STUTTGART, Germany — Gen. David M. Rodriguez, one of the Army’s most battle-tested officers, took over Friday as head of U.S. Africa Command as the U.S. military is confronting a growing threat from Islamic militant groups operating across the continent.
Rodriguez replaced Gen. Carter F. Ham, who will retire after leading AFRICOM through a tumultuous two years that included leading the military campaign in Libya that ultimately led to the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi and a commando mission to rescue hostages from Somalia. The command also trained African soldiers, who are now engaged in security operations in places such as Somalia and Mali.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Rodriguez would have a full plate as he takes on security threats including terrorism and illicit trafficking and transnational crime.
“Dave is one of our nation’s most highly regarded senior officers and strategic thinkers,” Dempsey said at a change of command ceremony Friday. “At every level of command, through peace and war, he has proven his mettle. He is smart and decisive.”
Rodriguez, who previously commanded U.S. Army Forces Command, is best known for his time as deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command between 2009 and 2011.
At AFRICOM, he said, he would work to build on the foundation laid by Ham.
“I’ll continue this effort and work to build on the relationship General Ham established with our African, European and all our international partners,” Rodriguez said. “These partnerships are essential to achieve our shared objectives.”
Dempsey praised Ham for working with African partners to weaken the Somali Islamic militant group Al-Shabab and helping in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army roaming a vast border region in central Africa.
“Together, you’ve critically weakened Al-Shabab, put the Lord’s Resistance Army on the run and helped beat back extremists in Mali,” Dempsey said. “Not bad for a 5-year-old command.”
Dempsey also hailed Ham for his “principled and grounded leadership.”
“You’ve been a steady hand when times felt very unsteady,” Dempsey said.
In a sign of how much has changed during Ham’s tenure, senior Libyan officer Maj. Gen. Yousef Mangush was among the guests at Friday’s ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Stuttgart.
“If you would have told me in March of 2011 that the chief of staff of the Libyan Armed Forces would be here today, I might have questioned your sanity and judgment,” Ham said.
The mission to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, which began just weeks after Ham assumed command in 2011, was a turning point for AFRICOM, Ham said.
“Operations in Libya, [were] perhaps the defining moment in the maturation of AFRICOM into a full spectrum combatant command,” Ham said.
Highlighting his most memorable time in command, Ham recalled a Jan. 24, 2012, commando rescue mission in Somalia to save two aid workers being held hostage.
“On that dark night, brave men rescued Jessica Buchanan, an American citizen held hostage, and her co-worker, Poul Thisted, a Danish citizen,” Ham said. “Some of you know the details, most never will. But what we do know today is this — two good people are free.”
“That wouldn’t have happened without AFRICOM,” Ham said.