- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2013

U.S. officials voiced support Monday for France’s military campaign against al Qaeda-linked rebels in Mali, and downplayed the notion that the United States is on the verge of getting pulled into a widening conflict in the West African nation.

“I commend France for taking the steps that it has,” said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, adding that the Pentagon has promised to cooperate with French forces and “provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them.”

His assertions came as Islamist rebels seized new territory about 250 miles outside Mali’s capital of Bamako, despite attempts by French warplanes to pound rebel strongholds for a third day.

Mr. Panetta said the U.S. has “a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.”

But questions arose Monday about the role Washington ultimately will play in the conflict.

At the State Department, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton disputed weekend claims by French authorities that the U.S. already is providing “communications and transport” help to French forces in Mali.

“We’re in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “We’re reviewing the requests that they have made, but I don’t have any decisions to announce yet today.”

Authorities said about 400 French troops have been deployed to Mali since Paris began its intervention Friday. As many as 6,000 French citizens live in Mali, and the two nations share a colonial past.

The push for intervention mounted in Washington late last year amid suspicion that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may have played a role in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed.

Diplomats from the United Nations to the African Union have been monitoring the situation in Mali for months.

Mali stumbled toward instability last spring, when military operatives overthrew its president. Taking advantage of the governmental disarray, Islamist militants took control of a large swath of Mali’s north.

By July, the U.N.’s refugee agency was reporting that Mali’s entire northern region was “controlled by Islamists,” with some 450,000 Malians having been driven from their homes by violence.

U.S. and European authorities have said that the Islamists have ties to AQIM — opening the possibility that Mali is devolving into a safe haven for al Qaeda devotees from across North Africa.

“We’ve been very concerned about AQIM and their efforts to establish a very strong base in that area,” Mr. Panetta said Monday.

Defense officials said there has been discussion about providing limited logistic and airlift support, along with intelligence-sharing with French forces.

The debate over how best to get involved, however, has been tricky for the Obama administration, which faced criticism for “leading from behind” in the international intervention in Libya in 2011.

On Monday, Mrs. Nuland rejected the idea that the U.S. was dragged into the Libyan conflict by European forces unable to carry out the mission by themselves, saying the effort to oust dictator Moammar Ghadafi was “a shared NATO-led operation under a U.N. Security Council Resolution.”

She said French forces were justified in entering Mali because the Malian government had formally asked Paris for help, adding that the U.S. can play only a limited role without assurances that the Malian government is truly democratic.

The U.S. is in talks with the Economic Community of West African States “with regard to supporting the deployment of African troops to support the Malian military,” she said.

“But 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,” Mrs. Nuland said.