By Carlo Muñoz - 03/15/13 06:26 PM EDT
Outgoing Africa Command chief Gen. Carter Ham told House members on Friday that lack of resources is forcing U.S. commanders to make some "sharp prioritization" decisions in where to focus the command's limited assets.
"I have significant shortfalls in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [capabilities]. So that causes us to apply a pretty sharp prioritization," on which of the myriad militant fundamentalist groups based in Africa command officials can track, Ham said.
Military intelligence officials in the command have focused those limited assets on hot spots on the continent, such as Somalia, Mali and Libya, according to the four-star general.
"That's been pretty effective," particularly in Somalia against the terror group al Shabab, according to Ham. "But it has left us short in other areas across the continent."
Army Gen David Rodriguez is set to replace Ham as the new head of the command. Rodriguez and incoming Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin were confirmed by the Senate on March 5.
Ham's comments on Friday echo those by U.S. intelligence officials in February, saying the situation has forced CIA and other government agencies to become increasingly dependent on partner nations in Africa.
"We do not have the resources, footprint or capabilities [in Africa] that we have in other theaters," an intelligence official told the Associated Press in February.
However, wariness among African leaders to publicly support American counterterrorism operations in the region has stymied U.S. efforts to keep tabs on al Qaeda's push into the continent. "It's not clear we have a natural partner with whom we can work," the official said at the time.
Those intelligence shortfalls has arguably left a blind spot in U.S. efforts to track the rise of al Qaeda affiliated and local terror groups operating in North and West Africa.
Members of the Libyan faction of the al Qaeda-affiliated terror group Ansar al-Sharia launched a deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last September, killing four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
In January, members of the al Qaeda-linked group "Signers in Blood" overran a BP-owned oil facility in Algeria, taking a number of American and other foreign nationals hostage in the process.
That same month French forces launched a massive counterterrorism operation against members of al Qaeda's West African cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who had taken over the northern half of the African country of Mali.
AQIM, according to command officials, has evolved into one of the organization's most dangerous factions, second only to al Qaeda's Yemeni cell known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Aside from lacking the ability to track and target these groups on the continent via military intelligence assets, officials at Africa Command also have "principal shortfalls" in its special operations capabilities, Ham said Friday.
The command's special forces wing -- known as Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA) -- has "most of the enablers that are required, but not all," Ham said.
"So we have ... a quite good capability now, but not the full capability that I think is necessary in the long term," he added.
The biggest gap in SOCAFRICA is "in dedicated special operations aviation," the four-star general said.
Currently air assets, among others integral to special operations missions on the continent, are shared between Africa Command and European Command.
"There are some other enabling capabilities, such as special operations surgical teams and some others, that I would prefer to have dedicated exclusively" to Africa Command.
Ham has had conversations with Adm. William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, about setting aside specific capabilities for Africa Command alone.
That said, "I think we'll probably be ... in a sharing arrangement" with European Command for at least another year, according to Ham.