STUTTGART, Germany — A new Africa-focused Marine crisis response unit could soon be in place as part of a broader effort to beef up Africa Command’s ability to confront emerging terrorism threats on the continent, its commander Gen. Carter Ham told a Senate committee on Wednesday.
The Marine Corps has proposed a new Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, which would be “specially tailored for crisis response in Africa,” Ham said while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. “We think that will be available in the relatively near future.”
AFRICOM also is looking to place other special operation forces in three strategic locations in southern Europe and east and west Africa to bolster the command’s response capabilities, according to Ham.
The addition of new crisis response teams comes even as AFRICOM is being forced to scale back on some of its aerial surveillance operations in Africa as the effects of budgetary belt-tightening take hold, Ham said.
“Suffice it to say, I’ve had to curtail, decrease the frequency of some operational reconnaissance flights because of the inability to fund normal flight operations,” Ham said. “I think that shortfall will continue to have the greatest impact on the command.”
During Ham’s two-year tenure at the helm of AFRICOM, attention has focused on the rise of Islamic milarnt groups on the continent, ranging from al-Qaida affiliated groups operating in Mali to homegrown militants operating out of Nigeria and Somalia.
With those terrorism networks showing signs of overlapping and collaboration, the terror threat emanating out of Africa may eventually rival the threats to come out of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Ham said.
“I don’t think it quite rises to that level, but it is trending in that direction,” said Ham, who is slated to retire this year.
Ham led AFRICOM through its first major military operation in 2011 when AFRICOM headed the initial effort to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, which eventually led to the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In the aftermath, weapons from that regime have found their way into Mali and the hands of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Libyan weapons also are turning up as far away as Syria, Ham said. “Certainly that proliferation of weapons has a destabilizing effect across the region,” he said.
Still, there have been some successes when dealing with extremist organizations, most notably in Somalia where the Islamic militant group Al-Shabab has been weakened, according to Ham.
Meanwhile, attention to AFRICOM’s lack of crisis response capacity has intensified after last year’s attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead. A politically charged issue, Ham faced pointed questions on Wednesday from several Senators over the lack of an immediate military response.
When asked by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., why there wasn’t a faster military reply as the attack in Benghazi was unfolding, Ham said, if given the benefit of hindsight, things could have been handled differently.
“That night stays with me, as I know it does with you and others,” Ham said. “If I could turn the clock back I would make different decisions based on what I know now.”
Since those attacks, AFRICOM has seen its response capacity gradually improve. In October, AFRICOM received its own Commander’s in-Extremis Force, which is comprised of Green Berets from the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group. The unit, headquartered in Fort Carson, Colo., also maintains a forward presence in Europe.
Ham said the goal is eventually to have that force spread out in positions in southern Europe, Djibouti and a yet to be determined locale in West Africa. “That would give us a significantly improved posture from what we have today,” Ham said.