The New York Times has reported that the investigation of the deadly Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger in October 2017 has revealed that an unknown US military leader ordered the American troops to act outside of the usual scope of their mission – kicking off the sequence of events that would end with the deaths of four Americans and five Nigeriens.
The report, compiled by US Africa Command (AFRICOM), said the mission was originally reported to be a low-risk patrol, as US forces in Niger are not authorized to undertake actions believed to have a high risk of leading to enemy engagement. A dozen US soldiers, most of them Green Berets, accompanied 30 Nigerien troops to the Niger-Mali border to perform reconnaissance on reports that a local terrorist leader had made his base there — which, the report mentioned, isn’t low-risk at all.
At various points, the Pentagon reported both a low-risk patrol and a militant hunt as the mission of the American troops. Later on, it turned out both were true: an unknown figure ordered a change in mission parameters after the US received a tip that the militant leader in question was operating in the area.
They didn’t find anything. Instead, 50 militants believe to be aligned with a local Daesh offshoot, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), ambushed the patrol.
Also retrieved was footage from the body camera of Green Beret Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson. It depicts the three American soldiers — Johnson along with Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright — in the midst of a fighting retreat against a vastly superior militant force.
All three Green Berets are slain on the footage. Not depicted is the death of Sgt. La David Johnson, a comrade of the trio whose body was discovered a day later in a different location. Four Nigerien soldiers and an interpreter also met their ends in the battle.
Their deaths started a conflagration in Washington, as some senior lawmakers revealed that they had no idea that US soldiers were even in Niger. “I didn’t know there was 1,000 troops in Niger,” said Sen Lindsey Graham (R-SC) later in October (there were actually about 800 when Graham made the comment, and about 900 at the time of this writing).
“This is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography,” Graham continued. “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world militarily and what we’re doing.”
On September 16, 2001, then-US president George W Bush signed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF). The bill, which passed Congress with only a single “nay” vote, authorized the president to use “necessary and appropriate force” against those who he had reason to believe “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon that left 3,000 Americans dead.
More than 16 years later, the AUMF is still in effect and still being used as justification for US military expeditions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East due to a clause saying that the AUMF also authorizes the president “to deter and preempt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.”
This includes the US forces stationed in Niger, fighting local militant groups and offshoots of al-Qaeda and Daesh that didn’t exist in 2001.
The AUMF was most recently challenged in June by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who attempted to repeal it in mid-2017. House Republican leadership killed the attempt, but this sparked a debate in the Senate over the legality of the AUMF.
“What we have today is basically unlimited war — war anywhere, anytime, any place on the globe,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) during the Senate debate in September. “I don’t think anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty believes these authorizations allow current wars we fight in seven countries.”
The attempt to end the AUMF also died in the Senate.