- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Entering a more visible phase of counterterrorism operations in Northern Africa, the White House said Tuesday it is sharing intelligence with France and considering a request to provide military aid in the French fight against Islamist extremists in Mali.

However, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, traveling in Europe, ruled out the possibility of U.S. combat forces being involved. “There is no consideration of U.S. boots on the ground,” he told reporters Tuesday.

State Department officials said that support could include cargo planes to shuttle troops in and out of theater, flying tankers for aerial refueling, ammunition, spare parts, and even troops’ rations.

“We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region, and we support the French operation,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “We are supporting the French by sharing information. And we are considering requests for logistical support.”

French fighter jets have struck Islamist strongholds deep inside Mali’s vast northern desert in recent days, and the French government said it plans to triple the number of fighting forces to 2,500. The U.N. Security Council has condemned the takeover in the north by Islamist extremist groups and tribal rebels, and authorized a peacekeeping force last year.

But the African-led force was not slated to deploy until the fall, and last week, after a series of significant military gains by rebels, Mali’s president asked the French military to step in in the former French colony. Since granting independence to its former African colonies, Paris has maintained a close interest in them and has staged several military interventions in recent decades.

U.S. military officials said they will provide assistance to the French, but gave no details, because “they are still being hammered out,” U.S. Africa Command spokesman Maj. Robert A. Firman told The Washington Times.

He said there would be an announcement from the Pentagon “soon.”

Mr. Carney said it was in the national interest of the United States to help stabilize the U.N.-backed interim government in Mali’s capital, Bamako. A loose secessionist coalition of Islamist militias and Tuareg tribal rebels have expelled the Malian military from the northern half of the country, and concern is mounting that extremists will use the vast desert as a base for terrorist operations in the West.

“It’s also imperative that the transitional government of Mali present a political road map for a return to democratic governance and negotiations with groups that reject terrorism and accept a unified Mali,” Mr. Carney said.

French authorities raised the terrorism-threat level in Paris over the weekend, bracing for possible retaliation from Islamist terrorist cells in Europe.

Mr. Carney said the U.S. would play a secondary role in the military operation in Mali.

“The operation that the French have undertaken in Mali is one that we support, but it is a French operation,” Mr. Carney said. “When you talk about other al Qaeda affiliates or other similarly inclined terrorist organizations, we work with our allies around the world to assist their efforts to deprive terrorists of safe havens or deal with terrorist organizations that represent threats, in the case of Mali, to French citizens.”

Mr. Obama spoke with French President Francois Hollande last week.

“We will stay in close touch with the French government and other international partners as the situation [in Mali] develops,” Mr. Carney said.

Story Continues →