Be­hind cri­sis in Beng­hazi, a lack of fire­power

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

As Amer­i­cans fought for their lives in Beng­hazi, Libya, the Pen­tagon’s op­tions for di­rect in­ter­ven­tion were nar­rowed to one: a fleet of F-16 fight­ers parked across the Mediter­ranean at NATO’s air base in Aviano, Italy.

How the best mil­i­tary in the world came to hav­ing only one real choice in a ter­ror­ist at­tack that killed the U.S. am­bas­sador to Libya and three other U.S. cit­i­zens is the story of an ille­quipped com­man­der.

U.S. Africa Com­mand, which over­sees mil­i­tary op­tions in North Africa, had no ac­cess to AC-130 gun­ships or to armed drones, such as the Preda­tor, that could have killed the at­tack­ers from the air.

The com­mand also lacked ground forces and had to look to oth­ers for help. Two quick­re­ac­tion spe­cial op­er­a­tions units — one from cen­tral Europe, the other from the United States — would arrive in Si­cily, but it was too late for in­ser­tion into Beng­hazi’s chaotic streets on the evening of Sept. 11 when the at­tack erupted. The siege by mil­i­tants at the U.S. Con­sulate and a CIA base ended hours be­fore the morn­ing of Sept. 12.

The F-16s never took off. Army Gen. Carter Ham, who heads Africa Com­mand, put two un­armed drones into the air, one at a time, over the con­sulate and the CIA base a mile away. The video feed reach­ing him and other lead­ers at the Pen­tagon and CIA showed a con­fused pic­ture with spo­radic fire from dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. There was the risk of bomb­ing civil­ians in the snug res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood.

In the end, Gen. Ham, De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that the pic­ture on the ground was too clouded to or­der an airstrike.

A mil­i­tary source fa­mil­iar with the eight-hour Beng­hazi fire­fight pro­vided this time­line to The Wash­ing­ton Times to an­swer the most cen­tral ques­tion sur­round­ing the death of Am­bas­sador J. Christo­pher Stevens and three other Amer­i­cans: Why did the U.S. mil­i­tary take no di­rect ac­tion to stop the

two ter­ror­ists as­saults?

The new­est com­mand

Part of the an­swer lies in the Africa Com­mand, it­self. It is the Pen­tagon’s new­est re­gional com­bat­ant com­mand in a lineup that in­cludes the prom­i­nent U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, which over­sees mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AfriCom, as it is known in Pen­tagon short­hand, was ac­ti­vated in 2008 in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the very events in Beng­hazi. Is­lamic ex­trem­ists tied to the al Qaeda ter­ror­ist net­work were look­ing to make in­roads in North Africa. The Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided it was time to pull most of Africa away from the U.S. Euro­pean Com­mand and give the huge con­ti­nent its own Amer­i­can com­man­der.

But on Sept. 11, AfriCom was still a com­mand “in pa­per only,” as one for­mer Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial put it.

The mil­i­tary source told The Times, “AfriCom has very few as­signed forces.”

Gen. Ham lacked what is called a com­man­der in­ex­tremis force, which other com­bat­ant forces have set up to re­spond to crises such as Beng­hazi. He also lacked the as­sets to as­sem­ble a generic quick-re­ac­tion force.

As a re­sult, the four-star gen­eral turned to a na­tional re­sponse force in the United States on call 24 hours a day. He worked through the Euro­pean Com­mand to tab its com­man­der in-ex­tremis force. This unit was con­duct­ing train­ing in cen­tral Europe. It had to be briefed on the mis­sion and taken to an air­field, a process that took hours. The na­tional and Euro­pean strike forces fi­nally ar­rived in Sigonella air base in Si­cily on Sept. 12.

“They both had some­thing in com­mon,” the mil­i­tary source said. “When they both ar­rived on the 12th, the evac­u­a­tion of the CIA base had al­ready been com­pleted.”

As the two units flew to Si­cily, Gen. Ham, a com­bat vet­eran of the Iraq War, looked at other op­tions and saw few. He had no AC-130 gun­ships, which can be ef­fec­tive in ur­ban com­bat by iso­lat­ing and fir­ing on en­emy tar­gets. He also had no armed drones such as the mis­sile-car­ry­ing Preda­tor that can strike a gun­man pre­cisely.

