self-defense and by the 2001 AUMF. The administration appears to have invoked the latter retroactively, following a finding that the militants who attacked the U.S. troops were ostensibly affiliated with the Islamic State, an organization that two successive administrations have controversially claimed to be covered under the 2001 act.
Despite this retroactive assertion that the use of force in self-defense was also covered by the 2001 AUMF, military and administration officials have largely maintained that the forces’ activities in Niger are focused on assistance. In his above-mentioned appearance before the press on the subject, Dunford invoked the oft-used building partner capacity talking point, stating that, “our soldiers are operating in Niger to build the capacity of local forces to defeat violent extremism in West Africa.” This argument suggests that, whatever the permutations of that particular day, the American servicemembers ambushed in Tongo Tongo were generally conducting the types of missions Mattis referenced: training, advising, assisting, and accompanying partner forces.
Often, a trigger for notifying a deployment under the War Powers Resolution is if the unit will be “combat equipped”, which suggests U.S. forces may be involved in hostilities. Yet policymakers’ careful avoidance of combat in Niger — part of the low profile, light footprint Defense Department approach across the African continent — mean U.S. forces are being sent into situations where there is no intended engagement with opposing force. And in places like Niger, there may be an additional expectation that the capabilities of that opposing force are inferior to the training and discipline of U.S. special operations forces. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the combination of expectations and equipping may well be equal to any encounter with hostile entities. It’s the 100th time, though, where the low profile, light footprint, lightly armed accompany mission is under-matched to its circumstances. And it’s not just Niger. That may be what happened in Somalia almost a year ago when a Navy SEAL was killed in an ambush as his unit accompanied local forces on a raid.
What is important here is not the design of specific missions, but the way accompanying partner forces have been attached to notions of assistance rather than joint operations. If assistance is the primary activity being undertaken in a country, then, as we saw in Niger, U.S. combat-related resources are not readily on hand. Moreover, if U.S. policy is to maintain a light footprint, and therefore limit the number of military assets in the region, that limits the missions to those we consider non-combat. We’re doing assistance, so we don’t need assets. Or: we don’t want to posture assets in the region, so let’s limit ourselves to assistance. Although the French military operation in the Sahel had apparently been alerted to a previously planned raid, the soldiers on the ground could not communicate with the French quick-reaction force directly, and no supplemental American assets were anywhere close by. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the commander of U.S Africa Command, in fact, had been lamenting the gaps in U.S. medical evacuation capacity in Africa even before the ambush.
Prioritizing combat-related capabilities for theaters where combat is expected makes sense, especially when the choice is between places like Afghanistan and benign environments where the assistance activity does not mean on the job operational training. When U.S. forces are involved in missions alongside partner forces, even if the Americans are not the ones taking offensive action, they are being exposed to it. The doctrine on foreign internal defense itself traffics in the ambiguities of operational assistance. That third category of military-related foreign internal defense? U.S. combat operations. But, according to the doctrine, those operations mean that “U.S. forces either integrate with or operate in the place of HN [host nation] forces.” It’s combat in the name of assisting a partner as a way to prevent their domestic threats from metastasizing into international problems. It’s assistance. But it’s combat. Sometimes.
Little wonder Mattis had two answers for what U.S. forces are doing in Niger. Even if we can identify where the line between support to combat and involvement in combat is, how much control does anyone really have over crossing it? It seems like command decisions can be made better than they were in this instance. But even the professionalism of U.S. forces cannot eliminate their basic vulnerability when accompanying partners into areas with hostile groups whose own tolerance for risk is high. Given what we know today, it appears that under the right circumstances an accompany mission can quickly become indistinguishable from combat, even if the legal and doctrinal intent was to avoid enemy engagement.
The secretary thus has a policy decision to make. Is the accompany model the best option for defending national interests in places like Niger? If so, then the secretary will need to consider doing two things: changing our defense posture and equipping to provide more resources to forces in West Africa and elsewhere and/or determining that all accompany missions are more combat-related than assistance-related and are appropriate only in so-called areas of active hostilities. If neither approach is appealing, the logical choice is to scale back the advise-accompany mission set in places where close air support, medical evacuation, and other resources are not readily accessible.
The commander of special operations in Africa, Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks, has already made the decision to reduce the number of accompany operations, at least temporarily. But the fine line between accompany missions and combat is not only relevant in Africa. As the Army moves forward with the security force assistance brigades and the United States continues to prosecute the struggle against terrorism with combat advisers, it’s worth asking: Isn’t sending our soldiers out with guns alongside foreign forces running similar risks of combat engagements just as sending our soldiers out with guns is?.
War on the Rocks /Image: U.S. Africa Command