PENTAGON — Pentagon officials say the United States is preparing to offer logistical support to France as it continues to carry out air strikes against Islamist militants in northern Mali. The Pentagon has already begun to assist French forces with intelligence to help push back the militants’ advances, but the U.S. is warning against action that may bring further chaos to the region.
French fighter jets have been carrying out air strikes around the clock, hitting training camps and other positions held by Islamist rebels in the north of the vast West African country.
Pentagon officials last week said they are close to finalizing a decision on what type of logistical support to offer France for Mali. Officials said the U.S. is already providing intelligence gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles operating in the region.
Speaking on a flight to Europe, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commended France for taking the lead in the fight to rid North and West Africa of militants including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb group.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali. We’ve been very concerned about AQIM and their efforts to establish a very strong base in that area," he said.
Panetta said he promised to help France, but said that support will be limited.
“It’s basically kind of in three areas that we’re looking at. One is to obviously provide limited logistical support. Two is to provide intelligence support. And three, to provide some airlift capability as well," he said.
Analysts say there is a reason for Washington not to push for a more direct role in the conflict. Thomas Dempsey is a retired U.S. Army colonel who works with the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“We need to be careful, in a well-intentioned desire to counter violent extremists, that we do not fan the flames of civil conflict in northern Mali, that we don’t encourage local groups to take up arms against each other, and that we don’t make the violence worse," he said.
The U.S. aim is to go after al-Qaida-linked militants in Africa. In keeping with President Obama’s new defense strategy, it wants to do so without direct intervention, focusing instead on training the militaries of allied partner nations.
France’s immediate goals are to push back the militants’ advance in order to allow African peacekeepers to move in and start securing northern Mali for an eventual return to government control.
But after last year’s military coup, there is no functional, legitimate government in place to retake control. And there is no long-term plan in place, which Dempsey says makes it difficult for the United States to offer more direct assistance.
“You need to know where you want to end up before you start. I’m not convinced that everyone involved here has a clear picture of where you want to end up," he said.
The French intervention has come at the request of Mali’s interim leaders. Next will be the task of replacing those leaders with a legitimate and stable government that is able to take control of the North.
Before that happens, analysts say Mali will have to resolve political problems that include long-simmering grievances of Tuareg separatists whose rebellion last year led to the coup and the Islamists’ takeover of the north.
Jennifer Cooke is an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group in Washington.
“Dislodging the Islamists from the north, that will be another very complicated and long term process. The bigger problem will be the political one. What process can restore legitimacy to the government in Bamako? What eventual political framework can hold Mali together and can secure the North, because the North will be very difficult to secure through military means only. You’re going to need a political arrangement," she said.
Cooke says it is a process that could take years.