Over the past year there have been numerous leadership failures at the highest levels of the military in regards to the October 2017 ambush of a Special Forces unit in Tongo Tongo, Niger. The latest is the reinstatement of a reprimand for the team leader, Capt. Michael Perozeni.
Since the ambush, four-star general officers have done everything in their power to avoid taking any responsibility for their command’s failures. Instead, they push blame down to the lowest possible levels, desperately searching for scapegoats to deflect blame from their careers and systemic failures within the services. The solution is not to fault soldiers under fire, but to fix the universal problems in higher commands.
Army Command Policy states, “Commanders are responsible for everything their command does or fails to do. However, commanders subdivide responsibility and authority and assign portions of both to various subordinate commanders and staff members. In this way, a proper degree of responsibility becomes inherent in each command echelon. Commanders delegate sufficient authority to Soldiers in the chain of command to accomplish their assigned duties, and commanders may hold these Soldiers responsible for their actions. Commanders who assign responsibility and authority to their subordinates still retain the overall responsibility for the actions of their commands.”
The Pentagon seems to believe that responsibility only rests on the shoulders of the lowest-level commanders. In Niger, it was Perozeni who told his superiors his unit was not properly equipped or supported to take on the mission. He subsequently followed his orders and had four of his soldiers killed. He was also shot. He performed admirably in a terrible situation and has been submitted for the Silver Star.
It is no surprise that former defense secretary James Mattis was the only man in the command structure to ask why senior leaders were not being held accountable. In December, The New York Times reported that he erupted in anger at generals and civilian leaders for only apportioning blame on the team leader.
The knee-jerk result was to rescind Perozeni’s reprimand and for the Army to reprimand the next-higher-level commander, Lt. Col. David Painter, who ultimately ordered the mission to go forward despite the pushback from the unit on the ground. Painter has now been removed from his next command, an Advise and Assist Battalion scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan, thus furthering the problem.
Painter deserves his share of the blame, but what if he hadn’t made the call to do this mission and this was their only shot at their objective, Doundou Chefou, code-named Naylor Road? What if he slipped away to conduct other attacks?
Now that Mattis is gone, the generals are free to exact their vengeance. The reprimand for Perozeni has been reinstated, for purportedly failing to prepare his unit for deployment and failing to prepare them for the mission at hand. Yet he arrived to the team only two months before deploying and had very little to do with the train-up. He also was not at the base for several weeks before that, due to medical issues.
The officer in command between Perozeni and Painter, Maj. Allen Van Saun, already received a permanent letter of reprimand, which is a career ender. Yet he was not even on the continent during the mission, due to his child being born. He was only in command for two months prior to deployment, and had little to do with the train-up schedule, which was interrupted by the USSOCOM-mandated exercise Jade Helm.
Oddly, the overall Third Special Forces Group commander at the time has received no reprimand for failing to train, equip, and command his forces. Col. Brad Moses, the commander of all West African special operations, has escaped all blame. He is a rising star in the special operations sector and is expected to be promoted to brigadier general. He is also the chief of staff at Army Special Operations Command. The command sergeant major of Third Group was not deemed to be of the same caliber, and has been relieved.
The only high-level blame was aimed at the Special Operations Command Africa commander, Maj. Gen Marcus Hicks, who was retiring anyway and an easy scapegoat. An Air Force officer by trade, he was commanding forces in a theater with fewer air assets than any other combatant command.
Even the former commander, ret. Gen. Don Bolduc, is having his name dragged in the dirt. He was known for outspokenly criticizing his superiors’ failure to properly resource his theater of operations while maintaining operational requirements. His career suffered for it. Nevertheless, he admits his shortcomings while pointing out Joint Staff and Combatant Commands’ failures to properly resource the numerous missions across the African continent.
Surprisingly, the organization responsible for all operations in Africa, AFRICOM, commanded by Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, was allowed to send its own chief of staff to conduct the investigation of the ambush, guaranteeing that nothing would be brought to light about AFRICOM’s lack of strategy, knowledge of the situation on the ground, or lack of support.
The Pentagon has reportedly “made improvements at all levels,” but officers involved in current operations have seen no changes to address these problems. American men and women are still being sent to far-off lands, under-trained, under-equipped, and under-staffed, to fight in conflicts that have little congressional oversight and little payoff for our global strategy.
In fact, the same people are still in command. Lt. Gen Francis Beaudette at USASOC, which has the responsibility to train and equip all special forces prior to deployment, and Gen. Tony Thomas at USSOCOM have been quick to punt the blame.
These were not the first teams of special operators to be deployed. Teams are all over the world right now doing dangerous missions. This could have easily happened in several other countries.
Numerous awards, including the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross, have been submitted for the soldiers involved in the ambush, but they remain locked in administrative processes. In February, Mattis directed the services to streamline their processing of valor awards, requiring a ten-day time limit per level of command approval.
We’ve seen failures in other services as well. Thanks to the phenomenal reporting by ProPublica, we’ve seen how decisions by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus have led to under-staffed, under-trained, and over-worked naval officers. The Navy relieved the Seventh Fleet commander, but this was also seen as scapegoating. Sailors on the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald said incompetence was the standard and it was only a matter of time until an accident occurred. Reporting shows that crews were completely overworked and under-trained.
Retention levels in the military are abysmal. Special Operations officers, who are among the best and brightest, and have been specially selected and trained, have a retention rate of around 40 percent. They are not staying in a profession where they are hung out to dry by senior officers who care more about their careers than about their soldiers and missions.
It is also expected that the enemy has a say in combat. No matter how well-laid your plans are, the enemy can still surprise you. Any time political and military leaders send our armed services on missions in foreign territory and across the high seas, there is a chance they can be killed, no matter the risk mitigation measures officers put on a PowerPoint presentation. Perhaps we should also rest some of the blame on the enemy.
America has had an all-volunteer force for more than four decades. When mothers and fathers send their children off to serve, they want to know that they have the best possible leaders watching over them. The military has had an extraordinarily high level of public trust and confidence for years.
Unfortunately, the military is infected with the same level of incompetence at the highest levels as other organizations. It’s time the American people realized this, and forced our elected leaders to take greater interest and control in military affairs. Leadership failures of this magnitude disrespect our sons and daughters who serve, denigrate the armed services, and cannot be allowed to continue.