Confusion Lingers Over Deaths Of 4 U.S. Soldiers In Niger Congress is demanding answers about the mission. NPR's Melissa Block talks to retired Army officer John Nagl about the mission and President Trump's condolence calls to the families.
NPR logo

Confusion Lingers Over Deaths Of 4 U.S. Soldiers In Niger

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/559336302/559336303" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Confusion Lingers Over Deaths Of 4 U.S. Soldiers In Niger

Confusion Lingers Over Deaths Of 4 U.S. Soldiers In Niger

Confusion Lingers Over Deaths Of 4 U.S. Soldiers In Niger

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/559336302/559336303" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Congress is demanding answers about the mission. NPR's Melissa Block talks to retired Army officer John Nagl about the mission and President Trump's condolence calls to the families.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There is still a lot of confusion over just how four U.S. soldiers died in Niger earlier this month. The Pentagon's Africa Command is investigating the ambush. The FBI has its own inquiry. Members of Congress are demanding answers about the soldiers' mission and what went fatally wrong. And on top of that, there is the heated debate over President Trump's condolence call to the family of one of the soldiers killed, Sgt. La David Johnson. Joining me to talk through this is John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He helped write the Army and Marine Corps's Field Manual on counter insurgency. John Nagl, welcome to the program.

JOHN NAGL: It's good to be back, Melissa.

BLOCK: And what are some of the key questions that you have still about this mission in West Africa and what went wrong?

NAGL: So I've been on a number of similar missions when I was serving in Iraq in Al Anbar, Iraq, back in 2003 and 2004. These are meet-and-greet missions. They're designed to gain atmospherics to get a sense of what the community needs and why the community is supporting or at least not turning in insurgents in the region. But I did those missions when we had literally 100,000 U.S. troops backing me up. I had power and support. There are about 800 U.S. troops in Niger. These troops don't have all of the support that I had - that they've been requesting drones. Those resources have been denied to them, apparently, by the ambassador to Tunisia - or the U.S. ambassador.

So the biggest question I have is, are we properly resourcing our guys on the ground, trying to do these difficult and important missions? And then what is our broader strategy? These guys are confronting the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, ISGS. Are we providing the State Department resources, the intelligence resources they need to perform effectively to strengthen this society against this insurgent threat?

BLOCK: So a lot of questions still to be answered there. I want to turn to this very public argument over the president's condolence call that I mentioned. And why don't we leave aside for now what the president said to the widow but focus on the response from Gen. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, whose own son was killed in Afghanistan? He defended the president. And then he went on to describe a real gulf of understanding between service members and the rest of the American public. I'd be curious to hear your take on how he approached that and whether you think it was helpful.

NAGL: So I'm - I've been a big fan of Gen. Kelly. I think that he has served his country admirably and well. And in particular, I've been very impressed with his own personal reaction - his family's reaction - to the loss of his son in combat in Afghanistan in 2010. I don't believe that it is impossible for people who have not served in the military to understand the challenges and the risks inherent in military service. And I don't think it's helpful to emphasize those gaps, those differences.

I think that anyone who's had a child in peril can understand what it feels like - something of what it feels like - to lose a son in combat. And in particular, I've always thought that - and here I give the president a little bit of room. I understand something of what he was trying to convey to Sgt. Johnson's widow when he said, apparently, he knew what he was signing up for. So soldiers who die in combat are doing something they've volunteered to do in this all-volunteer force. They're doing something they believe in. They are serving with people they love. And they are trying to protect the rest of the American people.

BLOCK: Let me ask you this also. Reporters got a warning from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about this. She said, if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that's something highly inappropriate. What do you make of that?

NAGL: I couldn't possibly disagree more with that. Those who are responsible for the lives of America's sons and daughters in combat are absolutely answerable to every American - not just every American parent - but to every American. So we take on - I was a serving officer for 20 years. I have a responsibility to the soldiers who serve under my command in my unit to use those resources - the most precious resources America has, the lives of our sons and daughters - to use them as wisely as possible. And if there are losses, I should be questioned. And I question myself. At 3 in the morning...

BLOCK: Yeah.

NAGL: ...I wake up, and I see the faces of the soldiers who I lost in my unit. And I think to myself, what did I do wrong?

BLOCK: Yeah.

NAGL: What could I have done differently? What could I have done better? Every...

BLOCK: OK. I'm afraid we have to leave it there, John Nagl.

NAGL: Everyone has to answer that question.

BLOCK: Thank you so much for your time. That's retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. Again, thanks so much.

NAGL: Thank you, Melissa.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.