Newly released details about the decision to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Libya in late July highlight the challenges of tactical decision-making between the Marine Corps and State Department in the event of a crisis at a diplomatic post that requires military action.
Leaders of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force- Crisis Response discussed the evacuation mission in a Pentagon briefing Thursday, highlighting the support relationship between the unit and State Department personnel in Africa. When deteriorating security in Tripoli led to the decision to move State Department personnel to Tunisia, Marine leaders recommended they be pulled out by air. The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, ultimately decided to head to the Tunisian border by convoy in order to save State Department vehicles and keep a low military profile as local militias clashed in the Libyan capital.
Forces with the 8th Marine Regimental Headquarters just completed a six-month deployment in support of the task force — the third rotation since it was formed following the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. It was during that deployment that the 24-hour evacuation effort was carried out on July 26, involving 158 U.S. personnel including 80 Marines from SPMAGTF-CR, who made it to the border in a convoy of 40 armored sport utility vehicles owned by the State Department.
The evacuation went smoothly, but the Marine officials acknowledged it highlighted what can be a complicated support relationship between the task force and U.S. diplomatic agencies in their area of operation.
"We clearly understood that [Jones] was the supported agency and we were the supporting agency. We expressed our concerns," said Col. Kenneth DeTreux, the commanding officer of 8th Marine Regiment and the commander of SPMAGTF-CR while in theater. "It is clean? No. I think from embassy to embassy it may be determined by personality."
Ultimately, DeTreux said, the operation demonstrated what is a "new normal" in U.S. Africa Command: Defense Department support to State Department diplomatic missions at high-threat, high-risk posts.
The decision to leave was made by Jones following an uptick in militia violence that ultimately saw indirect fire landing within embassy compounds, DeTreux said. They coordinated with Marines on the ground with Task Force Tripoli, a platoon that provides external security at the embassy compound, then led by Capt. Jim Oliveto.
"On the 13th we saw the closing of the international airport in Tripoli, which was a key piece of infrastructure for us," DeTreux said. "That whole area between the embassy and the annex became militia-contested area. [Captain Oliveto] and his team along with the diplomatic mission were caught in that crossfire."
During a late-night meeting on July 23 that stretched into the morning, Oliveto, the ambassador, and other key diplomatic personnel reached the conclusion that it was time to leave.
"It was not necessarily one of our courses of action [to evacuate via convoy] because we had the capability to lift everybody out of there," DeTreux said. "But the determination, I think, from a diplomatic optic, was not to have a large military footprint conduct the evacuation."
Another advantage to ground movement, Oliveto said, was the ability to save some of the embassy's costly vehicles and equipment rather than leaving it all behind.
DeTreux said the Marines raised concerns about possible risk to the mission and personnel in the convoys with a ground convoy movement, but were reassured by Jones' communication with leaders of the two militias standing between the U.S. Embassy and the Tunisian border to ensure safe passage.
As the convoy moved out with the Marines' two MV-22B Ospreys, a KC-130J and two F-16 jets provided from AFRICOM providing close air support, some of the diplomatic agreements to allow the convoy to cross into Tunisia were still being reached, Oliveto said. They were finalized before the convoy reached the border.
The Marines wore civilian clothes instead of uniforms upon Jones' request, but kept their body armor on until they had crossed the border. The six-and-a-half hour convoy from embassy to border was ultimately completed without incident — in part because of fortunate timing, said Oliveto. July 26 happened to fall on a Saturday, which is the second day of the weekend in Libya.
"It was kind of the equivalent of a sleepy Sunday morning," he said.
While DeTreux said he might have handled the evacuation differently if viewing it solely as a military operation, dealing with embassies requires a different approach.
"I think as a military guy, you understand there's going to be political and diplomatic lenses you look through," he said. "We just have to remain flexible, agile and responsive."