The French government has made a number of requests for U.S. assistance for its intervention in Mali, but the Obama administration won't say if it has decided to use U.S. military assets to help French forces fighting there.
Several reports Monday said the Obama administration was already moving to aid the French military intervention in Mali, which began over the weekend, by readying surveillance drones and intelligence assets in the region. French airplanes struck deep inside Mali Sunday as part of the new campaign to aid local forces that are trying to take back control over large swathes of the country from Islamic extremist groups, including Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
The U.S. position for months had been to urge caution when considering intervention, which could provoke backlash. U.S. U.N. ambassador Susan Rice reportedly once called a previous plan for ECOWAS to train Malian government forces in Southern Mali to retake the North "crap" (Rice's office disputes that report but maintains the plan would not have been likely to succeed). But now that the French have gone in, the United States seems poised to help.
"We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven. We are in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made for support. We are reviewing the requests that they have made, but I don't have any decisions to announce yet today," said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Notably, she did not say the decision is yet to be made, only that the administration is not ready to tell the public.
The U.S. government wants the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) to speed its own deployment of troops into Mali and ECOWAS leaders will meet on the issue Wednesday, Nuland said. She added that the United States is prepared to send teams from the Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance (ACOTA) program there this week. ACOTA is a State Department program funded through the office of peace keeping operations.
The United States won't be providing direct military support to the Mali government forces, only ECOWAS and possibly French forces, Nuland said. The European Union could provide such support and will hold a foreign ministers' meeting on the issue Jan. 17.
"We are not in a position to support the Malian military directly until we have democratic processes restored by way of an election in Mali," Nuland said. "And we very much believe that there is no purely security solution to the problems in Mali."
The United States is also pushing, on a parallel track, dialogue between all stakeholders who are not engaged in active terrorism. The goal is for elections to happen in April.
Nuland also acknowledged that AQIM forces in Mali are better trained and equipped than previously thought.
"We've been clear about that all along that we think AQIM is playing a significant role in this," she said.
Some reporters at today's State Department briefing noted that the French also struck first in Libya, after which the United States joined the fight. Nuland rejected the notion that France is dragging America into another war in North Africa.
"We'll make our own national decisions now with regard to the kinds of support that France may need that we'd be willing to offer," she said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.