Marines with the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response unit guide US citizens down the flight line in Juba, South Sudan, during an evacuation of Embassy personnel Jan. 3. (US Marines)
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WASHINGTON — While headlines and congressional committees continue to focus on Washington’s strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, the Army and Marine Corps remain busy elsewhere, although only the most dramatic bits and pieces of their mission have received much attention.
Part of the reason for that activity is the continuing fallout from the Sept. 11, 2012,ot attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
As more forces become available to commanders now that deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have slowed to a relative trickle, Pentagon leadership and the White House are investing more in the security situation across several regions in Africa, where Islamic militants and ethnic violence threaten to destabilize friendly governments.
Africa is “certainly an area where we are busy” assisting regional partners with “build[ing] their own capabilities to deal with threats,” such as the challenge posed by a morphing al-Qaida and related Islamic extremists, Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, deputy commander of US Special Operations Command, told a conference in Washington on Feb. 11.
“We see great cooperation” between U.S. special operations forces based in Europe and those assigned to Africa, added Maj. Gen. Marshall Webb, commander of U.S. special operations forces in Europe.
But special operations forces are hardly working on their own. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have in recent years developed new units to focus on crisis response and security cooperation with African partners, as was seen most famously in South Sudan in January after the State Department said it needed to pull its people out of the capital of Juba.
In a well-publicized incident, two tiltrotor Osprey aircraft flown by U.S. Air Force special operators carrying Navy SEALS were shot up on the way to pick up U.S. citizens in South Sudan, while elements from the Army’s new East Africa Response Force were rushed in to beef up security at the Embassy.
At the same time, U.S. Marines with another new unit, the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR), deployed from their base in Moron, Spain, to Juba to boost security and put Embassy staffers on airplanes leaving the country. The Marines arrived on two KC-130 aircraft prepositioned at Entebbe, Uganda.
Speaking at The Atlantic Council on Feb. 10, the commander of that new Marine unit, Col. Scott Benedict, explained that the Juba operation was just one part of a larger deployment of his Marines across the continent, but mostly in the north and west.
Benedict called these post-Iraq and Afghanistan partnership-building deployments the “new normal” for the Corps, as it looks to remain globally engaged. The new normal “is a way to describe what is ‘macro’ stability operations — not being in major wars but at the same time rapidly moving to meet crises that can happen” due to religion, politics or ethnicity.
He said the Corps is working with the State Department to “look early to see where we can get DoD to provide security earlier in the process rather than later” when Americans may already be in danger.
“DoD said that it would put more effort into looking at potential” hot spots, he added.
While the two services are working independently to establish a presence on the continent, the Juba operation was placed under a joint command — the U.S.-led Combined Joint task Force-Horn of Africa — which ensures a unity of effort.
The visit to Washington this week by French President Francois Hollande also underscored the growing security partnership between the U.S. and France on African operations, particularly in the north and the west.
Last year, US forces provided logistics support to the French fighting Islamic militants in Mali, while in October, Marines with the SPMAGTF visited Camp des Garrigues, France, in order to train with Legionnaires from France’s 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Hollande penned a joint op-ed for the Washington Post and in Le Monde on Feb. 10, boasting that France’s reintegration into NATO and coordination with the United States in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria has ushered in a new era in U.S.-French relations.
“Nowhere is our new partnership on more vivid display than in Africa. … Across the Sahel, we are partnering with countries to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining new footholds. In the Central African Republic, French and African Union soldiers — backed by American airlift and support — are working to stem violence and create space for dialogue, reconciliation and swift progress to transitional elections,” they wrote.
In other words, the “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region isn’t the only significant global shift in deployment schedules and strategic planning.