The Obama administration has resolved its legal questions about supporting French military operations in Mali, but an internal debate is ongoing over whether more assistance is in U.S. policy interests.
The United States quickly responded to French requests for troop transport airlift and additional intelligence. But a two-week-old French call for U.S. refueling planes for French aircraft striking targets in Mali remains pending, U.S. and French officials said.
“What we’ve been working through is not viewing Mali as a one-off but rather as part of a continuum of counterterrorism efforts and decisions that we’re making to address the situation in northern Africa” over the medium and long term, a U.S. official said.
“We need to think through what our engagement means — what the risk of getting further engaged could be to U.S. personnel abroad, [and] the duration of time that we’re being asked to get involved ,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about a pending policy question.
A French official voiced strong appreciation for U.S. support, calling “relations with Washington on the Malian crisis permanent and confident.”
France has been reluctant to publicly criticize U.S. delay, and officials acknowledge that the need to supplement their own fleet of five refueling aircraft is not urgent. But with their own aircraft in Mali flying more than a thousand miles from a base in Chad, the French have expressed a need for refueling backup in case its troops need quick-reaction response as they move into insurgent-dominated northern Mali.
U.S. officials believe the French also want to keep their strike planes circling high above Mali as they wait for opportunistic targets.
Officials from both countries said they expected the refueling question to be resolved in the near future.
The administration has long expressed concern about al-Qaeda-related insurgents in North Africa, and had begun to position assets and develop a long-term strategy for the region. But the fast-developing Mali crisis came as a surprise.
France’s rapid intervention and requests for assistance were initially viewed in a legal context. The French were responding to a request from Mali, where U.S. law prohibits direct military aid because the government came to power last year in a coup. At the same time, U.S. officials were unsure whether they could legally aid France’s military operations without a United Nations or other international mandate.
In terms of counterterrorism, the administration has said it has domestic and international legal justification for action against al-Qaeda or any of its affiliates that threaten the United States or its citizens. But while the Algerian-based group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is a central player among the insurgents in Mali, it is not the only one.
“We did a legal scrub,” the U.S. official said, and determined that providing transport and fuel to France were no problem, as long as “we’re not taking shots.”
“Now, it’s a policy question,” the official said.
Policy concerns range from limited resources to aid the French operation, to uncertainty about whether more direct involvement in the Mali operation fits with long-term U.S. strategy in the region.
“We’re trying not to think in the abstract, and to make sure we’re also thinking through the long game,” the U.S. official said. France “will need our support helping with the transition to an international force” to take over from French troops, as well as a political transition to a more stable government.
The French official said his government was ready to stay in Mali “as long as it takes, but hope it will not be too long.”
The United States is already supporting and funding an effort to supplant about 3,000 French troops now involved in the Mali operation with an African force. Officials said that another option under U.S. consideration is an effort to organize a U.N. peacekeeping force for Mali.