The Department of Defense just released the public report on the ambush in Niger last October that killed four U.S. soldiers — a succinct eight-page summary of the reportedly 6,000-page classified version. If the The Wall Street Journal’s coverage earlier this month was any indication, the public conversation over the next few days will likely extend existing debates about the U.S. military presence in Africa, President Donald Trump’s delegation of authority to combatant commanders, and legal authorities for the use of military force abroad. But I hope the report will spur debate over another, less-often discussed question: Where is the line between so-called “accompany missions” and combat?
It seems like the kind of thing the secretary of defense should be able to answer. On Oct. 19, Secretary of Defense James Mattis responded to press queries about what happened in Niger by stating that “war is war.” He explained: “There’s a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there… because we carry guns and so it’s a reality, part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorist campaigns.” Soldiers with guns conducting campaigns sounds to many people like combat. Yet the next day, U.S. Africa Command released a carefully parsed statement asserting that “The U.S. military does not have an active, direct combat mission in Niger.” Eleven days later, Mattis’ references to war were gone, and he instead told a Senate panel that U.S. forces in Niger were operating “in a train-and-advise role.” Despite the apparent contrast between these statements, they can be and are true simultaneously. And that is a problem the Defense Department should, at long last, address out in the open.
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