The American military is investigating a weekend vehicle accident in Niger that killed a French soldier in which the driver, a United States Green Beret, is suspected of drunken driving, Defense Department officials said.
The fatal accident on Saturday — which occurred while the soldiers were off duty — comes as concerns about misconduct have put the American military’s elite forces under increased scrutiny in the past year. The Pentagon is already preparing to withdraw hundreds of troops from Africa as part of a strategy to shift military resources to counter threats from China and Russia.
Maj. Casey R. Osborne, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, said on Tuesday that the American soldier was evacuated to Europe for medical treatment and there was “an ongoing investigation into this incident.”
The French soldier, Brigadier-Chef Karim El Arabi, was treated at the scene and evacuated to Agadez, in central Niger, before he died early Sunday morning, Major Osborne said.
Two American military officials said the driver was believed to have been drinking before the accident. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
French media reported that Brigadier-Chef Arabi was with the 2nd régiment de Hussards de Haguenau. The accident happened on a base in Aguela, Niger, near the city of Arlit, an area where American commandos have been stationed.
The American soldier who was driving the vehicle, and has not been identified by name, suffered a head injury when the vehicle rolled over. He was assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group, the same unit that lost two of its members in a bomb blast in Afghanistan last month and was involved in an ambush in northern Niger in October 2017, when four American soldiers were killed.
Emmanuelle Lachaussée, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington, said in an email that “an investigation is ongoing” into the circumstance of Brigadier-Chef Arabi’s death but offered no further comment. The French have roughly 4,500 troops spread across West Africa’s Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, a mission to stop the spread of Islamic militants in the region.
The two American officials said Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of Africa command, emailed the commander of American commandos on the continent, Maj. Gen. J. Marcus Hicks, after the accident. General Waldhauser expressed concerns about poor discipline and allegations of crime among the Special Operation troops deployed to Africa, the officials said.
In May, two senior Navy SEALs stationed in East Africa were fired for sexual misconduct and two members of SEAL Team Six and two Marines have been charged in the strangling of an American Green Beret in Mali last year.
Provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved in August, “suggest growing congressional concern with misconduct, ethics, and professionalism” among Special Operations forces, according to an October report prepared by the Congressional Research Service. In turn, Congress has told the Pentagon to study the issue and report back on it next year.
In an unusual move for a high-ranking commander, the head of Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette, highlighted similar issues in a Nov. 29 memo that was first reported by the Army Times.
“Recent incidents in our formation have called our ethics and professionalism into question, and threaten to undermine the trust bestowed on us by the American people and our senior leadership,” General Beaudette wrote in the memo, a copy of which was also obtained by The New York Times.
Beyond Africa, other American commando units are under investigation for crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States, including stabbing to death a wounded Islamic State militant, beating an Afghan detainee and trying to smuggle cocaine from Colombia.