How Benghazi forced the military to adapt in Africa

U.S. Representative Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., visits Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, Nov. 23, 2015. Westmoreland, a member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, learned about the unit's crisis response capabilities during his visit.


By JOHN VANDIVER | Stars and Stripes | Published: June 28, 2016

STUTTGART, Germany — In the nearly four years since the deadly attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, the U.S. military has sought to close a gaping hole in military capabilities in Africa that the tragedy exposed.

A report by the House Benghazi panel, released Tuesday, chastised U.S. forces for failing to mobilize any units from Europe to conduct a rapid response to the attacks, which resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The question of whether the military could have done more to intervene in the crisis has been a source of fierce political fighting for years. Critics say the military was too passive, while military officials have said they were not in a position to respond fast enough.

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The Pentagon has taken a variety of steps to cut down response time in such a crisis.

“Even though, as the select committee’s chairman has previously acknowledged, it was impossible for the U.S. military to have changed the outcome at Benghazi under the circumstances, the department has made substantial changes to improve our responsiveness based on lessons learned from this incident,” Gordon Trowbridge, deputy Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

In early 2012, months after the attack, U.S. Africa Command received its own Commander’s-in-Extremis force, a unit of special operations troops who serve as the command’s own crisis-response unit, answerable to AFRICOM chief Gen. David Rodriguez.

At the time of the attacks on Benghazi, AFRICOM did not have a quick-response force of its own and was compelled to share those assets with European Command. When the diplomatic compound came under attack, EUCOM’s unit was on a training mission in central Europe.

AFRICOM also has a group of Marines on call in Europe for missions in Africa.

In 2013, a special-purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force was established in Moron, Spain. While the Corps had been talking about setting up such a unit for years, the attacks in Benghazi gave new urgency to the initiative. The unit has responded to a number of emergencies, including a 2014 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Libya.

Budget cuts have forced the military to scale back somewhat in Spain, including slashing half its fleet of crisis-response Ospreys.

The U.S. military posture also has been adjusted to increase Marine security guards at a number of sites, to better align the Marine security mission for protection of diplomatic facilities and personnel, the Pentagon said.

In addition, AFRICOM has quietly built up a network of small bare-bones staging bases on the African continent to facilitate the flow of forces in a crisis.

The outposts, established in the wake of the Benghazi attacks, are designed to enable U.S. troops to reach hot spots in western Africa in a matter of hours. Senegal, Ghana and Gabon are playing key roles as hosts to so-called cooperative security locations, which function as launching pads for quick-reaction troops called upon to secure U.S. diplomatic facilities in the broader region.

“That enables us to be within four hours of all the high risk, high-threat (diplomatic) posts,” Rodriguez told Stars and Stripes in a 2015 interview.

Since he assumed command in 2013, Rodriguez has sought to shrink the effective distances in Africa, which is three times the size of the continental United States.

“We are in a much better spot than we were before, and we will keep working it to make it better,” he said.

In all, AFRICOM now has access to 11 cooperative security locations across Africa, some of which have been around for years. With only one major military base on the continent — Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti — smaller staging facilities help stretch AFRICOM’s reach. In western Africa, the sites are Spartan but strategically positioned near airfields that provide quick in-and-out access.m