LISBON – The Pentagon may become involved in military operations against Islamist rebels in the West African country of Mali by providing airlift and “limited logistical support” to French troops fighting there, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday.
“We have a responsibility to go after al-Qaeda wherever they are,” Panetta told reporters as he began a weeklong trip to Europe. “We’re going after them in Yemen and Somalia, and we have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa, in Mali.”
U.S. defense officials said they were reviewing requests for assistance from France, which sent troops to Mali on Friday in an urgent attempt to prevent Islamist rebels and other guerrillas from overrunning the ragtag Malian army. Islamist fighters and Tuareg rebels have gained control of the northern half of the country over the past year, enabling al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa to function unimpeded in a swath of territory the size of Texas.
Panetta declined to provide further details about what kind of military assistance the Pentagon might bring to the conflict, but said one option under consideration would be to deploy transport aircraft that move French troops or equipment.
The Obama administration has previously ruled out placing “U.S. boots on the ground” in Mali. Officials traveling with Panetta declined to comment when asked if U.S. transport aircraft might actually land in Mali to help the French, or if the territory remained off limits.
The United States, France, the United Nations Security Council and several African countries have been working for months on a joint plan to intervene militarily in Mali, one of the poorest and most remote countries in the world.
The planning, however, has been undermined by strategic disagreements, a lack of firm commitments to send troops and Mali’s internal political dysfunctions. The country’s democratically elected president was toppled last March in a coup led by a rogue Army captain who had received military training in the United States. Factionalism has worsened since then as Islamist fighters have tightened their grip on the northern half of the country.
Another complication is that the United States is prohibited by law from providing direct military assistance to the Malian government because of the coup. The Pentagon had to shut down training and aid programs in Mali last year and remove virtually all military personnel.
The U.S. military already has been sharing intelligence about the Mali rebels with France, an exchange that will continue, according to a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. The official said the Pentagon was also considering whether to deploy tanker aircraft to Africa to provide mid-air refueling for French warplanes.
The United States has conducted surveillance over Mali for years with satellites, high-altitude Global Hawk drones based in Europe and small PC-12 turboprop planes based in Burkina Faso, on Mali’s southern border.
Flying armed Reaper or Predator drones over Mali is not an immediate option, however; the Pentagon lacks a base in the region for those aircraft.
The turmoil in Mali was triggered, in part, by a flood of fighters and weaponry arriving from Libya after that country’s civil war erupted. When Libyan ruler Col. Moammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011 – thanks largely to a NATO-led military intervention -- many mercenaries and Tuareg rebels who had supported him crossed the Sahara to return to Mali, further stressing the already weak government there.
Asked if the NATO’s involvement in Libya was partly to blame for the unrest in Mali, Panetta did not answer directly but said that al-Qaeda factions have demonstrated an ability to adapt by moving to new regions.
“With the turmoil in Mali, they found it convenient to use that situation to gain some traction there,” he told reporters on his plane while flying to Europe. “There’s no question as you confront them in Yemen, in Somalia, in Libya that they’ll ultimately try to relocate. The fact is, we’ve made a commitment that al-Qaeda is not going to find any place to hide.”
Panetta is scheduled to meet with NATO allies this week in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Britain in what he said is “likely” is last international trip as defense secretary. President Obama has nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed him.