U.S. weighs military support for France’s campaign against Mali militants
The Obama administration is considering
significant military backing for France’s drive against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mali, but its support
for a major ally could test U.S. legal boundaries and stretch counterterrorism
resources in a murky new conflict.
The United States is already providing surveillance and other intelligence
help to France and may soon offer military support such as transport or
refueling planes, according to U.S. officials, who stressed that any assistance
would stop short of sending American combat forces to the volatile West African
At the same time, the administration is navigating a thicket of questions
about military support and how far it could go in aiding the French without
violating U.S. law or undermining policy objectives.
Direct military aid to Mali is forbidden under U.S. law because the weak rump
government there seized power in a coup. U.S. moves are further complicated
by uncertainty about which militants would be targeted in an assault.
The loosely affiliated web of Malian militants in the country’s north includes members of
al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). But other fighters are longtime foes of
the Malian government and pose no direct threat to U.S. interests.
“Our goal is to do what we can,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said
Tuesday during a visit to Spain. “The fundamental objective is to ensure that
AQIM — al-Qaeda — never establishes a base of operations in Mali or anywhere
France launched fresh airstrikes in Mali on Tuesday and said it will triple the size of its combat force there. The punishing
bombing campaign has failed to stop the militants’ advance, and the additional
forces suggest preparation for a ground assault.
The Obama administration is wary of deepening its involvement in the
conflict. But the United States shares French concern about the militants’
territorial gains. It is also eager to help a top ally with which it has worked
closely on counterterrorism issues in Africa, a senior administration official
On all sides, the overriding fear is that the militants will create a
terrorist haven in rugged northern Mali similar to the one that fighters secured
in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
U.S. officials have said publicly that they are evaluating France’s requests
for further assistance. But privately, they say that one of the critical
requests relates to intelligence that could be used for targeting purposes, said
the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about intelligence
and diplomatic matters.
Evaluating the request involves “understanding what the French objectives are
and really how they intend to go about them and against whom,” the official
The official was not specific about whether the surveillance being shared
with France comes from drones or from satellites.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “They’ve asked for support
with airlift. They’ve asked for support with aerial refueling. We are already
providing information, and we are looking hard today at the airlift question,
helping them transport forces from France and from the area into the theater,
and also at the refueling question.”
The Pentagon has begun identifying transport and
tanker planes that might be used, but U.S. officials cautioned that resources in
the region are slim and that French requests have shifted.
“We’re not providing logistics support, whether airlift, refueling,” yet, the
official said. “There is a little bit of a cold-start aspect
Any additional U.S. help could go to French forces directly or to African
backup forces, which are expected to begin arriving soon. The European Union
said Tuesday that it will speed up a troop-training mission in Mali, which now
is likely to be launched in the second half of February or in early March. The
E.U. is not planning any direct combat role.
“We have limited assets in the region we can bring in for lift,” the U.S.
official said. “Is it best for French troops, or should we be moving Nigerians
or troops from Togo or Benin?”
The official said contingency plans for the use of armed drones were already
in place and are being reevaluated. The official would not be more specific.
France, the former colonial power in Mali and neighboring Algeria, has led
international efforts to confront the Islamist militants who exploited last
year’s coup to co-opt a homegrown Malian ethnic conflict.
For months, French officials insisted that only African soldiers would fight.
Despite early reservations, the United States backed French-led efforts to
initiate an international military force backed by the United Nations. That
force was to deploy later this year, but the militants have moved much
“We have one objective,” French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday. “To
make sure when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in
Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer
threaten its territory.”
The French reinforcements will bring the total number of French troops in
Mali from 800 to 2,500, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to possible logistical support, the United States wants France
and its partners to lay out a strategic plan for Mali that goes beyond
short-term military intervention.
The United States withdrew military support for Mali, once a promising
democratic example in Africa, because of the coup. Embarrassingly for
Washington, the coup leader had received military training in the United States, defense
The Obama administration is now working to hurry along the African force.
Britain, Canada, Belgium, Denmark and perhaps Germany would help provide
logistics for the African deployment, a French diplomat said.
The United States had always been expected to foot a large share of the bill
for the African-led force, but it had hoped that the planned slow rollout of the
force would allow time to attract more donors.
For now, the United States will redirect about $8 million in unused aid and
will ask Congress for additional money, Nuland said.