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What You Should Know About The U.S. In Niger


White House chief of staff John Kelly is a retired Marine Corps general and a Gold Star father. Kelly's son was a Marine officer who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. With that experience, he advised President Trump on what to say to the families of four soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month. And today, Kelly stepped into the political firestorm over the president's condolence calls to military families. Kelly said Trump did the best he could and that the criticism of his remarks is a disservice to the memory of those who died and their families.


JOHN KELLY: Let's not let this maybe last thing that's held sacred in our society - a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country - let's try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday.

SHAPIRO: In just a moment, we'll hear how some veterans view all of this. First we're going to hear more about the military operation in which those four U.S. soldiers were killed. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here with us. Hi, Tom


SHAPIRO: What have you learned about what happened in Niger?

BOWMAN: Well, we still don't know a lot about exactly what happened, but what we do know is these soldiers were on a patrol with local troops. And they had gone on similar patrols many times before, but this time coming back, they came under an ambush, as many as 50 or so ISIS fighters, they're saying. And four American soldiers were killed. Two were wounded. But I'm told they're on the mend.

And then French war planes and helicopters responded, and the fight came to an end. Now, one of those killed was somehow separated from his comrades, and there was a desperate search by U.S., local troops and French troops for him. And he was found within two days. Now, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis talked about this today. Let's listen.


JAMES MATTIS: The loss of our troops is under investigation. We in the Department of Defense like to know what we're talking about before we talk. And so we do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it.

SHAPIRO: Tom, when the defense secretary says it's being investigated, can you tell us what specifically is being examined here?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, how did they come under an ambush, is the key question. Was it an intelligence failure, for example? And how was one soldier somehow separated from his comrades. I mean, that's pretty serious. That doesn't happen much. So those are some of the key questions. And there are some in the Pentagon who believe U.S. troops in this area are taking too many risks, so that will be looked at I'm sure as well.

And finally, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa, General Thomas Waldhauser, has said in the past that he doesn't have enough intelligence support, drones and reconnaissance equipment. So what role did that play here as well? And remember; the French had to come help the Americans, had to rescue them. And again, the general has said in the past also that he has an economy theater of operations, meaning other areas - Iran - Iraq, rather - Syria and Afghanistan get more equipment.

SHAPIRO: Can you explain what U.S. troops were doing in Niger in the first place, what the mission is there?

BOWMAN: Well, there are more than a thousand U.S. troops in this area, in this region, and they're training and advising, assisting African troops, going after terrorist camps and their leaders and trying to corral them as they either destable (ph) local governments or head up into Libya and then maybe onto Europe. So it's a counterterror mission really in the northern part of Africa.

SHAPIRO: How does this mission in Africa fit into the larger counterterrorism mission?

BOWMAN: Well, there are a lot of terrorist groups in Africa. You have Boko Haram. You have al-Qaida. You have ISIS all along this arc that goes from Mali all the way across to Somalia. It's an increasing threat. And again, there's a real concern that these groups will coalesce and eventually head up north into Libya and then across the Mediterranean into Europe, starting in Italy. So it's something that has been a great concern to American military commanders for quite some time.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks a lot, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.