As U.S. Africa Command waited for any order to rescue Americans on Sept. 11 at the besieged consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, it was missing a key unit that the Pentagon gives every regional four-star commander — an emergency strike force.
The new command’s lack of such a unit is another piece in the unfolding Benghazi timeline that shows an overriding theme: As radical Islamic extremism swelled in the chaotic coastal city, U.S. security assets in Libya diminished.
From the State Department’s denial of diplomats’ requests for more security in Libya to Obama administration officials repeatedly saying the military-style attack on the consulate resulted from “spontaneous” protests, the events before, during and after the Benghazi assault reflect the political, diplomatic and military confusion that is post-Gadhafi Libya.
Each U.S. geographic combatant command, whether it be in the Middle East, the Pacific or, in this case, Africa, is entitled to a special operations rapid-response team — a group of Green Berets to perform instant combat in situations like the Islamist militants’ attack on the U.S. Consulate.
But on that day, AfriCom, the Pentagon’s newest geographic combatant command, which is still in the building phase, lacked what is called the “commander in-extremis force,” said a senior special operations official.
“All geographic combatant commands have one allocated to them, except AfriCom,” the senior official said. “AfriCom’s is in the process of being established.”
The gap shows that while North Africa has become a growing battleground for Islamic extremists, the U.S. regional command in charge of operations there is still not at full strength.
“We cannot discuss the availability of specific capabilities in order to protect our operational security,” AfriCom spokesman Benjamin Benson said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, told Fox News that Army Gen. Carter Ham, who heads AfriCom, received no request from any government entity to intervene in Benghazi during the seven- to eight-hour fight.
As it turns out, some special operations troops, likely from U.S. European Command, were moved to a naval air station at Sigonella, Sicily, but were never ordered to go farther. The Pentagon has declined to say exactly at what hour they arrived in Sicily or whether the battle was over by then.
Perhaps most important is not the lack of troops going into Benghazi, but what security forces the State Department pulled out of Libya a month before the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his information officer, and two former Navy SEALs.
Signs of trouble in Benghazi
The story begins last winter, when the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli began reporting to Washington about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi.
Mr. Stevens chose to spend much time there, the cradle of the popular uprising that ousted and ultimately killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
As pro-Western Libyans tried to form a fledgling democracy, al Qaeda-linked militant groups, as they have done in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, began emerging to exploit the power vacuum.