WASHINGTON — The Army is withdrawing the promotion of a senior Special Forces officer involved in the fatal Oct. 4, 2017, ambush in Niger, Defense Department officials said Friday. The attack resulted in the deaths of four Americans and exposed the United States military’s shortcomings in western Africa.
Col. Bradley D. Moses, the officer in charge of the Third Special Forces Group at the time of the attack, is the only officer in his unit involved in the episode who has escaped some form of punishment so far. His subordinates have been disciplined.
The decision to withdraw Colonel Moses’s promotion in many ways signals an end to the yearslong investigation into why a small unit of American troops found themselves stranded in the scrub of remote Niger, under siege from Islamist militants.
Colonel Moses, who approved the mission that led to the ambush, was destined for the rank of general, despite his role in the Niger episode. But on Friday, the Army, under pressure from Congress and even members of the service’s rank and file, yielded and reversed course.
Defense Department officials said that Ryan D. McCarthy, the Army secretary, was notifying the Senate Armed Services Committee that Colonel Moses’s nomination was being withdrawn.
The decision comes amid criticism that the American military is harsher in dispensing punishments to African-American officers than to their white counterparts.
The New York Times published an article this week comparing the Army’s effort to promote Colonel Moses, who is white, with the career-ending reprimand it gave an African-American colonel in the same Special Forces unit for his part in approving an American airstrike in 2010 in Afghanistan that killed 21 people, including children.
In the Niger ambush in 2017, Colonel Moses approved the mission, including a change in plans that made the operation more dangerous, and left the troops open to ambush.
“We don’t comment on nominations pending consideration by the Senate for confirmation,” Cynthia O. Smith, an Army spokeswoman, said Friday.
Colonel Moses has been well-liked by senior Army leadership and was a schoolmate of Mr. McCarthy at Virginia Military Institute. But the enlisted soldiers and even some officers have complained that his relationships with senior Army leaders protected Colonel Moses from what would have been career-ending repercussions for another officer in similar circumstances.
In the end, Mr. McCarthy took part in the decision to withdraw Colonel Moses’s promotion recommendation.
The colonel’s subordinate and battalion commander during the ambush, Lt. Col. David J. Painter, was punished after the attack but was still recommended for promotion to colonel. That nomination failed.
The Army’s efforts to promote Colonel Moses despite the Niger ambush have been challenged from the start.
Colonel Moses was nominated earlier this year for promotion to brigadier general. But in March, at the request of members of the Senate, he was temporarily removed from the initial list. The action by the Army on Friday makes that removal permanent.
Before the Army referred his promotion to the White House and then to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon, prompted by Senate inquiries, re-examined Colonel Moses’s role in the Niger ambush before he was approved for nomination.
The punishments focused on training failures before the soldiers deployed to West Africa.
Family members of those killed and even some members of the Third Special Forces Group had expressed anger at the multiple investigations, spread out over almost two years, and the lack of reprimands for high-ranking military officials, including Colonel Moses, for ordering the 11-member Special Forces team on the mission without knowing the enemy’s strength.
In the months after the ambush, family members of the dead were not told that the Green Beret team’s leader had informed his commanders that his soldiers did not have the necessary equipment or intelligence to make an unplanned raid on a local militant leader, and that he had asked to return to base.
The team was told by Colonel Painter to continue the operation, a decision that Colonel Moses also approved.
But Islamic State fighters had been tracking the team and were preparing to ambush them. Five Nigeriens accompanying the Americans were also killed in the hourslong gun battle.
The four Americans killed — Sgt. First Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David T. Johnson — all received posthumous valor awards.