Published on NewsOK Modified: February 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm •  Published: February 11, 2013

c.2013 New York Times News Service<

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.

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