By Carlo Muñoz - 04/05/13 04:34 PM EDT
Rodriguez was confirmed by the Senate as the new Africa Command chief on March 6. Prior to his confirmation, the four-star general had led Army Forces Command and was the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan under former Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Hagel also commended Ham for his leadership at a time when potential national security threats on the continent had increased dramatically.
"You took command . . . at a critical time on the continent, and in the larger region," Hagel said. "As a result of your leadership, America has deepened its engagement in Africa, building and strengthening important relationships with our allies and partners in the region."
Under his watch, Rodriguez will be responsible for keeping a lid on the growing strength of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist networks that are fighting to gain a foothold in Africa.
French forces are wrapping up a counterterrorism campaign in Mali, after pushing fighters from al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), the group's West African cell, from their safe havens in the northern part of the country.
In March, Ham warned AQIM is looking to establish itself in the Northern African country of Tunisia, in an attempt to expand on gains made by the terror cell in Mali and elsewhere on the continent.
AQIM has slowly emerged as the group's strongest and best-funded faction. Only al Qaeda's Yemen cell rivals the group in terms of potential threats to the United States and its allies.
In January, the al Qaeda affiliated group "Signers in Blood" overran a BP-owned oil refinery in Algeria, killing a number of American and foreign nationals before Algerian special forces retook the facility.
Last September, members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al Sharia raided the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
As Africa Command chief, Rodriguez will also inherit a growing network of American bases in Africa, as part of Department of Defense's ongoing counterterrorism campaign on the continent.
The Pentagon's newest counterterrorism outpost in Niger went operational earlier this month, providing a new launching pad for U.S. officials to carry out surveillance and armed drone strikes against AQIM and their affiliates.
Along with the drone base in Niamey, Niger, U.S. officials also carry out unmanned intelligence and airstrike operations from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, as well as a clandestine base in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, according to recent reports.