The military was woefully unprepared to help Americans in Benghazi during the 13-hour crisis, with no nearby troops on alert for the Sept. 11 anniversary and not one aircraft sent to that Libyan city to pick up survivors and four dead.
The Pentagon itself did not know of the Islamist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission until an hour after it happened. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, in a conference call with the White House on Sept. 10, 2012, said forces would be on heightened alert. But the units that could have gone to North Africa that night and morning were not, in fact, on alert.
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli on its own organized a small rescue team and hired an aircraft, with no help from U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, or from Washington. Mr. Panetta did not know until the next day that he had two Delta Force commandos at the embassy, the only U.S. military forces to respond to Benghazi.
When the besieged and wounded Americans — dealing with the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his aide and two former Navy SEALs — finally reached the Benghazi airport, there were no U.S. military planes to get them out. They had to ride in the embassy-chartered flight and a Libyan C-130 that had been unable to fly at night.
This is part of the chronology contained in the June 28 report by the House Select Committee on Benghazi. It represents the most detailed reconstruction to date of how the military high command responded — and did not respond — to the 2012 terrorist attack on the mission, where the two diplomats perished, and the mortar barrage that killed the two former SEALs at a nearby CIA annex.
What the military did not do during the 13 hours has been a contentious issue for survivors, especially the former commandos who were security officers and held off attackers at the CIA annex.
An earlier bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence absolved the Pentagon of any failures, saying forces were too far away. Military commanders referred to their inaction as “the tyranny of time and distance.”
But the select Benghazi committee took a more critical view.
The lack of U.S. military response is important because the American presence in Benghazi was but a thinly manned outpost. The mission and CIA base sat exposed to a growing number of Islamic terrorists and militias fighting the West and one another in post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya.
If such a crisis broke out in Afghanistan or Iraq or Europe, which have a military chain of command and assets, or if competent local forces could respond, Americans would have had ready help.
The story begins on Sept. 10, 2012, at the White House and a conference call with the Pentagon to discuss demonstrations in Cairo against a U.S.-produced anti-Muslim video and the next day’s anniversary of the 2001 attacks. A day later, President Obama convened a Cabinet meeting to discuss Sept. 11 security.
The report from the House Republican-led Benghazi committee concluded: “Despite the size of the crowd of demonstrators in Cairo and the length of the demonstration, the protest in Cairo prompted no change in force laydown for the forces that might respond to unrest in North Africa. In other words, neither the President’s meeting with his Cabinet, which included a discussion of the anti-Muslim film, nor the anniversary of September 11, 2001, nor the demonstration in Cairo prompted any change in U.S. military posture or asset readiness in the region.”
Africa Command, in existence for five years, had no dedicated forces of its own except for troops at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, 2,000 miles away. This gap existed despite the rise of radical Islam in North Africa and al Qaeda’s creation of a deadly franchise. An al Qaeda-inspired group, Ansar al-Shariah, would be shown to have planned and carried out the Benghazi attacks.
The closest jet fighters were two hours away in Aviano, Italy. They were not the best assets for a rescue. No spotters were on the ground to show them terrorist targets amid Benghazi’s mean streets. Regardless, the planes were not even close to alert status. The crews were in a virtual stand-down for inspections. There were no ready munitions to arm them.
Two military emergency units stood as the Americans’ best chances for a quick rescue in Benghazi. But they, too, despite Mr. Panetta’s order for heightened alert status, were not ready.
One was the Commander’s in Extremis Force, a U.S. European Command special operations asset that is supposed to deploy quickly by air with its own vehicles.
Retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, then AfriCom commander, told the committee that the CIF was “the force of first choice should there be an emergent situation.”
Yet at a time of supposed heightened alert because of events in North Africa, the CIF was out of reach, conducting a joint exercise in Croatia.
The other best chance for a rescue was FAST — a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team — a contingent of Marines based in Rota, Spain.
Like CIF, FAST was not on high alert. The White House-State Department discussion on how to deploy it got bogged down in a debate over the Marines’ uniforms, as the U.S. mission burned and the CIA annex was under attack.
Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy wanted the Marines sent in civilian clothes so they wouldn’t offend Libyan government officials. As the Marines waited for hours on the tarmac to be picked up, the Pentagon determined that they had packed civilian clothing and could change if need be.
