Mattis Is Angered by Press on Niger Coverage, Says 'War Is War'

On Thursday, Defense Secretary James Mattis slammed media coverage of the October 4 ambush in Niger that resulted in the deaths of four U.S. special forces soldiers. 

The defense secretary said the incident is under investigation and somewhat impatiently stated, "We at the Department of Defense like to know what we are talking about before we talk. We do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it."

Mattis took particular issue with implications Sergeant La David Johnson had somehow been abandoned during the ambush. Johnson was separated from the 12-man Green Beret team he was a part of as they were attacked by dozens of militants believed to be linked to ISIS.

"One point I would make having seen some of the news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind," Mattis said. "I would just ask that you would not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once."

Mattis also asked the press to not "confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this."

Clearly heated about a difficult situation, Mattis added, "War is war and these terrorists are conducting war…on innocent people. There's a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, because we carry guns and so it's a reality, part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorist campaigns." 

But it's somewhat curious for him to label U.S. involvement in Niger as "war." The U.S. is not officially at war in Niger and most Americans likely didn't even know the U.S. military was involved in the country until this recent deadly incident. The U.S. military has been present in Niger since 2013 and roughly 800 U.S. troops are stationed there. A major drone base is also being built near the city of Agadez, in central Niger

The four U.S. soldiers killed on October 4 were part of an effort to train Nigerien troops. 

"Mostly we're providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support, but also we have troops on the ground," Mattis said. "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 and the loss of our troops is under investigation."

Mattis also said the soldiers in Niger were not expected to meet hostilities. 

In this context, perhaps Mattis could have chosen his words more carefully. Suggesting the U.S. is at "war" in Niger only bolsters arguments from critics who say the U.S. needs to make its mission in Niger, and Africa more broadly, decidedly more clear.