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When news first emerged that four American special operators and five Nigerians had been killed in a deadly ambush on the 4th of October 2017, it catapulted the hitherto, little-known United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) presence in Niger into the limelight.

Almost immediately, Senators were poring  back over the documents they had been briefed on concerning United States combat operations in the region.

Many of them admitted they had not been aware of the scale or nature of the US presence in Niger. Some commentators suggested they should have been paying more attention. Lora Lumpe and Jacob Marx of the Open Society Foundation stated, “Either the Pentagon has not been informing Congress, or it is sending updates…but nobody is reading them.”

A United States Marine adviser speaks with the leaders of an African special forces unit during a training exercise. (Master Sgt. Jeremiah Erickson/U.S. Air Force Photo)

The release of a public incident report is imminent, which will see the Trump administration and USAFRICOM asked to account for the decisions made in the run-up to the operation, as well as broader special forces operations in West Africa. The report may also contain lessons for British troops and commanders. The United Kingdom (U.K.), alongside the U.S., has been increasingly relying on its special forces to provide boots, eyes, and ears on the ground against groups such as the Islamic Statis in Iraq and Syriaal-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram.

However, as U.S. decision-makers assess—and, importantly, learn from—the mistakes of the past, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the rigid no-comment policy that surrounds Britain’s own use of special forces means that similar learning processes are impossible on this side of the Atlantic. Contrary to practice in the U.S., parliamentarians are not briefed on the activities of the U.K.’s special forces or the broader strategy for their use as part of British defence and security policy.

THE UK SYSTEM

The stock response to any question about British special forces is that “the MOD’s [the Ministry of Defence] long-held policy is not to comment on special forces.” Former chair of the U.K. Foreign Affairs Select Committee Crispin Blunt noted that while this makes sense for sharply in, and sharply out activities, where special forces are deployed on one specific mission, such as a strike against a key individual, and could be imperilled by operational disclosures. However, Blunt argues that “if [operations] are part of a strategy you would expect that strategy to be overseen.”

As in the U.S., the role of U.K. special forces is far broader than sharply in, and sharply out activities, and the post-9/11 environment has seen them deployed across the world to counter threats to the U.K. Not only does this require special forces to be deployed for much longer periods of time, but—in some areas of the world—a reluctance to deploy regular troops after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan means that special forces can be the only British boots on the ground.

In light of this, at a House of Commons Defence Committee hearing the Chair of the Defence Committee, Members of Parliament Julian Lewis asked Sir Michael Fallon, then-U.K. Secretary of State for Defence, whether it would be sensible for Parliament to fill “what is apparently a scrutiny gap over the activities of U.K. special forces.” As Lewis noted, the U.K. is increasingly isolated in its rigid ‘no comment’ policy in comparison with, for example, the U.S., who, as was seen above, appear to recognise the advantages that opening up their special forces deployments to greater scrutiny presents. Unfortunately, Fallon responded: “We simply don’t comment on special forces activities.

THE NIGER CASE

In response to criticisms of the deadly ambush, which took place near the Nigerien village of Tongo Tongo, the Trump administration began an inquiry into the attack. While the incident report has not yet been released, there have already been a number of statements and leaks indicating some of its findings. U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, said, “[The Department of Defense] is looking at all aspects, not just to this specific incident but to the broader circumstances surrounding that incident, so you get a holistic view.” It also appears that the report has been relatively frank about the mistakes that were made. The New York Times claims that the report “describes a string of errors and bad decision-making” and will call for “the Pentagon to scale back the number of ground missions in West Africa, and to strip commanders in the field of some authority to send troops on potentially high-risk patrols.”

The Trump administration has faced a lot of criticism in the wake of the ambush—not least because of his very public argument with the widow of one of the soldiers killed on the operation. Many link Trump’s efforts “to loosen Obama-era restrictions and give the military more decision-making authority to move faster on raids, airstrikes and bombing missions” with the mistakes made. However, once again, the mechanisms which allow U.S. policy-makers to ask important strategic questions about military engagement abroad should provide food for thought for the U.K., whose no-comment policy over the deployment of special forces undermines the ability to have this same level of debate.

U.K. OPACITY IN THE FACE OF ALLIED TRANSPARENCY

The U.S. is not an isolated case. In November 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a press conference in which he discussed increasing Canada’s contingent of special forces in Iraq, where it has been confirmed that they are operating under a mandate that allows them to accompany Kurdish forces up to and across front lines, and into battle.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former President Barack Obama in 2014 (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In the same month, then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that 200 special forces members had been cleared to deploy to Iraq, to advise and assist local security forces in the fight against the Islamic State. In April 2016, the Australian Defence Inspector General announced the beginning of an investigation into the internal culture of the special forces following a period of high-intensity deployments in the post-9/11 period.

French officials have traditionally echoed their British counterparts and insisted that “we never go into details about anything to do with special forces.” However, this is starting to change. For example, in December 2017 the head of the French special forces approached  the Assemblée Nationale to speak in depth about their resourcing, recruitment, and recent operations. He responded to questions about equipment, overstretch, and the evolving strategy of France’s enemies.

