In the document, his command places initial blame on two junior officers who he said inappropriately tasked and approved a mission a day before the ambush, though a more senior leader ordered the 11-man Special Operations team to take on a riskier mission. He tasked his own chief of staff with investigating the incident.
“I take ownership for all the events connected to the ambush of 4 October. Again, the responsibility is mine,” Waldhauser said Thursday.
But what is not clear is what happens next, and if accountability or punishment or discipline is on the table for senior commanders.
The Pentagon’s slim, eight-page executive summary answered few questions. In the absence of the full 180-page report — which officials have said must be carefully reviewed and redacted before it is publicly released — many other questions and concerns are unaddressed.
How did the enemy gather in such a large group and remain undetected?
The summary and official remarks Thursday did not shed much light on a major issue: how roughly 100 militants were able to mass, plan and coordinate a complex assault with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and trucks with mounted heavy weapons.
That kind of activity would have created dust clouds as pickup trucks and motorcycles with roaring engines crisscrossed the shrub land. Militants at one point set up in a wooded area near the road to attack from multiple angles, as the team grasped that the attack was much larger than they first anticipated.
Some members of the 11-man team had left the ambush site, unaware three soldiers were left behind 700 meters away. They also came under heavy fire in their position, indicating enough enemy forces effectively coordinated to break off and pursue the second group of soldiers.
Killed in the battle were Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29; and Sgt. La David Johnson, 25. Black and Wright were Special Forces soldiers, while both Johnsons were conventional soldiers assigned to the same 3rd Special Forces Group team.
Why did the commander pull surveillance aircraft away?
Waldhauser revealed a key detail about the surveillance posture.
Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212 commander Capt. Michael Perozeni directed a surveillance aircraft to head north of their position and monitor “crossing points” at the Mali border after they reached their objective the night before the ambush, and believed enemy forces were not in the immediate area.
But Waldhauser did not explain why the aircraft was diverted. That aircraft may have helped spot consolidating enemy forces or other activity that would have warned about an imminent attack.
It is possible Perozeni was concerned enemy troops would mass in Mali and head to their position, but officials did not elaborate.
How did senior commanders respond during the attack?
The patrol on Oct. 3 was initially filed as a routine reconnaissance mission near Mali’s border by Perozeni and another Army captain planning it. No one higher in the chain of command was “aware of the true nature of the mission,” which was designed to pursue a high-value target, according to the Pentagon summary.
Yet after they came up short and left to return to their base, the battalion commander overseeing those forces, based in Chad, ordered the team to pursue a target on recent intelligence showing he was at a camp.
The team was to back up an air assault force, but bad weather forced them to turn back. The commander in Chad still ordered the team to pursue the target.
That means he would have understood his forces faced increased risk, and likely, other senior commanders did as well.
But it is not clear if the battalion commander revised the plan to accommodate for increased danger with resources like more intelligence aircraft, or if he notified reaction forces they should be on alert in case enemy forces were encountered.
Delays in friendly response during and after the ambush were significant. A Nigerien helicopter took off 40 minutes after the request for support, and left the area to avoid a collision with responding French Mirage jets.
Those jets were armed, but could not engage because they did not have radio contact with U.S. troops and could not identify their positions. A Nigerien ground force arrived more than six hours after enemy contact.
The report does not say why senior commanders did not coordinate details with those aircraft beforehand. Synchronizing radio frequencies with ground and air support and ensuring their communication is a fundamental task for commanders in operations centers.
Why wasn’t the team more prepared?
A draft report obtained by The Post included one detail later removed from the final report: only two members of the 11-man team were wearing “personal protective equipment” when the ambush began — a reference to body armor and helmets. Some quickly put on their armor during the ambush while others did not.
Additionally, the team did not conduct pre-mission drills with their Nigerien counterparts, the report found.
But it is not clear why they were not wearing their protective equipment, and the report does not say which commander, either in Special Operations Command or Africa Command, is ultimately responsible for violating regulations for troops operating in dangerous environments.
Though the team deployed together to Niger in 2016, personnel turnover atrophied cohesion before their 2017 deployment, the report found. Only half of the team conducted unified training before assuming command of the area on Sept. 1 — only a month before the ambush.
It is unclear from the report how well the team’s previous deployment prepared them for the 2017 mission. It focused operations near the capital of Niamey and the porous border with Mali, a thicket of insurgent activity with groups aligned with the Islamic State.
The team’s 2016 deployment, by contrast, centered on Maradi, some 411 miles east of Niamey and on the border with Nigeria. Forces there contend with the Boko Haram terror group in a conflict regionally and culturally distinct from the militancy near Mali.
Whether the team should have been tasked with taking on dangerous missions with gaps in cohesion in training is a concern yet to be answered by senior leadership.
Will anyone be punished for command failures?
The report summary did not recommend punishment for any command decisions. That is left up to Special Operations Command and the Army, Waldhauser said.
A military official said the full report singles out three people for possible fault, though it is unclear if that includes Perozeni and the other captain.
Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor, told The Washington Post that even with no official punishment, the episode will likely permanently blemish their careers.
The executive summary revealed little about how much accountability should rest on the battalion commander who ordered the capture mission, or other senior leaders responsible for ensuring troops were adequately trained and had ready and timely support.
Perozeni had warned commanders before the mission that his team was not adequately provided intelligence or equipment necessary for a kill or capture mission, the New York Times reported.
Notably, the investigation was handled by Army Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., who is Waldhauser’s chief of staff at Africa Command.
Put another way, the command investigated itself amid questions its senior leaders could have contributed to failures of situational awareness and command oversight in this mission and in Niger itself.
Christensen said Africa Command has shied away from publicly blaming senior commanders, saying it is an example of “different spanks for different ranks” — military parlance for meting out harsh penalties for junior troops while senior leaders escape accountability.
“It seems like an intentional avoidance. There is enough smoke there to make you think: ‘why aren’t you looking above them?’ ” Christensen said, referring to the two captains.
Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.