WASHINGTON — About three hours after the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack, the Pentagon issued an urgent call for an array of quick-reaction forces, including an elite Special Forces team that was on a training mission in Croatia.
The team dropped what it was doing and prepared to move to the Sigonella naval air station in Sicily, a short flight from Benghazi and other hot spots in the region. By the time the unit arrived at the base, however, the surviving Americans at the Benghazi mission had been evacuated to Tripoli, and Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were dead.
The assault, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, has already exposed shortcomings in the Obama administration’s ability to secure diplomatic missions and act on intelligence warnings. But this previously undisclosed episode, described by several U.S. officials, points to a limitation in the capabilities of the U.S. military command responsible for a large swath of countries swept up in the Arab Spring.
At the heart of the issue is the Africa Command, established in 2007, well before the Arab Spring uprisings and before an affiliate of al-Qaida became a major regional threat. It did not have on hand what every other regional combatant command has: its own force able to respond rapidly to emergencies — a Commanders’ In-Extremis Force, or CIF.
To respond to the Benghazi attack, the Africa Command had to borrow the CIF that belongs to the European Command, because its own force is still in training. It also had no AC-130 gunships or armed drones readily available.
As officials in the White House and Pentagon scrambled to respond to the torrent of reports pouring out from Libya — with Stevens missing and officials worried that he might have been taken hostage — they took the extraordinary step of sending elite Delta Force commandos, with their own helicopters and ground vehicles, from their base at Fort Bragg, N.C., to Sicily. Those troops also arrived too late.
“The fact of the matter is these forces were not in place until after the attacks were over,” a Pentagon spokesman, George Little, said Friday, referring to a range of special operations soldiers and other personnel. “We did respond. The secretary ordered forces to move. They simply were not able to arrive in time.”
The Africa Command was spun off from the European Command. At the time it was set up, the Pentagon thought it would be devoted mostly to training African troops and building military ties with African nations. Because of African sensitivities about an overt U.S. military presence in the region, the command’s headquarters was established in Stuttgart, Germany.
While the other regional commands, including the Pacific Command and the Central Command, responsible for the Middle East and South Asia, have their own specialized quick-reaction forces, the Africa Command has had an arrangement to borrow the European Command’s force when needed. The Africa Command has been building its own team from scratch, and its nascent strike force was in the process of being formed in the United States on Sept. 11, a senior military official said.
“The conversation about getting them closer to Africa has new energy,” the military official said.
Some Pentagon officials said it was unrealistic to think a quick-reaction force could have been sent in time even if the African Command had one ready to act on the base in Sicily when the attack unfolded, and asserted that such a small force might not have even been effective or the best means to protect an embassy. But critics say there has been a gap in the command’s quick-reaction capability, which the force would have helped fill.
A spokesman for the command declined to comment on how its capabilities might be improved.
The Africa Command is led by Gen. Carter F. Ham, an infantryman who commanded a brigade in Mosul during the Iraq war and took charge of the headquarters last year, just before U.S., British and French air power helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.