As Americans fought for their lives in Benghazi, Libya, the Pentagon’s options for direct intervention were narrowed to one: a fleet of F-16 fighters parked across the Mediterranean at NATO’s air base in Aviano, Italy.
How the best military in the world came to having only one real choice in a terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other U.S. citizens is the story of an ill-equipped commander.
U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military options in North Africa, had no access to AC-130 gunships or to armed drones, such as the Predator, that could have killed the attackers from the air.
The command also lacked ground forces and had to look to others for help. Two quick-reaction special operations units — one from central Europe, the other from the United States — would arrive in Sicily, but it was too late for insertion into Benghazi’s chaotic streets on the evening of Sept. 11 when the attack erupted. The siege by militants at the U.S. Consulate and a CIA base ended hours before the morning of Sept. 12.
The F-16s never took off. Army Gen. Carter Ham, who heads Africa Command, put two unarmed drones into the air, one at a time, over the consulate and the CIA base a mile away. The video feed reaching him and other leaders at the Pentagon and CIA showed a confused picture with sporadic fire from different locations. There was the risk of bombing civilians in the snug residential neighborhood.
In the end, Gen. Ham, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that the picture on the ground was too clouded to order an airstrike.
A military source familiar with the eight-hour Benghazi firefight provided this timeline to The Washington Times to answer the most central question surrounding the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans: Why did the U.S. military take no direct action to stop the two terrorists assaults?
The newest command
Part of the answer lies in the Africa Command itself. It is the Pentagon’s newest regional combatant command in a lineup that includes the prominent U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
AfriCom, as it is known in Pentagon shorthand, was activated in 2008 in anticipation of the very events in Benghazi. Islamic extremists tied to the al Qaeda terrorist network were looking to make inroads in North Africa. The George W. Bush administration decided it was time to pull most of Africa away from the U.S. European Command and give the huge continent its own American commander.
But on Sept. 11, AfriCom was still a command “in paper only,” as one former Bush administration official put it.
The military source told The Times, “AfriCom has very few assigned forces.”
Gen. Ham lacked what is called a commander in-extremis force, which other combatant forces have set up to respond to crises such as Benghazi. He also lacked the assets to assemble a generic quick-reaction force.
As a result, the four-star general turned to a national response force in the United States on call 24 hours a day. He worked through the European Command to tab its commander in-extremis force. This unit was conducting training in Central Europe. It had to be briefed on the mission and taken to an airfield, a process that took hours. The national and European strike forces finally arrived in Sigonella air base in Sicily on Sept. 12.
“They both had something in common,” the military source said. “When they both arrived on the 12th, the evacuation of the CIA base had already been completed.”