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Pentagon deploys small number of troops to war-torn Mali

French soldiers patrol the Mettatai region in northern Mali in March. (Arnaud Roine/AP)

The Pentagon has deployed a small number of troops to Mali to support allied forces fighting there, despite repeated pledges by the Obama administration not to put “boots on the ground” in the war-torn African country.

About 10 U.S. military personnel are in Mali to provide “liaison support” to French and African troops but are not engaged in combat operations, said Lt. Col. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman. Twelve others are assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, the capital, he added.

The Pentagon had previously said that it had no intention of sending troops to Mali and that it would involve itself in the conflict only at arm’s length — by providing aerial refueling to French warplanes and sharing intelligence with allies. It also said that it would ferry soldiers from neighboring African countries to Mali on U.S. troop transport planes but that the aircraft would not remain in the country.

“There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time,” Leon E. Panetta, then the secretary of defense, said Jan. 15, a few days after France intervened militarily in Mali to prevent Islamist fighters from taking control of the country.

That stance was echoed a month later by the State Department’s top diplomat for Africa. “We are assisting the French and we are assisting the Africans, but we have no intentions of putting boots on the ground or engaging our forces militarily there,” Johnnie Carson, then the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told a House committee.

The Obama administration has been prohibited by U.S. law from giving military aid to Mali since March 2012, when its democratically elected president was ousted in a coup. U.S. officials said they are legally permitted, however, to help French troops and forces from other African countries fighting in Mali.

Since the coup, there have been signs that some U.S. Special Operations forces have been deployed to Mali on undeclared missions. In April 2012, three U.S. soldiers were killed in a mysterious car crash in Bamako.

Last month, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) suggested that U.S. commandos were “taking action” in Mali. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Kline asked Adm. William H. McRaven, the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, whether his troops were coordinating their efforts with the French military.

“It seems to me that it might be a little awkward when you have French special operating forces taking action and presumably some of your forces taking action,” Kline said. “Otherwise, you’re going to be shooting each other.”

McRaven replied that U.S. troops were working closely with the French in Mali but did not elaborate on their mission.

“There is very close coordination on the ground,” he said. “Tactically, of course, the U.S. forces and the French forces and the African forces that are there in Mali on the ground, there are tactical communications going on day in and day out so that we de-conflict any movement.”

France has about 4,000 troops in Mali. It is hoping to withdraw most of its soldiers by the end of the year and hand over responsibility for securing the country to a U.N. peacekeeping force. Six French soldiers have been killed in Mali since January.

The U.N. operation, which would eventually involve more than 12,000 peacekeepers, is set to begin July 1. Under a resolution approved last week by the U.N. Security Council, the mission is contingent on a further assessment of the threat posed to the peacekeepers by armed militants.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.



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