Four years after its startup, U.S. Africa Command has it own fast-reaction commando force — based at Fort Carson, Colo., thousands of miles from the troubled continent.
The command, known as Africom, turned out to be a toothless tiger when it faced its biggest crisis on Sept. 11 as militants attacked the U.S. Consulate and an annex in Benghazi, Libya, and killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
The Benghazi debacle highlighted the fact that Africa Command, despite its oversight of a volatile region, had few combat forces or a quick-response special operations unit called a Commander's In-extremis Force (CIF) that is designed for such emergencies. Each geographic combatant command, except Africom on that day, had a CIF.
Africom and U.S. European Command are based in Stuttgart, Germany. Army Gen. Carter Ham, Africom's top officer, turned to his neighbor's command CIF to deploy to Benghazi. But that force was conducting training in Central Europe.
During the eight-hour attack on the consulate, the best that Africom could muster was two unarmed spy drones that relayed video feeds to the Pentagon and the CIA.
Four months after Benghazi, it is difficult to determine whether Africom is any better equipped to deal with a similar crisis in North Africa, where al Qaeda-linked groups appear to be on the march.
The command declined to answer that question from The Washington Times as another hot spot, the West African country of Mali, is under assault from Islamic extremists.
Africom, which has responsibility for all U.S. military operations on the continent except Egypt, now has its own CIF.
But a defense official said the CIF resides at Fort Carson, home to the Army's 10th Special Forces Group — 6,000 miles away from any flash points in Africa.
"They're not located in Europe. They are not in Africa," a defense official told The Times. "They are located out of Fort Carson."
Africa Command operates one base on the continent, at Djibouti, several thousand miles from Benghazi — too far away to help the American ambassador, his information officer and two former Navy SEALs who were killed by al Qaeda-linked militants.
"There are no intentions to establish any other bases in Africa at this time," the defense official said.
When told that Africom's first fast-reaction force is based near the Rocky Mountains, a senior retired officer told The Times: "You can't be serious. That's pathetic. I absolutely cannot believe that. I'm astounded by that."
The Pentagon escaped criticism in a State Department blue-ribbon commission report about the Benghazi attack: It castigated the State officials for failing to provide better security at the mission despite heightened extremist violence and repeated requests from diplomats for more protection.
But the Defense Department did feel the sting of criticism in a subsequent inquiry by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
It singled out the State Department and the Pentagon for failing to plan — to assess the growing violence in Libya and look at forces available in case of an attack.
Said the senior retired officer, who was consulted by senior officials after the attack: "They had no assigned forces that could respond. They also had not alerted any forces to be in preparation to respond and possible move them closer because it was 9-11 and the fact that Benghazi certainly was heating up."
The Senate report called the military's inability to respond a tragedy.
"[The Defense Department]and AFRICOM tried to provide effective support on September 11th, but given the nature of the attack in Benghazi and the distance of their assets from Benghazi, they were tragically unable to do so," the report said.
It listed the assets that might have helped if moved sooner: "AFRICOM's lack of operational assets near Benghazi hindered its capacity to evacuate U.S. personnel during the attacks. The Djibouti base was several thousand miles away. There was no Marine expeditionary unit, carrier group or a smaller group of U.S. ships closely located in the Mediterranean Sea that could have provided aerial or ground support or helped evacuate personnel from Benghazi. AFRICOM also lacked a dedicated Commander's In-extremis Force (CIF) — a specially trained force capable of performing no-notice missions."
The Pentagon's timeline and the Senate report showed that, at about 2 a.m. Libya time, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta ordered three units — European command's CIF, a special commando team in the U.S. and a Marine Corps anti-terrorism team in Rota, Spain — to respond to the Benghazi assaults.
They arrived at a staging base in Sicily long after the attacks had ended. The dead and survivors were flown to Tripoli in chartered aircraft.
The attack on the mission where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed began at 9:40 p.m. local time.
The two U.S. teams arrived in Sicily on Sept. 12.
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