The assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, points to a shortcoming in the capabilities of the U.S. military command responsible for Africa, including the North African countries swept up by the Arab Spring.
WASHINGTON — About three hours after the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack, the Pentagon issued an urgent call for an array of quick-reaction forces, including an elite Special Forces team on a training mission in Croatia.
The team prepared to move to the Sigonella naval-air station in Sicily, a short flight from Benghazi. By the time the unit arrived, the surviving Americans at the Benghazi mission had been evacuated to Tripoli, and Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were dead.
The assault, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., has exposed shortcomings in the Obama administration’s ability to secure diplomatic missions and act on intelligence warnings.
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But this previously undisclosed episode, described by several U.S. officials, points to a limitation in the capabilities of the U.S. military command responsible for Africa, including the North African countries swept up in the Arab Spring.
At the heart of the issue is the Africa Command, established in 2007, well before the Arab Spring uprisings and before an affiliate of al-Qaida became a major regional threat. It did not have on hand what every other regional combatant command has: its own force with the ability to respond rapidly to emergencies — what the military calls a Commanders’ In-Extremis Force, or CIF.
To respond to the Benghazi attack, the Africa Command had to borrow the CIF of the European Command, because its own force is still training. It also had no AC-130 gunships or armed drones readily available. The closest AC-130 gunship was in Afghanistan.
The closest armed drones fly out of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, and were not in range of Benghazi. There was no Marine expeditionary unit — a seaborne force with its own helicopters — in the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. F-16 fighters in Europe were not on alert because it was decided they would not have been useful in a confused fight in a major Arab city.
As officials in the White House and Pentagon scrambled to respond to the reports pouring out from Libya — with Stevens missing and officials worried that he might have been taken hostage — they also took the extraordinary step of sending the elite Delta Force commandos, with their own helicopters and ground vehicles, from its base at Fort Bragg, N.C., to Sicily. Those troops also arrived too late.
“The fact of the matter is these forces were not in place until after the attacks were over,” a Pentagon spokesman, George Little, said Friday. “We did respond. The secretary ordered forces to move. They simply were not able to arrive in time.”
An examination of the events undercuts the criticism leveled by some Republicans that the Obama administration did not try to respond militarily to the crisis. The attack was not a running eight-hour firefight, but rather two relatively short, intense assaults separated by a lull of about four hours. But the administration’s response also shows that the forces in the region had not been adequately reconfigured to take account of threats emerging from the Arab Spring.
The Africa Command was spun off from the European Command. At the time it was established, the Pentagon thought it would be mostly devoted to training African troops and building military ties with African nations. Because of African sensitivities about an overt U.S. military presence in the region, the command’s headquarters was established near Stuttgart, Germany.
While the other regional commands, including the Pacific Command and the Central Command, responsible for the Middle East and South Asia, have their own specialized quick-reaction forces, the Africa Command has had to borrow the European Command’s force when trouble has struck. Africa Command has been building its own team from scratch, and its nascent strike force was training in the U.S. on Sept. 11, a senior military official said.
“The conversation about getting them closer to Africa has new energy,” the military official said.
Some Pentagon officials said that it was unrealistic to think a quick-reaction force could have been sent in time even if the African Command had one ready at Sigonella when the Benghazi attack unfolded, and said such a small force might not have even been effective or the best means to protect an embassy.
A spokesman for the command declined to comment on how its capabilities might be improved.
The Africa Command is led by Gen. Carter Ham, an infantryman who commanded a brigade in Mosul during the Iraq war and took charge of the headquarters last year, just before U.S., British and French air power helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
On the day of the attacks, Ham and other regional commanders were in Washington, D.C., for meetings.
The administration has begun an interdepartmental review of security requirements in North Africa and the Middle East, officials said, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity.