The Niger Ambush and Leadership Accountability
Donald C. Bolduc
The only senior officer to receive a letter of reprimand so far is Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, the head of Special Operations forces in Africa, who was already planning to retire.
-- Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt - NYT
This paper addresses my concerns about issues raised by news media publicity surrounding the 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four Americans - members of U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) Team OUALLAM - and the perceived mishandling of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) investigation results by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
Chief among my concerns is that the fundamental problem - leadership (both the who and why) - will not be adequately addressed after the dusts settles on the investigation. As a former Commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) I recognize my share of the blame for the ambush. Of note was my inability to successfully get required resources to USSOF Teams during my command. As a result, my replacement - Air Force Major General J. Marcus Hicks - inherited a deficit in risk evaluation when he replaced me in June of 2017.
The shortfall in resources drove a requirement for continuous risk mitigation by USSOF Teams and the underwriting of risk by the SOCAFRICA Commander. The Team Commander made the call on mission execution. If he/she said it was too risky, then we did not do the mission, or we delayed the mission until the Team Commander had adequate resources.
It is no secret that I was vocal while on active duty concerning senior leadership shortfalls in providing the resources required to conduct our missions. Moreover, I have been vocal on this issue since I retired. I was also very vocal about insufficient policy and strategy and a senior leader lack of understanding of the African operational environment. The SOCAFRICA staff worked tirelessly to get resources validated to conduct assigned missions. Despite this effort, validated resources were not provided by SOCOM, AFRICOM, and the Joint Staff. Specifically, our shortfalls were with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, medical support, and personnel recovery. I consistently registered my nonconcurrence with decisions not to resource, but we had assigned missions to do, and did our best to prioritize and accomplish what we realistically could do. We developed an operational framework, an approach, and a mission command construct designed to maximize higher headquarter-level support to the executing tactical unit. We had a solid concept of operations approval process and a multi-level battle tracking and reporting process. In addition, we had a pre-mission training process and an in-theater transition plan, that if done properly would optimize the success of our tactical units. In my opinion, this required general officer’s attention to ensure deploying units did not get bogged down with tasks that interfered with mission preparation and transition.
I speak truth to power not to criticize, but to contribute to the improvement of systems and processes to support our most precious resource, our people and their families. I have a memorial in my office that is dedicated to the 72 men and women that I did not bring home from Afghanistan and Africa. Their sacrifice and that of their families, serves as a reminder to me of what is important, the price that is paid, and obligation I have to their memory to do my best every day. This is my “Why” to provide direction, purpose, and motivation to be a better leader, husband, father, and grandfather.
My 33 years of service included the post-Vietnam-Army, the Air Land Battle-Army, the post-Gulf War-Army, and the post 9-11-Army. During this time, I had the opportunity to make many leadership mistakes, and I did. I made mistakes as a leader, a father, and a husband. I had, 3-and 4-Star Generals tell me I would never get another star, I am not a good leader, that I view the world through my own perspective, I am self-serving, a micro manager, and not someone that should be leading Special Operation Forces. I even had one tell me I was not a good father. I took these observations and did my best to become a better person and leader. This is an important point to make, as I write this article from a perspective of humility, fully knowing and understanding my personal and professional shortcomings as a leader and a human being. It is unfortunate that as you grow, gain experience, and learn from your mistakes, that you do not get credit for improving or get the opportunity to continue and make a difference for the betterment of the people, families, and the mission you serve.
I believe our Special Operation Forces are the best in the world and I attribute this to the performance of our service members. I believe that there is a crisis in leadership due to an emerging parochial view that has led to counterterrorism primacy in SOF, poor talent management, and questionable senior leader selection. Our future success in large wars and in small wars will be dependent on leadership’s ability to maintain the trust of subordinates, improve leadership accountability without the pitfalls of becoming risk averse, improve talent management to better prepare our leaders for their jobs, and a senior leader selection process that is not JSOC-centric and is free of organizational nepotism.
The lack of emphasis we are placing on leadership accountability, talent management, and senior leader selection is causing Special Operations serious problems - not ethics issues at the team level. On ethics, there is a fine line between doing whatever is necessary to accomplish mission and cultural and military norms. Our SOF personnel know this and conduct themselves honorably. That said, it is impossible to control the behavior of every individual and there is no easy solution. The more SOF we put into the field, the more difficult the problem and the more critical the role of leadership. This is where leadership makes the most difference. Bad things are going to happen, it is how leaders handle those bad things that count. The number of ethic-related incidences in comparison to the size of the force, operations tempo, the number of countries SOF is deployed, and the number of missions being conducted statistically does indicate a problem with ethics. SOCOM can direct all the ethics training they want, but in the end, it comes down to the quality of leadership. Training has little effect. Changing culture and climate are a human dynamic and requires quantitative change that people can see and feel, not a training “stand down” – a mandatory event, competing with other mandatory stand downs, led by an instructor with little to no expertise or passion, directed at passionate personnel who, indeed, have pressing and important things to do with their limited time.