Only one op­tion

The dis­cus­sion then came down to one op­tion — F-16 fight­ers at Aviano. By this time, the ini­tial one-hour as­sault, most likely by the ter­ror­ist group An­sar al-Shariah, on the con­sulate had ended. The fo­cus was on the CIA base where mil­i­tants spo­rad­i­cally di­rected fire but lacked enough mus­cle to over­run a build­ing guarded by a CIA se­cu­rity team.

An­a­lysts at the Pen­tagon and CIA were watch­ing the drone’s video feed but had trou­ble iso­lat­ing the en­emy.

“They had great dif­fi­culty dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing friend from foe be­cause there was An­sar al-Shariah out there, but there were also friendly Libyan mili­tia,” the mil­i­tary source said. “And both were armed. It wasn’t a steady as­sault. It was in­ter­mit­tent as­sault fire. These guys had no in­ten­tion of tak­ing down the base be­cause they knew they could not.”

The source said that later on the morn­ing of Sept. 12 mil­i­tants fired four mor­tar rounds into the base, killing two for­mer Navy SEALs. The source said the drones were never able to find the ex­act spot from where the shells came. The mor­tars likely were put into place briefly on a res­i­den­tial rooftop or side street, then re­moved.

At the Pen­tagon, Gen. Ham dis­cussed the F-16 op­tion with Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey.

Mr. Panetta did not dis­close to re­porters which op­tions he stud­ied when he said on Oct. 25:

“[The] ba­sic prin­ci­ple is that you don’t de­ploy forces into harm’s way with­out know­ing what’s go­ing on — with­out hav­ing some real-time in­for­ma­tion about what’s tak­ing place.

“And as a re­sult of not hav­ing that kind of in­for­ma­tion, the com­man­der who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that sit­u­a­tion.”

The mil­i­tary source told The Times, “Ham made the de­ci­sion not to de­ploy F-16s be­cause he didn’t think he would be able to suc­cess­fully em­ploy them against the tar­gets and also [be­cause of] the po­ten­tial for civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. This was a tac­ti­cal com­man­der mak­ing a de­ci­sion based on the in­for­ma­tion he had in front of him.”

Fight­ing for their lives

Mean­while, the diplo­mats and CIA per­son­nel were fight­ing for their lives. Within 24 min­utes of the at­tack, which be­gan at 9:40 p.m. in Libya, the chief of the CIA base as­sem­bled a quick-re­ac­tion force to res­cue per­son­nel at the con­sulate.

The CIA chief ne­go­ti­ated with Libyan mili­tia to get through check­points, and he tried to pro­cure ma­chine guns. Un­der fire that shot out the ar­mored ve­hi­cle’s tires, the team re­turned with con­sulate per­son­nel but with­out Mr. Stevens. He had died of smoke in­hala­tion and was taken to a hospi­tal.

Mil­i­tants at­tacked the CIA base at about 1 a.m. Libyan time. A quick-re­ac­tion force ar­rived from the U.S. Em­bassy in Tripoli hours later, at which point mor­tar fire be­gan. The force even­tu­ally col­lected all per­son­nel for a flight back to the Libyan cap­i­tal.

CIA Di­rec­tor David H. Pe­traeus trav­eled to Tripoli two weeks ago to speak with the base chief and the CIA sta­tion chief at the em­bassy. The mil­i­tary source told The Times that the CIA di­rec­tor is con­vinced that no one or­dered the base not to try to res­cue U.S. per­son­nel, as one se­cu­rity of­fi­cer has charged.

The source said one change will def­i­nitely arise from the ashes of Beng­hazi.

“As a re­sult of this, AfriCom will get quick-re­ac­tion forces,” the source said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Libyan in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ cars park in front of the U.S. Con­sulate in Beng­hazi af­ter the Sept. 11 the at­tack that killed four Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing Am­bas­sador J. Christo­pher Stevens. The com­man­der of U.S. op­er­a­tions in Africa and of­fi­cials at the Pen­tagon agreed that the pic­ture on the ground was too clouded to or­der an airstrike.

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