While not every deployment of special forces is announced by Britain’s allies, there is nevertheless the expectation that the public should be kept as informed as possible, and that debate on special forces activities abroad should not be unreasonably restricted. This does not appear to be impeding their operational effectiveness—the U.S. and France in particular continue to use their special forces to great effect. Instead, it provides their legislatures and wider public with an important opportunity to question government strategy and debate the implications of their involvement in conflicts overseas.

THE DANGERS OF THE NO-COMMENT POLICY

The Niger incident demonstrates that even elite and special operators are not immune to making mistakes. It also looks likely that the incident report will highlight shortfalls in strategic decision-making. This demonstrates the importance of reviewing past mistakes in a way that maintains operational security but allows for key lessons to be learned.

In 2016, the U.K. Foreign Affairs Committee warned that the lack of such system in the U.K. “increases the danger that [special forces] operations can become detached from political objectives.” There is also a risk that government expectations of secrecy become detached from the realities of the world in which its special forces operate, to the detriment of their effectiveness.

As the U.K.’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review stated, “The growth of communications technology will increase our enemies’ ability to influence, not only all those on the battlefield, but also our own society directly. We must therefore win the battle for information, as well as the battle on the ground.” The British government’s unwillingness to engage in debates around its deployment of special forces is increasingly unhelpful in an era of smartphones  and growing access to the internet across the globe. This effectively surrenders the narrative about where and why U.K. forces are deployed to those posting their pictures online. For example, in 2015 former Prime Minister David Cameron promised Parliament that the U.K. would not deploy ground troops to Syria. However, in June 2016 reports began to emerge that U.K. special forces were on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State.

Minimizing the disclosure of these operations may also serve to exacerbate constraints on military action, especially in a climate of risk aversion and skepticism over entanglements abroad. One major scandal could result in huge restrictions being placed on U.K. military intervention, as could a steady drip of media information that raises suspicions and fuels accusations of government deception.

CONCLUSION

The U.K. government should look closely at the Niger incident report. The U.S. looks set to engage in a frank discussion about what went wrong, and more generally raise a number of concerns about the deployment of U.S. special forces to West Africa. It is indicative of a recognition within the U.S., as among many of the U.K.’s allies, that greater openness is not inherently incompatible with the operational security or utility of special forces. Instead, it is seen as a learning opportunity, and a vital mechanism for improving overall strategy. As the U.S. Senate debates the Niger incident and the lessons for future deployments, the U.K. government should consider its own options. Its no-comment policy is not risk free and presents a number of dangers to the effectiveness of U.K. military engagement abroad. The U.S. made mistakes that led to the Niger incident, but looks set to learn lessons in its aftermath—the U.K. must ensure it can do the same.


Abigail Watson is a research officer at the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Warfare Programme. She researches and presents on the military, legal, and political implications of light-footprint warfare. She can be found on Twitter at @remote_warfare.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge, and appears here courtesy of RealClearDefense here.

33 COMMENTS

  1. Hmmmm.

    If my understanding of the article is correct the writer proposes something like our current ISC to scrutinise things, and they can only see so much, and rightly so.

    You can only go so far with this stuff.

  2. I seriously disagree with this article. Briefing congress on the activities of special forces is one thing, American politicians are extremely friendly to the military and would for the most part do what is best for the various components of SOCOM.

    We’ve already seen how UK parliamentarians act towards the military. The leader of the opposition party is an avowed enemy of the armed forces, celebrating any killed in action by the IRA and even has a past of spying for the Soviets. He surrounds himself with a like minded clique who would love nothing more than to scrap most of the military. Is that SERIOUSLY the man you want being briefed on special forces missions?

    Giving parliament oversight won’t help our special forces. MPs will just use their new power to frustrate and shackle them.

  3. Something needs to be done. The Government uses the special forces because they are afraid to put boots on the ground. This way, they dont have any accountability or oversight.

  4. there is two ways of looking at this. The current position means that the special forces are free to act quickly and without the public eye on them, they are at less risk of being targeted by the enemy. The counter argument is accountability brings results, the army would still be using the snatch land rover if it wasn’t for the mass outcry and finger pointing by the media that resulted in the funds being made available to buy alternative options. Our special forces are very well training and experienced but we havnet got a clue if their equipment is up to the job.

    • UKSF have there own budget for equipment and can purchase it from anywhere either within or outside the UK unlike the regular army who are given any piece of crap…

      • being able to buy from anywhere isn’t the same as being able to afford the gear you need. Also I thought this only applied to the SAS/SBS and not all arms of UKSF.

    • The issue the article is an oversimplification. Congress and the Senate do not involve themselves unless something goes wrong. Also in the US what you hear in a public heari and a closed one are often entirely opposite. What members of Congress (Armed Services Committee) and (Foreign Relations Committee) go out of their way to deny or conceal how much they know/knew and when they learned it. The Military wants this because it provides more freedom of action.
      As for Africa being a little known theater for the US. Only in Europe and only in comparison to the European and Pacific theaters. Operations there scaled up rapidly after France intervened in Mali in 2013 causing terrorists to flee across the borders to places like Chad, Niger and Nigeria. When Boko Haram grew out of control in Nigeria the US started to intervene. Since Trump has come in office much more heavily. While eliminating the problem there it has caused the Terrorists to run back into Mali.

