U.S. Sees Stakes as the French Do the Fighting in Mali

The U.S. is leaving France to battle militant Islamists in Mali, providing “limited” military support even as officials warn that al-Qaeda advances there endanger American interests.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday that the U.S. is providing intelligence to French forces, and is considering “some limited logistical support” such as airlift.

While the U.S., which is speeding its withdrawal from combat in Afghanistan and has steered clear of the fighting in Syria, doesn’t plan to commit troops to the conflict in Mali, Panetta said it has a “responsibility” to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a base there from which it could threaten the U.S. and Europe.

“We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali,” Panetta told reporters as he flew to Europe for a week of meetings.

Referring to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the main Islamist groups in the region, he said: “While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately, that still remains their objective, and it’s for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction.”

If the French fall short, the militants “will continue to train, continue to arm, they’re on the back door of Europe and will continue to destabilize the region,” said Rudy Atallah, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group, in a telephone interview. ‘It’s like a cancer that continues to grow.’’

Avoiding Involvement

U.S. officials “do not want to get involved in this,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group. Still, she said in an interview, American military officials worry about the brew of militant groups in Mali and beyond, such as in Nigeria and Somalia.

“The fear that is driving U.S. military thinkers on this is the idea that they may link up and create this grand alliance of criminal and terrorist networks,” Cooke said.

Mali’s crisis could add to an “arc of instability” from western Africa to the Gulf of Aden, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has warned.

“Mali is a critical flash point,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a former U.S. counterterrorism official who now teaches at Georgetown University. “If Mali goes south, that’s a threat to the entire region.”

Increasing Concern

What had been a fairly obscure insurgency has drawn increasing international concern as Islamic radicals and other militants have strengthened their hold over much of northern Mali, and the country has been weakened by military defections and a coup that toppled the democratic leader.

The French military attacks are an abrupt shift after months of slow-moving diplomatic efforts, backed by the U.S., to have African troops intervene under United Nations auspices.

The U.S. should welcome France’s initiative, Nelson said.

“This is a very healthy evolution for international terrorism cooperation,” he said in a telephone interview. “France is doing something we’ve always wanted them to do, which is to take the lead on a counterterrorism operation.”

In remarks in December, General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. military command in Africa, said the U.S. didn’t anticipate providing U.S. combat troops to fight Mali insurgents.

African Troops

“I don’t see us in a situation where we would be asked for U.S. participation in any actual combat operation,” Ham said. “I think that would be counterproductive, actually, and in my view that should be and must be African-led.”

The Economic Community of West African States will meet tomorrow to discuss the deployment of about 2,000 Ecowas soldiers to Mali, a plan backed in a UN Security Council resolution last month to restore state control over the north.

The intervention was being set for September, though there is now pressure for earlier deployment. The U.S. will be providing military trainers to help ready some African troops, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.

France’s 550-strong force entered its fourth day of fighting yesterday in response to last week’s offensive by militants based in the north. President Francois Hollande said France would support Mali’s battle to win back two-thirds of its territory as a militant spokesman vowed retaliation, saying France had opened the “gates of hell.”

Militant Groups

Mali’s militant groups include AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the United Movement for Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO.

The NATO Allied Command’s Civil-Military Fusion Center released a study in December pointing to links between these groups and others in the region, such as Somalia’s al Shabaab or Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which seeks to establish sharia law in the oil-rich nation and is attacking the government and Christians with increasing reach and lethality.

Ham said in December that there were “clear indications” of increasing “collaboration and synchronization among the various violent extremist organizations” in Mali.

Human Rights Watch says Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM “appear to be closely coordinating.” The NATO study notes that commanders and fighters of MUJAO and Ansar have come from the ranks of AQIM.

Instability threatens companies involved in developing Mali’s minerals sector and the oil and gas resources in nearby countries such as Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana and Libya.

Drone Bases

Before the military coup in March, the U.S. provided military training for Mali troops in an effort to thwart Islamic militants. That program has ended.

The U.S. confirmed in late 2011 that it was establishing secret drone bases in the region as part of a newly aggressive campaign against al-Qaeda. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is now considering whether to use them to strike AQIM in Mali.

If the U.S. conducts drone strikes in Mali, it probably wouldn’t be controversial in the U.S., said Bruce Hoffman, who is director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

“It’s boots on the ground that generates controversy,” he said.

Still, air power “can only go so far in these types of conflicts,” Hoffman said. “It’s still about winning over the local population and providing them security against terrorist retribution. That’s a French and Malian responsibility, not ours.”

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