WASHINGTON, D.C.—With U.S. military interventions in Africa facing increased scrutiny, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa (SOCAFRICA) sent an internal letter to his forces this week urging greater caution in the field.
This comes after the deaths of four U.S. soldiers on a controversial mission in Niger in October, and three recent investigations by The Daily Beast that revealed details about other incidents: the death of a Navy SEAL in Somalia in May, the alleged murder of a U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant by two Navy SEALs in June, and strong evidence that American soldiers participated in the massacre of 10 civilians in Somalia in August.
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing into “counterterrorism efforts in Africa” that addressed some of these issues. And this week, following indications that the internal investigation of the August incident may have been inadequate, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, requested the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) open an independent inquiry.
The letter to the U.S. Special Operations Forces of SOCAFRICA from their commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks, was sent out earlier this week. A copy was shown to The Daily Beast by a Pentagon official in Washington who prefers to remain anonymous.
The letter read: “To reinforce and clarify guidance going forward I would like to emphasize that we must reduce our risk exposure and build trust in our ability to exercise sound judgment and disciplined planning and execution.”
The letter urged Special Operations Forces to employ “an increased margin of safety” and lessen the likelihood of U.S. operators putting themselves in the line of fire.
Hicks continued: “I expect you to modify your assumptions about the level of risk you can accept. I expect you to plan and conduct operations with an increased margin of safety.… Back away from the edge, this is not Afghanistan or Syria.”
Hicks assumed the helm of U.S. Special Operations Africa, or SOCAFRICA, in June, a month after U.S. Special Operations Forces experienced their first combat death in Somalia since Black Hawk Down. In the six months Hicks has been in the position, SOCAFRICA has experienced four combat deaths in Niger, the death of 10 alleged civilians at the hands of U.S. Special Operators and their partner local force in Somalia, and the death of a Green Beret who allegedly was strangled by two Navy SEALs in Mali.
Each of these incidents has raised questions about the oversight or lack thereof of U.S. Special Operations Forces across the continent as well as the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa. The issue is politically sensitive because of the emphasis the Trump administration has put on freeing U.S. troops in the field from what was viewed by many in the Pentagon as excessive bureaucratic meddling and interagency second-guessing.
AFRICOM has repeatedly claimed that U.S. Special Operators “advise, assist, and accompany” local forces across Africa and take all measures to avoid engaging directly with enemy combatants.
But Maj. Gen. Hicks’ letter suggests that SOCAFRICA officials are concerned that potentially reckless behavior by U.S. Special Operations Forces puts their lives at unnecessary risk. The letter reminds U.S. Special Operators of the standard to which SOCAFRICA holds them, noting that U.S. Special Operations Forces are not to carry out missions in which there is a high likelihood they will encounter enemy forces and that operators are to communicate more with SOCAFRICA authorities in the process of conceiving and planning operations. “Exercising a capability is not a sufficient reason to plan or execute a mission. Activity does not equal progress,” Maj. Gen. Hicks wrote. “I want us to aggressively pursue strategic objectives which at least for the near term means less aggressively pursuing tactical objectives.”
Questions surrounding those strategic objectives were raised last week in a hearing in the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on counterterrorism in Africa, in which congressmen probed the efficacy of efforts by the Department of State and Department of Defense to counter violent extremism across the continent—and whether there was a coordinated strategy to do so at all.
Concerns about the State Department’s dwindling budget and the hemorrhage of career diplomats were raised repeatedly, as were fears that as the State Department’s redesign cuts resources, the Pentagon will try to fill in the policy gaps in countries like Somalia.
This sentiment was echoed in the resignation letter of Elizabeth Shackelford, a political officer in the U.S. mission in Somalia, which she sent to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week: “The [State] Department’s position within the interagency has also diminished, as we have ceded to the Pentagon our authority to drive U.S. foreign policy.… The cost of this is visible every day in Mission Somalia, my current post, where State’s diplomatic influence, on the country and within our own interagency, is waning.”
In the course of the hearing last week, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) urged Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy David Trachtenberg to conduct a further investigation into the Aug. 25 incident in Somalia in which U.S. Special Operators were involved in the death of 10 civilians.
“I served on active duty in the military. When it comes to terrorists, I believe we should hunt them down and kill them,” said Lieu. “But we should also protect civilians because it will harm our U.S. national security if we don’t.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” said Lieu. “That started under the Obama administration, civilian casualties started rising. It continues today.”
It was one week after that hearing that the head of U.S. Africa Command, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, called for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a primarily civilian body reporting to the secretary of the Navy that investigates criminal activities involving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, to look into a U.S.-led operation in Bariire, Somalia.
The NCIS investigation follows an initial investigation conducted by Special Operations Command Africa that concluded the 10 deaths from the operation were only those of enemy armed combatants.The AFRICOM press release stating the conclusion of the initial investigation was published 30 minutes after The Daily Beast published its own months-long investigation into the incident, the findings of which included strong evidence of U.S. Special Operators firing on unarmed civilians after acting on misinformation from questionable sources, which the Special Operators had not vetted sufficiently.
The raid seems to be the kind of operation Hicks has strongly advised against in his letter to SOCAFRICA troops. Following AFRICOM’s initial press release denying allegations of civilian casualties, AFRICOM officials stated that U.S. Special Operators acted in self-defense after being fired upon by militants and that those Special Operators were positioned behind Somali National Army soldiers as they approached their target.
Yet additional reporting by The Daily Beast directly contradicted that account. Instead, according to a Somali National Army (SNA) soldier who was with U.S. Special Operators on the raid, the American soldiers opened fire on two unarmed civilians who were making tea, after which SNA and American soldiers opened fire on eight other villagers, none of whom had shot at the joint U.S.-Somali forces. AFRICOM’s denial of civilian casualties sparked outrage among Somalis, who considered the investigation findings whitewashed and began to question the trustworthiness of the United States, which has been one of the Somali Federal Government’s strongest military allies.
“If they are killing innocent people and insisting they are killing enemies, it will only create anger and it will lose the confidence of the Somali people in the U.S. military here,” said one elder of the clan of those killed. (He spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity for fear that his remarks could jeopardize the $70,000 being paid to the families of each of those killed by the Somali government.) “[The U.S. military] should either leave or be honest about what happened.”
For the time being, the SOCAFRICA-wide letter sent by Maj. Gen. Hicks suggests that across the continent U.S. forces under his command will be dialing back special operations in countries like Somalia. “I have and will always backed you up [sic], but I cannot afford to be wrong about how well we conduct operations,” wrote Maj. Gen. Hicks. “Please ensure that I am never wrong about how professional you are.”
This reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.