The French mission to Mali is winding down but the international forces preparing to take up the slack need American military assistance the Obama administration is unwilling to provide, according to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who just returned from a trip to Africa.
McCain traveled over the congressional recess to Mali, Libya, and Tunisia, and told The Cable in an interview that a lack of U.S. attention to North Africa and the Sahel region is exacerbating the instability there and hurting those countries' ability to fight the growing threat of extremists, including those linked to al Qaeda. McCain is calling on President Barack Obama to remove a restriction that is preventing the Department of Defense from providing direct assistance to Mali's military.
"We need to have DOD assistance as much as feasible and necessary to prevent Mali from deteriorating further into a chaotic situation," McCain said. "A lot of these al Qaeda types melted into the population or into the mountains and the French by no means eliminated them, although they did eliminate a lot of them."
There's a restriction in U.S. law that prevents the State Department from assisting any government that has come to power via a military coup, as was the situation in Mali. But the Obama administration has decided on its own to extend that restriction to the Pentagon, and that decision is reversible, McCain will tell Obama in a forthcoming letter, he said.
"Unfortunately the White House has interpreted the law as not allowing DOD to provide that kind of assistance. I am strongly urging the administration to provide them with the support that could be important," McCain said.
Without putting U.S. boots on the ground, the Pentagon could help Mali's indigenous forces with logistics, intelligence, training, advisory services, and material assistance, he said. But the Obama administration doesn't want to get too deeply involved, McCain explained.
"It's the overall light-footprint policy of this administration," he said. "There's a lack of cohesiveness coming from the United States."
McCain sparred with two Defense Department officials about Mali at a Tuesday Senate Armed Services Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). The two officials, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet, said they didn't think U.S. help for the Mali military was necessary at this time.
"Right now we don't need the Malian army per se," said Sheehan. "The French are working with the Malian army in the north, helping them to take on their security responsibilities. And it's a very weak army, notwithstanding all the aid that we provided them over the last five years or so. It's an organization -- because of the coup and because of [coup leader] Captain Sanogo and his thugs that are still hanging around the margins of this army -- it remains to be seen how it will evolve and develop into a professional force. The EU has taken on the mission of retraining and re- professionalizing them. We have policy restrictions against that."
Sheehan noted that the after the French depart, security will be in the hands of the ECOWAS mission, which he admitted "hasn't been really up to the task." McCain asked Sheehan if al Qaeda will reconstitute itself in Mali after French forces leave.
"They are leaving, and we'll see whether AQIM will be able to establish a strategic capability from there over the years ahead," Sheehan said, using the common acronym for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group's North Africa affiliate.
McCain also pressed Sheehan and Chollet to say whether or not they believed "the tide of war is receding," as President Obama often says. Both Sheehan and Chollet tried to dodge the question but McCain kept pressing them, for example when Chollet talked about the situation in Iraq.
"I think Iraq is more stable today than many thought several years ago," Chollet said.
"Really? You really think that?" McCain said.
"I do," Chollet responded.
"Then you're uninformed," McCain shot back.