  5. The above states “the Dangers of “No comment on Special Forces” engagements, well the dangers of declaration are far more “dangerous” once the Bleeding Hearts, do gooders , Human rights Brigade, Show boat politicians et al get their hands on operations.
    Leave it as is , it works,

  6. Another Academic writing on a subject as far removed from her daily life as it’s pissible to be. Her final sentence of “The UK must ensure it must do the same” is nothing but her own polemic. The UK can and does take great care in scrutinising and approving its SF ops (and btw US SF is a term used much more broadly than in the UK) – we have an elected government and right up to the PM has oversight of SF activities in principle. That’s good for me enough as far as such Ops are concerned.

  7. If the commanders made mistakes leading to a tragedy I am sure they are capable of changing future tactics and strategies to reduce the chances of it happening again without help from the ‘Open Society Foundation’, funded by George Soros.

    • I don’t get this statement. We live in a democracy, where the government is accountable to the people, in other words us. Undertaking secret wars is not accountable and goes against our values as a country. it’s one thing keeping special forces mission secrets in countries where we have an active engagement and parlimentary dictate for action, it’s another where they are used to get around the no ground forces rule.

      • Again the article over simplified the US system. Armed Services/Defense Committees and the Foreign Relations Committees of the House and Senate are the only ones “read in” on these actions routinely. Even then a representative is only briefed on their are of oversight. That is all that is required to satisfy the Constitutional and Legal oversight requirements. Anyone else wanting information must demonstrate a “need”, for the material. Hence the term in America, “This is need to know information and you don’t need to know.”
        Enough is given to make sure that Congress is informed or at least enough to provide “advice and consent.” However not enough to say give a shrill congresswoman of Florida in a pink cowboy hat or a aging communist from Vermont military secrets.

      • Democracy?
        Values as a country?
        Parliament?
        Accountable to the people?
        Strange then that hundreds of MP’s are currently doing their upmost opposing democracy concerning Brexit.

        Well I never!

        As for secret wars if HMG think they are necessary due to being privy to intelligence the Labour party and others are not privy to I have no problem with that myself.

        • The stats indicate that if the majority of people had voted during the brexit vote the outcome would be different. Almost 2 years down the road and looking for a 2nd vote in light of the likely deal we will get and clear evidence that both sides lied to the public during the vote. At this stage I am not sure anyone can really state the people voted for brexit, who knows what the outcome out be if there was another vote.

          The opposition doesn’t just give up when they lose they keep representing the people that did vote for them and this is democracy. Even if you consider the vote as it stands, almost half voters wanted to stay and don’t they deserve to be represented by our government, just as much as the leavers.

          • No that is a fair point Steve. Not their finest hour.

            I feel though our intelligence community can hardly be judged by the political interference of the dodgy dossier.

            I hold them in great esteem I’m afraid.

          • My issue with that is that from my understanding most Labour constituencies voted to leave, two thirds I believe.

            So HM opposition MP’s doing their best to scupper it is hardly representing the people, the constituents of those same Labour MP’s whom voted leave.

            I could take your point further in that in any general election if the voters of the losing parties are taken into account and a democratic vote cancelled we may as well have anarchy and the party with most votes ignored and overthrown, that is not how elections work.

            But anyway, we are obviously at opposite ends on this Steve so we can respectfully disagree.

        • p.s. you mean the same Intel that took as to war with Iraq. yeah I have big problem with government acting without oversight.

          • this is the problem, Intel agents and military do not act on their own, they get the nod / preasure from the government, and that is where the oversight is needed.

            The military is a political tool and you shouldn’t split the two.

            Dodgy dossiers can’t be stopped but at least we can learn from what is going on in the ground and pull back if needed or equally reinforce.

  8. I generally believe that mission specific should he kept secret to protect lives but at a macro level transparency is needed. Do we have troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq and if so how many and what is their overall objective. There is no need to keep any of this secret and if parliament won’t vote for the mission then maybe the case for action isn’t there. The cabinet can not be the arbiter of the people since only a percentage voted for them, the house of commons has to be.

    Will it result in less missions probably but if you look at the history of the military decisions, most have been ill advised and people have died for nothing or worse died to make things more complicated.

    Unfortunately the government in hand holds the Intel information and uses for own purposes and I don’t see a better solution. some secrets have to be kept that way to protect lives.

    • I have concerns, but should we be letting the Syrian government or Isis know how many SF we have in Syria & with what remit? That would put their lives in more danger.

      • for me the trust that the government knows best and is not just doing something to be seen to be doing something, has been totally destroyed in the last decade. As such I think the risk is worth it.

        Too many silly wars / mini wars without a real objective or a way to know if they were a success or not.

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