One contemporaneous White House email said: “Apparently Pat K[ennedy] expressed concern on the [White House meeting] about Libyan reaction if uniformed US forces arrived in country in military aircraft; there was discussion of the option of entering in plainclothes, which [Joint Chiefs of Staff] explained was possible but noted that the risks to the forces to remaining in plainclothes increased as they transited from point of entry to the relevant location of action.”
Vice Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, then director of Joint Staff operations at the Pentagon, told the committee: “They wanted to minimize the signature that looked like a big military invasion, a big military arrival there. And the reason that I remember the discussion was I had to go back and find and make sure, as the FAST had moved out and was waiting for lift, and the question that I had to go back and ask AfriCom was: in their rucksacks did they have civilian clothes that they could put on, or was this going to entail having to go back to their barracks and draw that equipment. They had what they needed, and so they didn’t have to go anyplace.”
The other problem: the FAST Marines had no dedicated aircraft. They waited in Spain for six hours for planes from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
“That is because we had no alert aircraft in Ramstein,” said Adm. Tidd. “So, literally, it was the middle of the night there. And I don’t know all of the exact actions that they had to go to, but at Ramstein, they had to go and generate the airplanes, get the air crews, wake them up, brief them, tell them what we knew, and have the planes ready to go. We did not have an alert posture set for the aircraft.”
Neither FAST nor the CIF nor a special operations emergency team at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was ordered to go to Benghazi, the committee found.
Adm. Tidd, who subsequently won promotion to four stars and command of U.S. Southern Command, said that at some point that night at the White House, a decision was made that it was too late to send anyone into Benghazi. The logic was that the Americans would be out by that time.
“We were looking at two FAST teams, but it very, very soon became evident that everybody was leaving Benghazi,” he said. “And so I don’t remember if it was just before the [White House meeting] or during the [meeting] or just right after. By the time we came out of the [meeting], it was pretty clear that nobody was going to be left in Benghazi. And so the decision — I think, at the [meeting], there was some discussion — but as I recall, we weren’t going to send them to Benghazi, because everybody was going to be back in Tripoli by the time we could actually get them there.”
The committee report expressed incredulity at this logic.
“While it may have been ‘pretty clear’ to Tidd that ‘nobody was going to be left in Benghazi,’ it was not at all clear to those in Benghazi who were manning a rooftop exchanging gunfire with attackers,” the report said.
“Furthermore, the Diplomatic Security Agents and team from the Annex had to fight their way even from the Benghazi Mission compound to the Annex a short distance away while Team Tripoli had to negotiate with unknown militias for transportation from the Benghazi airport to the Annex. So, how the principals in Washington were certain U.S. personnel in Benghazi were going to be leaving Benghazi and how they were going to be leaving is itself unclear.”
Economy of force
The sense of loneliness in Libya came through in a committee interview with the CIA Tripoli station chief.
“Did AfriCom headquarters or [special operations Africa] have any role in planning your deployment from Tripoli to Benghazi?”
“No, sir,” the station chief replied.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto, a former Army Ranger who fought on the rooftop, told The Washington Times: “They had nobody coming. They left us. They left us behind.”
Africa Command continues to work with relatively few assigned forces.
Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, who takes command of AfriCom on Monday in Stuttgart, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that he lacks sufficient spy planes to monitor terrorist havens such as Libya.
“AfriCom is an economy-of-force theater, and we always would ask for more,” Gen. Waldhauser said. “And, if confirmed, I would advocate for more, if that were deemed to be my determination.”
After the Benghazi debacle and the forced U.S. exit, the Islamic State terrorist group opened shop in eastern Libya. Its army has grown to as many as 6,000 fighters, its largest outside Iraq and Syria, and it controls towns and territory.
Gen. Waldhauser testified that the command has located Islamic State targets to strike in Libya, but the action requires the approval of Mr. Obama, who has not given it.
The general said the Islamic State high command is eyeing Libya as its new headquarters if it is evicted from Syria and its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
He had this exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican:
Mr. Graham: Do you have authority, as AfriCom Commander, to go after ISIL targets in Africa on your own?
Gen. Waldhauser: I do not.
Mr. Graham: Do you think that would be wise to have that authority?
Gen. Waldhauser: It would be wise. It would certainly contribute to what we’re trying to do inside Libya.
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