“I very much appreciate the president’s analysis, based on his long experience, as to the many complicated factors that have to be addressed to deal with the internal insecurity in Mali and the terrorist and drug-trafficking threat that is posed for the region and beyond,” Clinton said after a lengthy meeting with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Clinton said the United States and Algeria agreed to keep talking, along with potential sponsors of the antiterrorism force, including the United Nations.
Clinton was seeking agreement from Bouteflika at the start of an unrelated diplomatic trip to the Balkans. French President Francois Hollande is expected to visit Algeria in December, with a goal of finalizing regional support for a military mission early next year.
A proposed international force to confront the militants is considered impossible without Algerian support. But Algeria has been reluctant to agree to the creation of such a coalition, whose troops could push extremists out of Mali and back across its own borders.
“They’re beginning to warm to the idea, to talk through how it might work,” a State Department official said before the meetings.
Algeria is the strongest country in the North African region known as the Sahel, with unmatched military and intelligence resources. Many of the Islamist militant groups in the region originated in Algeria, where secular government forces fought Islamic militias in a civil war in the 1990s.
The spreading terrorism campaign and humanitarian crisis in Mali have drawn unusual attention in Washington over the past month. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney mentioned the Mali conflict at the start of last week’s foreign policy debate with President Obama, and several Cabinet officials are involved in planning for an African intervention force.
Officials have linked a group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to the attack at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last month. AQIM’s leaders are based in northern Mali, where they seized territory following a military coup that shattered the government last spring.
Many Western powers fear that the Sahara desert nation could become like Afghanistan before the 2001 terrorist attacks: a base for radical Islamist fighters to train, impose hard-line Islamic law and plot terrorist attacks in the region or beyond. The Islamists in Mali have access to a flood of weapons from bordering Libya.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said last week that the Pentagon is working with allies on a plan to deal with al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mali and elsewhere in North Africa, with U.S. assistance likely to center on intelligence and logistical support.