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 ill-equipped 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 quick-reaction 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 in-extremis 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 last week 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.
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