U.S. military assistance to French troops fighting Islamic militants in Mali is likely to be limited to logistics and intelligence support, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
“I don’t want to go into all the particulars, but it suffices to say that it’s basically in three areas we’re looking at,” Panetta told reporters today en route to Lisbon, where is beginning a visit to European capitals. “One is, provide limited logistical support; two, provide intelligence support; and three, provide some airlift capabilities.”
A 550-strong contingent of French air and ground forces has been fighting in Mali since Jan. 11 to beat back militants based in the north of the country after they went on the offensive last week. The situation is “evolving favorably” even though the militants are “extremely well-armed,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said today.
“I commend France for taking the steps it has,” Panetta said. “We have promised that we’ll work with them and cooperate with them.”
Panetta declined to say if the U.S. intelligence support will be in the form of satellite imagery or use of drones. He also didn’t elaborate on what kinds of airlift will be provided.
The U.S. is in discussions with France on providing refueling capabilities as well as airlift, a senior Pentagon official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks are continuing. No decisions have been reached yet, the official said.
The U.S. is concerned that allowing al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, to establish bases in North Africa will let the militant group eventually plan attacks on the U.S. and Europe, Panetta said.
“We have got to make sure that AQIM doesn’t have that kind of traction,” he said.
The Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, plans to meet Jan. 16 to discuss deployment of about 2,000 African soldiers to Mali, a plan that was backed by the United Nations Security Council in a resolution last month. The intervention had been planned for September.
The U.S. plans to contribute to training and financial support for the Ecowas force, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today in Washington.
She said the U.S. won’t restart training programs for Mali’s military until democracy is restored in that country.
Mali is led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of the March coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.
Panetta plans to visit Lisbon, Madrid, Rome and London on this trip, which is probably his last international travel before stepping down as defense secretary.
“It’s been three years since a U.S. defense secretary traveled to European capitals,” Panetta said. In meetings with his counterparts, Panetta said he will discuss their post-2014 plans for troop contributions and training of Afghanistan’s military forces as part of the International Security Assistance Force in that country.
Panetta said he also plans to discuss the future of NATO at a time when both the U.S. and European countries are facing budget constraints.