The SOCOM leadership (below) focus on ethics as the core issue is wrong and there is no way to describe the SOCOM SecDef memorandum (below) in any other way than terrible. At this point, I do not think anyone knows the real story, but just observing how this is being handled and how the blame has been distributed should concern us all. To change or impact culture and climate the most successful strategy is to begin with leadership tools, including a vision or the story of the future, cement the change in place with management tools, such as role definitions, measurement and control systems, and use the pure power tools of coercion and punishments as a last resort. Changing a culture and climate is a large-scale undertaking, and eventually all the organizational tools for changing minds must be utilized. You cannot begin by blaming your subordinates.
The Niger Ambush was tragic and there were significant problems that led to the ambush. It is difficult to follow the logic of accountability contained in public accounts and what sources have revealed of the 6000-page report. One thing is clear, the valor and bravery demonstrated by our service members during the ambush recreated in the DoD video deserves recognition.
The following six observations are of concern. First, the negative outcome of politicizing the Niger Ambush. Second, the mishandling of the public affairs aspects and the transparency of the investigation. Third, initially, blame being distributed at the lower levels. Fourth, throwing the team leader under the bus, then later rescinding his punishment. Fifth, hold the company commander accountable for not preparing the team for deployment and not the battalion commander or group commander. (It is important to note, that the company commander was home for the birth of his baby when the ambush occurred.) Sixth, adding the SOCAFRICA commander to the list and attributing blame to the previous SOCAFRICA commander, citing relationship problems with AFRICOM as the proximate cause of the ambush. The whole thing stinks of poor SOF senior leadership. The memorandum appears to be the ultimate “CYA” document and an attempt to eat its young and some in the retired ranks. You are either in the "in crowd" or you are not. If you are not, you are expendable. Blaming the SOCAFRICA and the AFRICOM Commander for letting their relationship be the cause of the Ambush in Niger is unfair. I know General Tom Waldhauser and he is a good man, professional, and he would never let a relationship endanger his service members. In the thousands of missions, I was responsible for during my 26 months in command, this type of incident did not occur. Attributing this to me 4 months after I left command does not make sense and is not logical. My relationship with AFRICOM was a typical TSOC relationship. Some days were better than other days, but regardless of the quality of the relationship, it never got in the way of supporting our service members. This type of circular and illogical approach to accountability is what happens when you do not look in the mirror to solve problems and you look out the window to find someone to blame. Military investigations have gained a reputation to determine blame and not to determine cause to solve problems.
There is a big lesson here for the Special Operations community: it needs to pull up its sleeves and become better at managing and preparing its senior leaders. The organizational nepotism, Joint Special Operations Command-centric (JSOC) advocacy-based go along to move along approach, and the Game of Thrones leadership selection process is hurting the SOF enterprise. This, in part, is responsible for putting unprepared SOF service members in harm’s way without proper leadership and resources. In the end, someone had to take the fall, so they served up General Hicks, blamed a previous commander, and questioned the professionalism of the AFRICOM commander. SOCOM’s approach served as an optic to “We took action against a GO” deflecting the responsibility from higher GO and civilian leadership levels.
The real responsibility and lessons that should be learned concerning the Niger mission resides several levels above the SOCAFRICA Commander and cascades down to the 0-5 level. Here are some of the mistakes senior officers made, and for which they should be held accountable to fix the problem:
1. Inadequate Pre-mission Training and a failure by the GO level HQs to ensure deploying teams were ready (SOCOM, USASOC, 1st SFC responsibility).
2. Inadequate in-theater transition of teams (SOCAFRICA responsibility).
3. Failure to battle-track tactical forces, poor mission planning, inadequate resources, (SOCFWD, SOTF, SOCAFRICA, AFRICOM responsibility).
4. The Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense failed to provide the proper resources to validated requirements of SOF Forces conducting missions in Africa.
5. AFRICOM and SOCOM are accountable and responsible for lack of resourcing, failure to understand the operational environment, and ensuring deploying teams were ready for their mission.
I noted earlier in this article my share of the blame, and I have accounted for this publicly and have acknowledged and provided my condolences to the families.
Brig. Gen. Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash. His Small Wars Journal articles can be found here.