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Niger Ambush—what do we know?

The details of the ambush of a Special Forces patrol that was ambushed in Nigeria 3 weeks ago are slowly emerging. The media is implying a cover-up in the tone of the reporting.

A cover-up is of course possible, but more likely there are operational secrets about such operations and the extent of operations in the region that Africa Command (AFRICOM) does not want to disclose in its fight against ISIS offshoots in Africa. (Readers should note that this type of re-emergence of ISIS was anticipated in my previous article about the destruction of ISIS)

What do we know?

  • There are over 1000 troops from AFRICOM operating in Africa as part of an effort that began during the Obama administration to attack terrorist elements of many different stripes in Africa. These include ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
  • After years of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 3rd Special Forces Group, the unit to which the men were assigned, announced that it was returning its focus to Africa in 2015.
  • About a dozen members of an Army Special Forces unit joined roughly 30 Nigerien soldiers on October 3 launched what was initially expected to be a routine reconnaissance mission.
  • The American team leaders told their superiors in seeking approval for the mission that there was a “low risk” of hostile activity in the region close to the border between Niger and Mali.
  • The patrol was a mounted patrol, which meant that it was travelling well defined routes. (This of course would make setting an ambush much easier.)
  • They were attacked by about 50 militants while returning to base, and four Americans and four Nigeriens were killed. Two Americans were wounded, as were six Nigeriens.
  • The troops waited almost an hour before they called for help, possibly thinking that they could handle the band that attacked them.
  • There was a drone overhead within minutes of the call for assistance and French Mirage fighters 60 minutes after that, though the French could not engage because the two sides were so close to each other.

Speculation includes that they might have stopped in an ISIS friendly village for supplies and were delayed while the ambush was established. There is also speculation that they were seeking an ISIS leader.

The fact that it took an hour for them to call for help may have also been caused by communications problems. This is a problem if they did not anticipate such problems.  It is also unlikely that they did not report initial contact, unless their communications were being jammed.  Planning for such patrols should always include contingencies to deal with exactly what happened.  Had they become too complacent because of a lack of contact on previous such patrols?   One would not expect this, but until the final report is rendered we can only speculate.

A final, related comment. It is always a sad day when we lose an American Service Man in combat against ISIS.  It is even a worse day when the wife of one of the fallen chooses, along with her congress-lady, to make a political issue out of the death of a brave soldier.  I am hard pressed to understand when the President called the wife to express his condolences as to why the congress-lady was present.  I have made calls like the President did and consoled the families of fallen soldiers.  It is one of the toughest tasks that I had to do in my 30 years of active duty.  Trying to console and help the families of fallen soldiers is in the same category of not leaving a comrade on the battlefield—we take care of our own!  I can only guess at my reaction if someone had treated my efforts like they treated the President’s, but it would not have been pretty!

We will follow up on this story as it continues to unfold.

Correcting the record

Letter to the editor

Reference Military History article “Hallowed Ground Khe Sanh Vietnam” (http://www.historynet.com/september-2017-table-contents.htm)

As a veteran of the battle of Khe Sanh I need to correct the record and the impression created by Mark D. Van Els in his article about the Battle of Khe Sanh.

The first thing is his understanding of the geography.  Khe Sanh was 30 plus kilometers south of the border with North Vietnam and the DMZ.  It sat astride route 9 that ran from Laos all the way to the coast.  It therefore blocked one of the critical avenues of approach into Quang Tri and Thieu Tinh (Hue) provinces. The map below highlights the strategic position.

area map

 

Given the location of the combat base it was used for surveillance and other operations into Laos and North Vietnam as the author points out.

As both a youngster growing up in Kansas and later as a cadet I studied intently the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the fate of the French.  It was popular to try and compare Khe Sanh and the ill-fated French garrison.  I must admit that many of us tried to draw lessons from Dien Bien Phu to try and predict the next activity of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The comparisons were of limited utility given the much different nature of the battlefield.

Mark Van Els failed to understand a critical point when it came to the timing of the battle.  General Westmoreland and the American chain of command down to and including Colonel David Lounds (the Marine commander of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB)) knew more than 3 months before the battle that the NVA were coming.  As pointed out General Westmoreland wanted a set piece fire power intensive battle and those of us at Khe Sanh were the bait.  The reinforcement of KSCB started right before the first shelling and then immediately after it.  This is all well documented in my book Expendable Warriors: the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.

The article leads the reader to believe that Khe Sanh was wholly a Marine battle.  As an Army District Advisor working with CPT Tinh-a-Nhi the District Chief we brought Army advisors, Bru montagnard and Vietnamese soldiers to the battle.  The initial battle around Khe Sanh village resulted in rendering an NVA regiment combat ineffective.  These brave soldiers were joined in the fight by Army Special Forces at Lang Vei and Special Forces soldiers at the Combat base itself.  These Vietnamese, Bru and Army soldiers contributed significantly to the overall battle.

As to the comment about the attack on Khe Sanh being a feint to draw forces to Khe Sanh, there is the school of thought that says it was a feint.  However, I contend that General Giap was attacking the American center of gravity—public opinion.  The battles of Tet and Hue were over in several weeks with the NVA and Viet Cong having been defeated everywhere, but Khe Sanh continued as noted for 77 days.  The cover of Time Magazine highlighted the “Agony of Khe Sanh”.  The agony played in the media on Main Street for over 77 days.  General Giap had won.

I believe that we won the battle of Khe Sanh on the battlefield and lost the war on the streets of the United States.  This is the critical lesson from Khe Sanh—the link between the battlefields and public opinion.

Thank you for correcting the record.