U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the United States is not considering sending ground troops to Mali to work with French forces that began an assault on militant Islamist rebels in the country last Friday. But during a visit to Portugal he said the U.S. military will help the French in other ways.
Panetta commended France for sending troops to try to prevent al-Qaida's North African affiliate from establishing a base of operations in Mali. But he indicated there is a limit to the help the United States will provide.
"There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time," said Panetta.
Foreign Troop Commitments to Mali
France 2,000 on the ground, 500 more committed
Chad to send 2,000
Nigeria to send 1,200
Benin to send 650
Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Togo have committed 500 each
Guinea and Ghana are also sending troops
On Monday, on his way to Portugal, Secretary Panetta said U.S. forces would help with intelligence, logistics and air transport. But officials say discussions are continuing with France on exactly what U.S. forces will do.
At his news conference in Lisbon Tuesday, Panetta said the French move against what is called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is important for security beyond Africa. He said the group does not currently have the ability to attack the United States, but would like to develop it. And he indicated that establishing a base in Mali would be part of that plan.
"The fact is that the war on terrorism continues," said Panetta. "We have made good progress. We have undermined their ability to conduct the kind of attacks that they would like to conduct. But the war on terrorism continues."
Panetta is in Europe to consult with allies on a variety of subjects, but his trip does not include a stop in France, which is pounding rebel positions in Mali with air assaults and has sent in hundreds of ground troops. French officials were concerned that the militant Islamists, who control northern Mali, were on the verge of overrunning a key government-controlled town in the central part of its former colony, a move that could have exposed the capital to rebel attacks.
Several West African countries are also expected to send troops, with the first contingent, from Nigeria, expected by Wednesday.