US military preparing for battle on the African continent

The Pentagon has created a 150-member rapid response force in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and sent 500 Marines to a base in Spain, positioning troops, aircraft and military equipment closer to potential conflicts.
The mission in South Sudan is the first test of these new forces. In some respects, the troops did well, the analysts said.
Four days after arriving from Kansas, a team of 45 soldiers from the larger force in Djibouti was sent to Juba, the South Sudanese capital, on Dec. 18 to reinforce the seven Marines and State Department officers providing security at the embassy.
The team has a tightly focused mission that reflects the administration’s goal to keep a mostly low profile for the military on the continent.
“My mission is purely to secure the embassy, protect American lives and allow the ambassador and her team to do their jobs,” said Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee Magee, a West Point graduate and third-generation Army officer who commands both the military team in Juba and the larger emergency response force in Djibouti.
Other than occasionally providing armed escorts for supply runs to the airport, Colonel Magee’s team has stayed put at the embassy compound. “My job is not to be intrusive in how the government here is running things,” Colonel Magee said in a telephone interview from Juba.
Security in the capital has made that mission less dangerous there than in other areas of the country, where clashes between government troops and rebels continue even as diplomats meeting in Ethiopia seek to end the fighting.
Colonel Magee’s troops left their M1A2 battle tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles back home at Fort Riley, Kan. In Juba, the American soldiers have standard-issue weapons, including pistols and M4 rifles. There has been no need to use them. Other than a random shot fired in the area of American sentries their first night in Juba, Colonel Magee said, it has been quiet.
American commanders said they were working closely with the State Department and embassy officials in Africa to quickly reinforce American diplomatic missions and personnel before crises occur.
“All this is about indications and warning, and the ability to respond,” Gen. David Rodriguez, the head of the military’s Africa Command, told reporters here on Thursday.
General Rodriguez defended the planning for the Osprey evacuation mission that was forced to turn back when the aircraft, which can fly like an airplane and land like a helicopter, came under fire from the ground, presumably from rebel fighters.
“That was a risk that was looked at during the preparation,” General Rodriguez said. “We were surprised.”
The general said military planners coordinated with United Nations personnel on the ground to avoid any problems, but he acknowledged that the episode was being reviewed to determine if “we missed something” or could have “done something better.”
Independent security analysts have questioned whether the diplomatic groundwork with rebel commanders and South Sudanese officials for the aborted mission was adequate.
“There was no communication with either side,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, a policy research group in Washington. He said he spoke to both South Sudanese and rebel commanders after the episode.
General Rodriguez said the United States, its European allies and regional partners faced serious threats in Africa from a range of extremist groups, including two Qaeda affiliates: the Shabab, in Somalia and East Africa, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in North and West Africa.
General Rodriguez said the Shabab were still capable of carrying out attacks like the assault in September on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that left more than 60 people dead.
He said a new terrorist group linked to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who has long been a notorious figure in the Sahel region, poses a formidable threat in North and West Africa. (The Sahel is a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad.) Last January, Mr. Belmokhtar led the attack on a gas plant in Algeria that resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, including three Americans.

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