The Obama administration is considering significant military backing for France’s drive against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mali, but its support for a major ally could test U.S. legal boundaries and stretch counterterrorism resources in a murky new conflict.
The United States is already providing surveillance and other intelligence help to France and may soon offer military support such as transport or refueling planes, according to U.S. officials, who stressed that any assistance would stop short of sending American combat forces to the volatile West African nation.
At the same time, the administration is navigating a thicket of questions about military support and how far it could go in aiding the French without violating U.S. law or undermining policy objectives.
Direct military aid to Mali is forbidden under U.S. law because the weak rump government there seized power in a coup. U.S. moves are further complicated by uncertainty about which militants would be targeted in an assault.
The loosely affiliated web of Malian militants in the country’s north includes members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). But other fighters are longtime foes of the Malian government and pose no direct threat to U.S. interests.
“Our goal is to do what we can,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Tuesday during a visit to Spain. “The fundamental objective is to ensure that AQIM — al-Qaeda — never establishes a base of operations in Mali or anywhere else.”
France launched fresh airstrikes in Mali on Tuesday and said it will triple the size of its combat force there. The punishing bombing campaign has failed to stop the militants’ advance, and the additional forces suggest preparation for a ground assault.
The Obama administration is wary of deepening its involvement in the conflict. But the United States shares French concern about the militants’ territorial gains. It is also eager to help a top ally with which it has worked closely on counterterrorism issues in Africa, a senior administration official said.
On all sides, the overriding fear is that the militants will create a terrorist haven in rugged northern Mali similar to the one that fighters secured in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
U.S. officials have said publicly that they are evaluating France’s requests for further assistance. But privately, they say that one of the critical requests relates to intelligence that could be used for targeting purposes, said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about intelligence and diplomatic matters.
Evaluating the request involves “understanding what the French objectives are and really how they intend to go about them and against whom,” the official said.
The official was not specific about whether the surveillance being shared with France comes from drones or from satellites.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “They’ve asked for support with airlift. They’ve asked for support with aerial refueling. We are already providing information, and we are looking hard today at the airlift question, helping them transport forces from France and from the area into the theater, and also at the refueling question.”
The Pentagon has begun identifying transport and tanker planes that might be used, but U.S. officials cautioned that resources in the region are slim and that French requests have shifted.
“We’re not providing logistics support, whether airlift, refueling,” yet, the official said. “There is a little bit of a cold-start aspect there.”
Any additional U.S. help could go to French forces directly or to African backup forces, which are expected to begin arriving soon. The European Union said Tuesday that it will speed up a troop-training mission in Mali, which now is likely to be launched in the second half of February or in early March. The E.U. is not planning any direct combat role.
“We have limited assets in the region we can bring in for lift,” the U.S. official said. “Is it best for French troops, or should we be moving Nigerians or troops from Togo or Benin?”
The official said contingency plans for the use of armed drones were already in place and are being reevaluated. The official would not be more specific.
France, the former colonial power in Mali and neighboring Algeria, has led international efforts to confront the Islamist militants who exploited last year’s coup to co-opt a homegrown Malian ethnic conflict.
For months, French officials insisted that only African soldiers would fight. Despite early reservations, the United States backed French-led efforts to initiate an international military force backed by the United Nations. That force was to deploy later this year, but the militants have moved much faster.
“We have one objective,” French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday. “To make sure when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer threaten its territory.”
The French reinforcements will bring the total number of French troops in Mali from 800 to 2,500, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to possible logistical support, the United States wants France and its partners to lay out a strategic plan for Mali that goes beyond short-term military intervention.
The United States withdrew military support for Mali, once a promising democratic example in Africa, because of the coup. Embarrassingly for Washington, the coup leader had received military training in the United States, defense officials said.
The Obama administration is now working to hurry along the African force. Britain, Canada, Belgium, Denmark and perhaps Germany would help provide logistics for the African deployment, a French diplomat said.
The United States had always been expected to foot a large share of the bill for the African-led force, but it had hoped that the planned slow rollout of the force would allow time to attract more donors.
For now, the United States will redirect about $8 million in unused aid and will ask Congress for additional money, Nuland said.
Colum Lynch contributed from the United Nations to this report.