Marines escorted U.S. State Department personnel aboard a plane Friday, evacuating much of the embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as the conflict there escalated and put the safety of the embassy at risk. It's the latest action for the Marine Corps task force established last year to respond to such emergencies, and it's unlikely their involvement in Africa will wane anytime soon. In fact, the Marines' response in South Sudan comes despite the creation last year of a U.S. Army crisis-response unit that was supposed to handle emergencies in the region. And if recent movements are any indication, the force faces the prospect of mission creep as instability across the region raises the prospect of more violence in Egypt, Libya and other countries.
The Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response, as the Marine Corps unit is known, was established in the wake of the Benghazi debacle last spring to respond by air to crises across northern Africa, primarily from bases in Morón, Spain, and Sigonella, Italy, with KC-130J planes and MV-22B tilt-rotor Ospreys. That leaves landlocked South Sudan -- nestled between the Central African Republic and Ethiopia in Middle Africa -- a long way away. To position itself to help in Juba, the Marines moved about 150 personnel last month from Spain to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, and then deployed a platoon from that group even closer, to Entebbe, Uganda. It was these Marines that responded to the evacuation call Friday, providing a KC-130 cargo plane to airlift U.S. civilians from Juba, South Sudan's capital.
"Since arriving in Entebbe, the Marines remain ready to respond to a variety of mission if called upon by national and commander leadership, but their focus remains on deterring crises in the area while also being prepared to respond if required," their commander, Col. Scott Benedict, told Foreign Policy on Thursday, before the evacuation was ordered.
The mission highlights the complexities for American forces in the region after the Sept. 11, 2011 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The United States has responded to numerous crises in Africa since then, at times having forces ready to deploy by air within an hour if called. The move to Djibouti and Uganda represented the task force's longest insertion of troops yet -- more than 3,400 miles.
But it also represented for the Marines a victory over a bureaucratic foe. The U.S. Army last year established its own crisis-response unit, the East Africa Response Force, in Djibouti, with similar goals of reacting rapidly to crises affecting U.S. interests. Pentagon officials told Foreign Policy last month that the mission would be divided up on a regional basis, with the Marines handling missions in northern Africa and the Army's response force handling missions in the east. The Army continues to reinforce the embassy and had a role in the evacuation, but it was the Marine Corps' aviation that got U.S. civilians out of harm's way. Soldiers from the Army's response force have been in South Sudan at the embassy since last month providing security, but the Marines provided the flight out on Friday for U.S. civilians and embassy personnel.
In part, that's because the Marine Corps fields, in effect, an air force of its own. The Army doesn't have such "organic" aircraft, as they're known in milspeak. The Marines' ability to move to respond from Djibouti "is a testament to our organic aviation assets," Benedict told Foreign Policy.
Benedict said Thursday the crisis-response mission has required coordination between his task force, the Army's response force, the embassy in Juba and Army Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa that has headquarters in Djibouti. Page, the ambassador, (pictured above) said on Twitter that the U.S. was not suspending operations there, just "minimizing its presence." But the embassy also said in a statement that it would not offer consular services to U.S. citizens in South Sudan as of Jan. 4.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Friday that the "drawdown" in U.S. personnel at the embassy in Juba was underway "out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel."
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Ambassador Susan D. Page had been evacuated from South Sudan. She is, in fact, still working from the embassy in Juba, State Department officials said. An earlier version of this story also did not make it clear that the soldiers who have buttressed security at the embassy are from the East Africa Response Force. They have been coordinating with the Marines, but did provide planes to evacuate embassy personnel.
Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert L. Fisher III