French forces quickly dislodged terrorist enclaves from the West African nation of Mali during the past month, but a high-ranking State Department official told Congress on Thursday that the threat is long-term and that containing this branch of al Qaeda is a challenge that covers the whole region.
Framing the threat as regional, Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told a House committee hearing that the leadership of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali is actually composed of Algerian and Mauritanian terrorists.
U.S. authorities "remain concerned about the continued presence of terrorist and extremist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," Mr. Carson warned the Committee on Foreign Affairs, saying that "neutralizing the full scope of the terrorist threat in Mali" would be "a long-term effort."
Compounding the situation is the fact that the group has gotten its hands on weaponry that U.S. allies originally channeled to nearby Libya, to aid groups that were fighting for the ouster of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi two years ago.
After Gadhafi's fall, the weapons "moved in all different directions" and were "very difficult to track," said Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, who also appeared before the House panel Thursday.
What's "clear," Mrs. Dory said, was that at least some weapons made their way south and west and into the hands of AQIM operatives in Mali.
The hearing was convened by House members concerned about whether the Obama administration is pursuing an effective strategy in the region beyond following France, the former colonial master in Mali and several of its neighbors.
Thousands of French troops entered Mali last month on a mission to drive out AQIM-linked rebels who had seized control of a vast stretch of territory after the Mali's government fell in a military coup last year.
The U.S. provided airlift and intelligence support to French troops. While recent weeks have seen a movement of African Union peacekeeping forces into Mali to bolster the French operation, Mr. Carson said the Obama administration would support a "transition to a U.N.-authorized and U.N.-led effort" to "solidify French gains on the ground."
More immediately, however, he said, Washington must now prepare to focus attention and resources toward the long-term effort of helping Mali develop a sustainable government.
"The gains achieved by French and African forces on the battlefield in northern Mali will be short-lived if not accompanied by elections, strengthened institutions and national reconciliation to restore Mali's tradition of democratic governance," Mr. Carson said in prepared remarks submitted to the House panel.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised the swiftness and effectiveness of French intervention, with several Democrats also voicing confidence in the Obama administration's decision to follow the French lead in Mali.
"In this case, we are behind, and we should be behind France," said Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat.
Some Republicans, however, were critical -- on the one hand questioning the Obama administration's move to allow others to lead on the fight against terrorism, while on the other hand cautioning the administration against too deeply entangling the U.S. in the Mali conflict.
Two years ago, the Republican-controlled House locked horns with Mr. Obama over Libya by passing a nonbinding resolution that accused him of failing to adequately consult Congress before authorizing military action in Libya.
With regard to Mali, the administration has argued that last year's coup means U.S. law actually prohibits direct American aid to the Malian military, though Mr. Carson argued Thursday that a caveat in the law allows for the U.S. to channel aid toward the establishment of democratic elections in Mali.
Some Republicans were skeptical of the Obama administration's plans. "We could be getting ourselves involved in a quagmire," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.
Mr. Carson responded that the administration has "no intentions of putting boots on the ground or engaging our military forces" in Mali.
Mr. Rohrabacher was less than convinced. "It sounds to me like we're trying to be the kingmakers, and in the end, everyone's going to end up hating us."
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