AFRICOM under new command faces complex threat environment
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 18, 2016
STUTTGART, Germany — Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser took command Monday of U.S. military missions in Africa, where a volatile mix of insurgencies and fragile states poses challenges for a growing U.S. military mission on the continent.
Waldhauser, who replaces retiring Gen. David Rodriguez, urged his new staff to think in unconventional ways as it confronts a range of threats stretching from Somalia in the east to Libya in the north and Nigeria in the west — all countries where Islamic militant groups are fighting for footholds.
“It is up to us to bring creative solutions to these challenges,” Waldhauser said during a change of command ceremony in Stuttgart, home to the headquarters of U.S. Africa Command.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Waldhauser’s experience as a war fighter and strategic thinker made him the right fit at the right time for AFRICOM.
“He led from the front in every level of the Marine Corps,” said Dunford, who as a young lieutenant served alongside Waldhauser in the same battalion.
Waldhauser, who previously served as director of joint force development with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, served in Operation Desert Storm and led combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He is the fourth general to lead AFRICOM, the military’s youngest combatant command that was formed in 2007 and became an independent command a year later. He is the first Marine — all previous commanders were from the Army.
With Rodriguez retiring, the military loses one of its most prominent commanders during the past decade. He also is the last in uniform of a legendary class of commanders from West Point’s class of 1976. Gone are Gens. Raymond Odierno, Stanley McChrystal and several other high-ranking leaders who made their names during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dunford called Rodriguez a no-nonsense “soldier’s soldier.”
“As a visionary and strategic thinker, Gen. Rodriguez is without peer,” said Dunford, who officiated over the change of command ceremony.
During Rodriguez’s 40-year career, he saw the “arc of history” with assignments in Europe as a company commander during the Cold War, leading troops in Afghanistan and tackling an array of emerging threats on the African continent, Dunford said.
Regarded as one of the military’s post-Vietnam-era pioneers in conducting counterinsurgency operations, Rodriguez was credited by many as the key architect of the 2010 surge in Afghanistan, which has been criticized as having had little lasting effect on the Taliban insurgency.
But his last assignment at AFRICOM might have been his most challenging, Rodriguez said.
Having led at every level, Rodriguez figured he was well prepared when he took command in 2013.
“Only fools rush in,” he joked. “I’ve moved an entire airborne division, but I never would have guessed how hard it is to evacuate an embassy,” Rodriguez said.
During his tenure, much of Rodriguez’s focus has been on shrinking the distance of the massive African continent, a place three times the size of the U.S. and an area with a relatively small U.S. military presence on the ground compared to other regions. The 2012 attack on a diplomatic facility in Libya, which resulted in the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, put crisis response at the forefront for AFRICOM.
A key effort for Rodriguez has been the establishment of new staging bases, facilities scattered around Africa, where U.S. forces can surge in a crisis
In a parting word to his staff, he said: “We’ve done it together.”
Outgoing commander Gen. David M. Rodriguez, left, hands the U.S. Africa Command colors to Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as incoming commander Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser watches. Waldhauser took command from Rodriguez at the ceremony at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, Monday, July 18, 2016.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES