WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2017 —
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Defense Department will make a report on the recent deaths of U.S. soldiers in Niger when it is appropriate and asked the media to not second-guess the leaders of the operation on the ground.
Mattis, speaking just before a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, expressed his condolences to the families of the four soldiers.
“I just say we honor the troops, every one of them,” he said. “Every life is critical. These young people look past the hot political rhetoric and sign up, volunteer for the armed forces. They’re part of the 1 percent that are willing to do so in our country, these young men and women.”
The secretary said the United States has been working to improve the combat capabilities and capacities of nations in West Africa to defeat the terrorist threats represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other terror groups who “foment instability and murder and mayhem.”
The United States has about 1,000 troops in the region who work with about 4,000 French service members. “We’re providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support,” he said. “But also we have troops on the ground. Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training, and we actually do these kinds of missions by, with and through our allies.”
Mattis said the soldiers’ deaths are 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,” he said. “We will release it as rapidly as we get it because we are very proud of our troops.”
The department investigates whenever there is a death or serious accident.
“At the same time, war is war, and these terrorists are conducting war on innocent people of all religions,” the secretary said. “They’re conducting war on innocent people who have no way to defend themselves. And I would just tell you that in this specific case, contact was considered unlikely.”
The possibility of contact with the enemy a consideration when training allied troops, the secretary said. “It is often dangerous; we recognize that,” he said. “We have been unapologetic about standing by our allies and certainly, the French, with 4,000 troops [in the region], have been engaged down there for years and have lost many, many more troops.”
Mattis only recommends placing troops in such situations if it is in the best interests of the American people.
“One point I would make having seen some of the news reports -- the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind, and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and [not] question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once,” the secretary said. “And I would also ask -- don’t confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDODNews)