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NIAMEY, Niger — Created five years ago to focus on training the armed forces of dozens of African nations and strengthening social, political and economic programs, the Pentagon's Africa Command now finds itself on a more urgent mission: confronting a new generation of Islamist militants who are testing the United States' resolve to fight terrorism without being drawn into a major conflict.
Some military and congressional critics question whether the command is up to dealing with its dual mission, and some influential lawmakers warn that Africom, with its headquarters in Germany, is understaffed and poorly financed for challenges that include countering al-Qaida's fighters in Mali, Islamic extremists in Libya, drug traffickers in West Africa and armed rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The leader of the command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, must straddle the new and the old missions, as he demonstrated one day last month when he flew to the northern reaches of this largely desert nation to watch U.S. troops train Niger's fledgling border corps in basic skills to help combat al-Qaida's branch in North and West Africa. Then, within hours, he was back here in the capital for an urgent secure phone call from Washington to weigh what kind of advanced military support or surveillance the Pentagon could provide a French-led operation to blunt an Islamist offensive in neighboring Mali.
''The command is searching to find the right balance between the press of current military operations and the vision of longer-term engagement, helping Africans develop greater capacity for themselves," said Christopher W. Dell, a former U.S. ambassador to Angola and Zimbabwe, who is Ham's deputy for civil-military activities.
Africom has an annual budget of about $300 million and 2,000 employees worldwide — an operation that Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, calls "an 'economy of force' effort." By comparison, the military's Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan and the Middle East, has a yearly budget of about $800 million and 5,000 employees.
With no assigned forces in the region except for those at a base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, the command was caught napping Sept. 11, critics contend, when it had no military forces poised to respond to the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. An independent review of the attack concluded that events had unfolded too quickly for any U.S. forces to make a difference.
Still, controversy has dogged the command since its creation in 2008. Initial statements about its mission and scope of activity alarmed some African leaders and State Department officials, who feared that the Pentagon was trying to militarize diplomacy and development on the continent. These concerns led the command to set up its headquarters in Stuttgart.
The command's first boss, Gen. William E. Ward, left two years ago under a cloud. Pentagon investigators later found that Ward had lavishly overspent on official trips. He was ordered to repay the government $82,000 and was forced to retire as a lieutenant general, a one-rank demotion.
Enter Ham, who turns 61 this week and is the rare Army officer to have risen from private to four-star commander in a 40-year career. He has led troops in northern Iraq, overseen military operations at the Pentagon's Joint Staff and helped lead reviews into the Defense Department's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the fatal shootings at Fort Hood, Texas.
His combat mettle was tested almost immediately. Within days of assuming command in March 2011, Ham was leading the initial phase of the Libya air campaign, for which he earned high marks from his civilian bosses at the Pentagon and the White House.
But the general, who will retire this spring, acknowledged in one of three interviews during his recent trip to Niger that the command's ability to address the terrorist threat in Africa had been "mixed."
His grades? "Pretty good" in Somalia, where the Shabab, Islamist militants, have been dealt several setbacks in the past year. "Less good" in Libya, Mali and other parts of North and West Africa, where the United States is hunting Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a militant leader who claimed responsibility for the attack on a gas field in Algeria last month. And lacking in Nigeria, where an Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram, poses a major threat.
''Frankly, the intelligence community has not focused a lot on this part of the world," Ham said. "But we are starting to, out of necessity."
With the war in Afghanistan winding down, senior Pentagon officials are scrambling to address the growing threat in North and West Africa by repositioning spy satellites and shifting surveillance aircraft from other theaters, all at a time when shrinking military budgets are forcing the Obama administration to make difficult choices on where to accept more risk.
The Pentagon is preparing to establish a drone base in Niger so that it can increase surveillance missions on the local al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and associated groups. Starting this year, the Africa Command will also send small teams from a 4,000-member brigade in Kansas to conduct nearly 100 exercises and training programs in 35 African countries.
''We're going to see more and more demands on Africom," Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, said in January.
As for Benghazi, Ham said he did not request any additional forces to be on hand in the region for the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, saying there was no specific intelligence indicating an imminent attack.
He acknowledged that "knowing what I know now would I make different decisions? Absolutely." A special emergency force, which all combatant commands have but that the Africa Command did not until Oct. 1, now splits time between Europe and its base in Colorado. Ham said he is drawing up plans to have other forces in Europe, West Africa or Djibouti ready to respond quickly to a crisis.
''Instead of responding in a day," he said, "they could respond within some number of hours."
But with the Obama administration wary of putting U.S. boots on the ground, Ham and his lieutenants are sticking to the philosophy "African solutions to African problems."
"The underlying ethos remains the same: We're not looking to be the security provider for Africa," said Dell, Ham's deputy.
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U.S. training programs have not always worked. As insurgents surged across Mali's northern desert last year, U.S.-trained commanders of the country's elite army units defected at a critical time, taking troops, trucks, weapons and their newfound skills to the enemy.
A confidential internal review completed in July by the Africa Command concluded that there were critical gaps in the U.S. training for Malian troops and senior officers.
"We've focused exclusively on tactical and technical," Ham said in a speech in January in Washington. "We didn't spend probably the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and a military ethos that says when you put on the uniform of your nation, then you accept the responsibility to defend and protect that nation, to abide by the legitimate civilian authority."
In Niger, officials reached a status-of-forces agreement in January that clears the way for greater U.S. military involvement in the country, including the drone base.
''The U.S. should do more in the area training, equipment, land and air, and intelligence capability," Niger's president, Mahamadou Issoufou, said in an interview. "African countries face threats beyond their means."
Ham insists that the command can carry out both combat operations and its original "soft power" missions, taking cues from envoys in the region like Bisa Williams, the U.S. ambassador in Niamey.
Williams said the command responded to her request a year ago to help train Niger's troops to improve relations with its citizens. The command ended other practices at her request, like financing the purchase of T-shirts urging Nigeriens to vote, money that could be better spent elsewhere, she said in an interview.
''That's what I need from you," Williams recalled Ham telling her later. "I need for you to tell me if we're tone deaf or in the wrong lane."