U.S. officials said the Pentagon’s planning efforts are contingent on the U.N. Security Council’s endorsement of the African-led force. U.N. officials and diplomats from other countries have said that U.N. approval is likely and that the military operation could begin next year.
The disclosure that U.S. military planners have started to prepare for the intervention was made by officials from the State Department and Pentagon at a Senate hearing Wednesday. It was the clearest sign yet that the administration has decided to take a more aggressive stance against al-Qaeda’s growing affiliate in North Africa and to try to restore order in Mali, a Saharan country on the verge of collapse.
A military operation in Mali, however, will inevitably be messy and unpredictable. The chronic instability in the country, one of the world’s poorest and riven by tribal divisions and corruption, has rapidly worsened since Islamist extremists took control of northern Mali — a chunk of territory the size of Texas — this year.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, called northern Mali “the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world.”
Other U.S. officials said al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, which for years attracted limited global attention, poses an increasing threat. The group has become well-stocked with weapons smuggled out of Libya after the NATO-led war there last year. It finances its operations by smuggling rackets and by kidnapping foreigners for ransom.
At the same time, U.S. officials acknowledged that the group has not demonstrated an ability to launch terrorist attacks outside the region. Some independent analysts have questioned whether the administration’s strategy could backfire by embroiling the United States in an intractable local conflict.
Amanda J. Dory, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Africa, said the U.S. military has been able to gather intelligence to help shape the international force to fight Islamist extremists in northern Mali.
“There’s plenty of other forms of information and intelligence that are circulating that give us enough insight for planning purposes,” she said in an interview Wednesday after testifying before the subcommittee. “You never have as much information as you want, but it’s been sufficient for planning purposes.”
Dory emphasized that no U.S. ground troops would enter Mali, but she would not rule out the possibility of the Pentagon contributing U.S. warplanes to transport African troops or provide them with aerial cover.