When Africom was created in 2008, the Pentagon billed it as a barely-armed force of good with a mission of training local militaries and enforcing maritime traffic and fisheries. Based in Germany, it promised it would build no American military facilities in Africa.
But in the last few years, Northern Africa has become front-page national security news as pro-democracy revolts toppled decades-old regimes, regional conflicts have grown, and al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have spread.
“The threat these groups pose is evolving,” Obama said in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. “But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations. Instead, we'll need to help countries like Yemen, and Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
In Thursday’s confirmation hearing, Rodriguez identified four “major threats, militarily” in Africa: al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is at war with French troops in Mali; al Shabaab in Somalia; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
But whereas Obama says he wants to limit military action in Africa, Republican and Democratic senators argued the U.S. needs more military assets there.
“We have struggled in Africa to find footholds to allow for responses to the type of events that occurred in Benghazi or to allow us to conduct day-to-day operations like intelligence collection,” said Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). The tasks facing Rodriguez, he said, are “among the most complicated in the department.”
Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-OK) lamented the low number of U.S. troops assigned to Africom, given the rise of militant groups spanning from the Middle East.
“It's all terrorism, and it's all connected together,” he said. “And it is a serious problem that we are going to have to deal with. It's the smallest of the DOD's regionally focused combatant commands, with less than 5,000 boots on the continent. And that's a huge continent. So your work is cut out for you.”
Inhofe also pitched to move Africom headquarters from Stuttgart to Africa. He originally wanted the command based in “Ethiopia or someplace,” he said, and he asekd Rodriguez if the distance from Germany was a concern -- a question that probed the military’s response to Benghazi.
“Have you thought about…as you get a crisis in sub-Sahara Africa you're going to have a hard time getting there?”
Rodriguez said he’d study it, but cited “basing challenges.”
“Yeah, it's something that you have no control over,” Inhofe said, answering his own question. “That's where it is right now.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) then asked Rodriguez to provide “a time and distance study” on where the nearest military base is to Benghazi.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) used Rodriguez’ hearing to knock Obama’s decision to withdraw 34,000 troops from Afghanistan and pull out completely from Iraq. Rodriguez was the second-ranking officer in Afghanistan, running the war’s day-to-day operations under Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus. He appeared before the committee with Gen. Lloyd Austin, vice chief of the Army and the last commanding general of the Iraq war, who has been nominated to head Central Command.
Neither general was part of Gen. John Allen’s process to devise the Afghanistan force-level recommendations to Obama, and neither took McCain’s bait, as he repeatedly questioned them about the president’s drawdown decision.
“Having not been a part of the process, sir, I don't think that I should offer an opinion on this, because I don't know everything that went into their calculus,” Austin said.
“General Rodriguez, you feel the same way?” McCain said, exasperated and chuckling, after several tries.
“Even though you recently served there?”
“Yes, sir. I've been gone for 18 months, and things have changed tremendously,” Rodriguez said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), a McCain ally, later asked Rodriguez whether the commanders who advised the White House wanted the drawdown capped at 25,000 troops.
“I just don't have any idea of what exactly went into that specific calculus,” Rodriguez said. Ayotte asked Rodriguez to keep watch over Afghanistan, during his tenure at Africom and report back to the committee his opinions on the drawdown.
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