JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Ethiopia for security talks with regional officials and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the African Union.
Kerry's visit is expected to include talks on African and Western efforts to fight Islamist extremists in Mali and northern Nigeria.
During recent talks with Nigeria's foreign minister, Kerry reaffirmed U.S. support for Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram militants in the north, where a state of emergency has been declared.
In Mali, French troops are winding up an offensive against Islamist fighters who had seized control of the north. Analysts say the U.S. is looking to help provide counterinsurgency training to regional forces who are taking over.
Kerry will join African leaders and other foreign dignitaries Saturday at an AU summit that will celebrate 50 years of the pan-African organization, originally called the Organization of African Unity.
Soldiers from the European Union are helping train Malian troops to fight insurgents linked to al-Qaida terrorists. The deployment of a regional intervention force to replace French and Chadian troops in Mali is a central security issue for the African Union.
It is also an opportunity for the United States to help provide counter-insurgency training, explained Jennifer Cooke, the Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The Islamists are thinking; 'Time is on our side on this. We will wait out the French. And then we'll have this very weak West African force to confront.' So that's a big dilemma," she noted.
Cooke said it is more than just a military challenge, because the African Union and Western allies need to help create civilian authorities to which Malian troops are accountable.
"Will the international community have the stomach now that the immediate threat is gone to stay with it, to stay supporting those forces, to stay on track with the pressure on a political solution and the governing structure eventually for the north?" Cooke asked.
African Union members also are facing continuing violence along the still-undecided border between Sudan and South Sudan where human rights groups say the outlawed Lord's Resistance Army is taking advantage of that instability.
At a time when Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is working to improve his image abroad, Human Rights Watch Deputy Washington Director Sarah Margon said it is an opportune moment for Sudan to distance itself from the LRA.
"It would really be in their interest, as they continue to try to re-emerge and regain their position in the international community, for them to tell to the LRA: 'This is not a place where you can continue to come. We will not allow it and we won't have it any more,'" Margon said.
African Union officials also are expected to discuss Nigeria's state of emergency against Boko Haram militants in the north.
Secretary Kerry reaffirmed Washington's support for Nigeria's fight against extremism and its leadership role on the continent in recent talks with Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru.
"We have a close working partnership, and Nigeria is a very important leader within the African Union as well as the Economic Community of West African States," Kerry said."Unfortunately, they are facing some tough violence in the northern part of the country, which we condemn."
While U.S. officials say they are concerned about the destabilizing threat that militants pose for Nigeria, they also are calling on Nigerian security forces to protect civilians in ways that respect human rights, following reports of a "heavy-handed response to insecurity" in some northern communities.