AFRICOM Leader Eyes More Resources to Counter Extremist Groups
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said last summer’s extensive air strikes on the Libyan city of Sirte, conducted primarily by the air element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), was a successful campaign to stop an effort by the Islamic State to shift forces from their eroding strongholds in Iraq and Syria and establish a new base in Libya, from which they could have launched attacks on Europe.
“The reason we decided to intervene was to take away that opportunity,” Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said March 27. “Now they don’t have that.”
Marine AV-8B Harrier attack jets and AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters, flying initially from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, conducted weeks of precision strikes against ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] forces strongly entrenched in the coastal city to support the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) troops. Supported by armed Air Force MQ-9 unmanned aircraft and other U.S. forces, the strikes killed or dispersed the ISIS fighters.
The presence of the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) in the Mediterranean was a fortuitous event for AFRICOM, which has no committed forces of its own and usually has to share assets with other commands that may have higher priorities in the global fight against extremists.
“The fact that the MEU-ARG was passing through, we were able to take advantage of the big deck (Wasp)” to conduct the strikes against Sirte. “Sometimes things work out to our advantage,” Waldhauser told the Defense Writers Group.
Waldhauser said he “generally” has the resources he needs, but acknowledged that he would like more intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) assets to help him collect information on the various extremist groups operating in his vast area of responsibility. He noted, for example, that when some of the ISIS fighters expelled from Sirte relocated to a remote base in southern Libya, “with the ISR capabilities we had, it took us some time” to develop enough information to enable an air strike on that base.
And, Waldhauser told Seapower, he would like to have his own Special Purpose Marine Air-Group Task Force (SPMAFT) like the SPMAFTF-Crisis Response that he shares with U.S. European Command. Elements of the MAGTF, located in southern Europe, conducted an embassy reinforcement and evacuation of U.S. personnel from civil war-crippled Southern Sudan, using the long reach of its MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130 aerial refuelers.
Although AFRICOM’s primary missions are helping friendly nations on the continent develop their abilities to provide the security that is essential to economic progress, Waldhauser said, it also must deal with the threat of extremist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabab in Somalia and various ISIS-affiliated elements. While he would like additional resources, Waldhauser said he, like all regional combatant commanders, has to be aware of the overall security situation and competing demands.
Most of the extremist groups in Africa are more local and regional threats than global, he said. Although AQIM has expressed the desire to wage strikes against Europe and even the United States, “they don’t demonstrate the capacity to operate out of area.”
But now AFRICOM has to deal with the presence of Russian and Chinese forces in his area.
There have been credible reports that Russian forces have been in Libya assisting a guerrilla leader who is battling the GNA for control of the oil-rich country. Waldhauser would only say that he is aware that Russians “are in the area.”
China now is building a base in Djibouti not far from Camp Lemonnier, a French-operated base that serves as the only fixed U.S. station in Africa. The general said he would characterize that installation as a “military base,” as it is intended to serve Chinese warships passing through and support the thousands of “peacekeeping” troops China has in Africa. He said that was “a concern” because of its proximity to the U.S. facility on the strategic Horn of Africa.