The Obama administration’s decision to grant retirement to the top general of U.S. Africa Command is part of the internal jockeying that goes on among the military branches to win top war-fighting assignments and was not related to the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a well-placed military source told The Washington Times.
Ever since Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta earlier this month announced the departure of Army Gen. Carter F. Ham from Africa Command, the Internet has been abuzz with speculation that he was pushed out. The rumor mill suggests he was fired for not ordering forces to intervene directly in Benghazi during militant attacks on the U.S. Consulate and a nearby CIA base. Others speculated that he wanted to send forces but was overruled. U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack.
The real story of Gen. Ham’s retirement is linked to the career of Gen. David M. Rodriguez, one of the Army’s top field commanders. He now heads Army Forces Command, a non-war-fighting job that ensures the readiness of 820,000 soldiers.
Forces command is not among the most prized assignments for a war fighter. The most coveted posts sought by the four military branches, outside the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are the geographic combatant commands.
The four-star commanders fight the nation’s wars. None is more prominent than the chief of the U.S. Central Command, which led the war in Iraq and is overseeing Afghanistan. That war has its own four-star, Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, in a post that has all the prestige of a combatant commander.
The story begins when the Obama administration decided to cut Gen. Allen’s tour short and move him to Brussels next spring as the top NATO commander and the chief of U.S. European Command.
Internally, the Army top brass lobbied to replace Gen. Allen with Gen. Rodriguez. He held a senior command in Afghanistan last year and has the in-country know-how to carry out President Obama’s decision to methodically withdraw U.S. forces by the end of 2014. The Pentagon has pulled out 33,000 “surge” forces this year, leaving about 68,000 troops.
To the Army’s chagrin, the defense secretary and the White House opted for another Marine, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., whom Mr. Obama installed as the assistant Marine Corps commandant in 2010.
“The Army wanted that command,” the military source said. “They are putting someone in that command who has no Afghanistan experience versus Rodriguez who has considerable.”
Gen. Dunford had extensive combat experience in Iraq.
In a sort of compromise, Mr. Panetta found a prestigious combatant command for Gen. Rodriguez. The one that was opening up next year was Africa Command, which has grown in importance with the emergence of al-Qaeda-like Islamic terrorist groups in North Africa.
“Joint commands have a much higher status than an in-service four-star command,” the military source said. “He’s a combatant commander in an operational command with the potential to go to war. Those are the most desirable positions. They are the most sought-after.”
The defense secretary announced the change in mid-October amid the Washington brouhaha over Benghazi, triggering the Internet guessing about Gen. Ham. The Pentagon said Gen. Ham’s retirement had nothing to do with Benghazi.
Combatant commanders typically serve two-year terms, sometimes three years, then retire or transfer. Gen. Ham’s 24-months comes due in March, so he may leave a month or two early after Gen. Rodriguez is confirmed by the Senate.
The Times reported Monday that Gen. Ham, monitoring the Sept. 11-12 attacks in Benghazi, had only one real option to intervene directly: F-16s stationed at Aviano Air Base, across the Mediterranean in Italy.
Africa Command lacked a quick-reaction force, and Gen. Ham had to borrow European Command’s unit. He also called on a national special-operations response team in the United States, but both arrived too late in Sicily. The Benghazi siege had ended by about 6 a.m. local time Sept. 12.