CAPITOL HILL - Senior Obama administration officials are defending their response to requests for French assistance in the European country's military operations in the West African country of Mali.
Testifying in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said the United States is pledging to help with Mali's long-term stability after the current crisis is resolved.
A January military offensive by French and Malian army forces drove Islamist militants from towns and cities across northern Mali, where they had imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, raising fears the region could become a base for international terrorists.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican, praised France for taking military decisive action but faulted Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration for not responding quickly enough to requests from Paris for help.
“When France sought U.S. assistance, the administration was tepid in answering our allies’ calls," said Royce. "It seems the bureaucracy slowed our pace of support.”
But the top State and Defense Department officials testifying at the hearing defended the U.S. response. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat to Africa, detailed U.S. support.
“The United States strongly supports France’s efforts and has actively engaged to assist France in Mali," he said. "As of February 13th, we have conducted 22 refueling missions.”
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Carson said the U.S. Air Force has also flown 43 C-17 sorties to support French and Chadian personnel, providing supplies, equipment and intelligence.
Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman said the U.S. cannot and should not always be in the lead in fighting terrorists around the world.
“But the fact is, we need allies and we cannot always be in the lead in every theater in this conflict," said Sherman. "In this case, we are behind, and we should stand behind France and applaud their efforts in Mali.”
France is beginning to wind down its mission as West African troops move into Mali. The United Nations is considering plans to assume control of an international peacekeeping force in the country.
But Chairman Royce warned that he fears there is not much peace in Mali to be kept, and that what is needed are battle-hardened forces like those of the French Foreign Legion.
Assistant Secretary of State Carson said the transition from West African forces to U.N. peacekeeping forces would not be hasty or premature, but that advance planning is important.
Carson also cautioned that Mali’s problems are complex and cannot be solved by military intervention alone. He said that peacekeeping efforts must be accompanied by democratic elections in Mali, free from intimidation and interference.
Carson pledged long-term U.S. support for peace and stability in Mali, saying any military success there will be "fleeting" without a democratic government that responds to the needs of all Malians.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.