Army Gen. David Rodriguez was in Nigeria last week trying to pin down whether the government would permit the U.S. to help find the schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terror group.
The fate of the girls is the most recent in a broad range of challenges Rodriguez has faced as head of U.S. Africa Command, the newest of the combatant commands with responsibility for U.S. military relations across the expansive continent.
"The contingent was moved because we have concerns about the security situation in North Africa," Navy Capt. Greg Hicks told Stars & Stripes without giving specifics on the particular threat that prompted the forward positioning of the Marines.
The Marines sent to Naval Base Sigonella, Sicily, came from a Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response unit that was formed to support AFRICOM and deal with threats to U.S. personnel and facilities in Africa following the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Residents fled Benghazi over the weekend following warnings from a renegade general leading the Libyan National Army who said he was preparing to renew attacks on Islamic militants in the city.
Authorities in the increasingly dysfunctional government in Tripoli said that recent fighting in Benghazi killed 43 and wounded more than 100, Reuters reported.
In addition to Libya and Nigeria, AFRICOM has been facing terror threats compounded by long-standing ethnic and religious rivalries in Mali, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia.
To deal with the crises that have killed thousands and forced millions to flee their homes, Rodriguez has about 5,000 troops focused on training and advisory roles and partnering with allies to combat the rise of terrorist groups in the region.
Rodriguez has his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, but the hub of operations for AFRICOM sits in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. President Obama and Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh agreed on a new 10-year, $630 million lease for Camp Lemonnier earlier this month.
"Obviously, Camp Lemonnier is extraordinarily important not only to our work throughout the Horn of Africa, but throughout the region," Obama said.
Through Libya, Boko Haram has connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AFRICOM officials said.
"We're very concerned about that because those connections expand opportunities, expand capabilities," Rodriguez told the Voice of America last June. "Boko Haram is a very, very violent network. It is one that has had a very, very negative impact on the northern part of Nigeria, as well as Niger and Chad."
Currently, AFRICOM has a 16-member team working out of the U.S. Embassy in Abuja to assist the Nigerians.
"The purpose of the AFRICOM team is to coordinate with the Nigerian military and assess their needs and determine what assistance we can provide them to help in their search," said Col. Tom Davis, an AFRICOM spokesman. "The team consists of experts in communications, logistics and intelligence."
At a Pentagon briefing last month, and in testimony to the Senate and House in March, Rodriguez warned that the current conflicts across the African continent "share a few basic traits -- complexity, asymmetry and unpredictability."
He also warned that "where a country lacks good leadership, external actors have only a modest capacity to positively influence the country's future."
Rodriguez's emphasis on the need for effective leadership underlined the dilemma now faced by AFRICOM in working out a cooperative arrangement with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in the search for the girls.
"The government's ineptitude has been astonishing" in organizing the search, said John Campbell, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria.
Jonathan made no public statement about the April 14 kidnappings of more than 200 girls and "he still has not visited Chibok," the town in northeastern Nigeria that was the site of the girls' school, Campbell wrote in a recent post for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Jonathan enraged the families of the girls by canceling a trip to Chibok last Friday to go to Paris to attend a regional summit of West African leaders convened by French President Francois Hollande on the Boko Haram threat.
"Boko Haram is acting clearly as an al-Qaida operation," said Jonathan, who only recently agreed to accept U.S. and international help after years of claiming that Boko Haram was an internal problem.
However, Campbell and other Western experts have argued that Boko Haram has little contact with al-Qaida and funds itself mostly through bank stickups and other criminal activities.
At AFRICOM, Rodriguez, along with Gen. Carter Ham before him, faced the problem of "offering assistance without trampling on Nigeria's rather prickly sensitivities" over its self-image as the "giant of Africa," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
Boko Haram gained power in mostly Muslim northern Nigeria after decades of neglect by authorities in the mostly Christian south, Pham said in an interview.
The Nigerians, the international allies and AFRICOM will now have to face up to "the recognition that Boko Haram is a challenge that defies a truly military solution," Pham said. "There is no purely military solution."
In Paris, Jonathan claimed to have sent 20,000 troops into the northeast to find and rescue the girls, but over the weekend Boko Haram reportedly launched more attacks.
A village in northeastern Nigeria was burned down and 40 residents were killed on Saturday. In neighboring Cameroon, a Chinese engineering firm's camp was attacked and 10 persons were killed, Cameroon officials said.
The U.S. has been flying manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft on missions to search for the girls.
Britain over the weekend announced that it was sending a Sentinel R-1 spy plane with ground mapping radar to join in the search. The Sentinel, which has also been used in Afghanistan, will fly out of nearby Ghana.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.
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