MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's been five months since that attack on U.S. soldiers in Niger. Four Americans died, and troops from Niger were also killed when they came under attack by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Today on Capitol Hill, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, said the Pentagon's investigation of what went wrong is now in the hands of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
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GENERAL THOMAS WALDHAUSER: Once the secretary completes his review and the families have been briefed, I intend to provide a comprehensive and detailed account of the investigation to you as soon as possible.
KELLY: Waldhauser was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, and NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman was listening. Hey, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, there.
KELLY: So the general not giving a lot of detail yet about what's in this Pentagon report - what do we know about what happened in Niger?
BOWMAN: Well, what we know is the mission of these American soldiers changed. It started out as one of a routine meeting of village leaders in the area. Then they were told to check out a location farther away near where a militant was known to operate. And coming back from this mission, they ran into an ambush, didn't have enough firepower and were all killed. Now, this new mission was approved by a lower-ranking officer, I'm told, because it was seen as low-risk. So the first question will be, was it wise to do this in the first place? What do you do if something goes wrong and you don't have the firepower? It's possible you could see some disciplinary action out of this report and a much more rigorous approval process for missions. But military officers I talk with say, listen; that could be cumbersome. There are a lot of missions going on in Africa, Northern Africa. American troops at times come in contact with terrorists and, more often than not, return fire. And they worry about micromanagement.
KELLY: One of the other issues, I recall, was no air support. French aircraft were called in to help. But by the time they got there, it was too late. What lessons is the military taking from that?
BOWMAN: Well, General Waldhauser said he would like more medevac helicopter, for example, more drones. And that would help in these kinds of missions. Of course in the fights in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, they're taking up a lot of that equipment. And the general also talked about the vast distances here. If you look at a map, Niger is about twice the size of Texas. And the problem is right now you have few airfields where the U.S. can operate, and some countries don't want a large U.S. presence for political reasons. And you also have relatively few American troops for that mission.
KELLY: Talk about - a big area, Niger, as you said - even bigger area, Africa - because this, you know, ambush raised a lot of questions about what the U.S. mission in Africa is, a mission where the U.S. has about 6,500 U.S. service members.
BOWMAN: That's right. The main mission right now, Mary Louise, is going after these terrorist groups in northern Africa. And it spans an arc from Somalia into Libya, Niger and Mali and then training up local forces. There's also a large humanitarian mission. Remember the Ebola outbreak a few years back, and the U.S. went to help there. And then there's also an effort to try and counter Chinese and Russian expansion in Africa by working with local governments. And a big part of that is spending American money on development.
KELLY: Briefly, Tom, one thing General Waldhauser said today that caught my ear was he said very few solutions to Africa's problems are military solutions. What did he mean?
BOWMAN: Well, the general said he often gets asked, has the U.S. militarized its policy in Africa? And he said that development is the long-term solution - getting people jobs and housing and good health care so they're not enticed by these terrorist groups. Here's the problem. The proposed budget for the U.S. government aid program is being cut by billions of dollars.
KELLY: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.