Why US is helping France fight Islamist forces in Mali, Somalia

The US decision to help France with its military campaign comes in light of the growing threat posed by two extremist Islamist groups in northern Mali, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday. Here's what the US is contributing.

Joe Penney/Reuters
French air force technicians work on a Mirage F-1 fighter jet at the Malian army air base in Bamako January 14. France plans to increase its troops in Mali to 2,500 in the days ahead and is working to speed up the deployment of West African troops for a campaign against Islamist rebels, the government said on Monday.

The United States acknowledged this week that it is providing military assistance to French forces attacking Islamist strongholds in two African nations.

That assistance, Pentagon officials stress, is limited – and a clear signal of an evolving, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan strategy for the US armed forces.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday, while en route to meetings in Europe, that the decision “to try to help” France in its military campaign came in light of the growing extremist threat posed by two groups in northern Mali, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

While these groups “might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and Europe,” Mr. Panetta said, “that ultimately still remains their objective.” 

Some defense analysts question how effective limited US aid can be – and has been – in combatting intricate networks of terrorist groups on the African continent.

On Sunday, US fighter jets briefly entered Somalia's air space to try to help French forces rescue a hostage held by the  Al Shabab terrorist network. The mission did not end well: The hostage appears to have been killed in the crossfire, and one of the French commandos who took part in the mission is reported missing.

Officials say the US will provide help in the form of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance drones to French warplanes currently conducting strikes in Mali on purported terrorist forces and training camps.

US Special Operations Forces had been training Malian military troops in the hopes of providing a bulwark against terrorists in the region – that is, until one US-trained soldier launched a military coup against the government. 

“The coup in Mali progressed very rapidly and with very little warning,” a spokesman with US Africa Command told The New York Times this week. “The spark that ignited it occurred within their junior military ranks, who ultimately overthrew the government, not at the senior leadership level where warning signs might have been more easily noticed.” 

French forces are now trying to stop the march of Islamist forces in the north toward the capital of Bamako.

In all likelihood, the French action has precluded the possibility that the international community will manage to assemble military units from the security forces of the previous government, under African leadership, says Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“It was going to take quite a number of months to assemble that force and deploy it, even before you could tell how effective it would be,” she says. “The calculus was that time was running out and the Islamists could not be allowed to progress further south.”

The United States has been reluctant to get involved in large-scale operations or even to act unilaterally, as France is doing now, in the wake of protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – costly wars whose ultimate value remains hotly debated, particularly in a time of US fiscal crisis.

Yet the counterterrorism effort in Africa, which includes training local forces as well as frequent drone strikes, “clearly has proven insufficient,” Dr. Bensahel says.

[Editor’s note: The original version of this article misquoted Dr. Bensahel.]

What’s more, the multinational strike on Libya, in which the US military took part in 2011, has had unintended consequence of pushing veteran fighters into Mali, “increasing weapons and know-how,” she adds.

Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that the tactic of US troops training counterparts in Africa “is the right one, but it’s a long-term engagement.” He adds, “And you’re faced with the problem of, well, what do you do in the meantime?”

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