Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed optimism Monday that Algeria could play a key role in a growing international push toward a military intervention in Mali, where recent months have seen an al Qaeda-linked extremist group seize control of an area roughly the size of California.
Mrs. Clinton was visiting Algeria on Monday as her first stop in a five-day overseas trip.
Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution giving leaders in North and West Africa 45 days to lay out a plan for such an intervention.
Specifics have yet to emerge, Mrs. Clinton said. She met Monday with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is committed to moving forward on discussion with the U.N. and other African leaders to “determine the most effective approaches that we should be taking.”
Algeria fought a civil war against various Islamist factions through the 1990s, and it remains to be seen how eagerly the Algerian president will be to commit troops to Mali, which borders Algeria to the south.
Algeria’s recent passage of several democratic reforms has forestalled the Arab Spring protests and revolution seen in nearby Tunisia and Libya, and the Algerian military-intelligence capabilities remain among the region’s most reliable.
Mr. Bouteflika embraced a cautious posture in meeting with Mrs. Clinton in Algiers, although the secretary of state said she “very much appreciated the president’s analysis based on his long experience to the many complicated factors that have to be addressed to deal with the internal insecurity in Mali and the terrorist and drug-trafficking threat that is posed to the region and beyond.”
Mali stumbled toward instability in March, when military operatives overthrew the nation’s president. The coup leaders have since handed control in the capital city of Bamako back to a civilian government.
But to the north, Islamist militants and rebels from the Tuareg ethnic group worked quickly to exploit last spring’s instability and seize control of a large section of Mali. Subsequent months have seen hard-line Islamist factions take control from the Tuareg ethnic group.
By mid-July, the U.N.’s refugee agency maintained that the entire northern region of Mali was “controlled by Islamists,” with some 450,000 Malians having been driven from their homes by violence.
The Obama administration and many Republicans in Washington have become increasingly eager to address the situation amid fears that northern Mali may be emerging as a haven for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The push for some kind of intervention has mounted in Washington, particularly in light of suspicions that AQIM may have played a role in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney referred to Mali twice during a recent foreign policy debate with President Obama.
Mr. Romney lumped the Northwest African nation with unrest in the Middle East as he argued that the past four years under Mr. Obama have brought a “rising tide of violence, chaos [and] tumult” with al Qaeda and “other jihadist groups rushing in.”
Mali also has been on the Obama administration’s radar. Maria Otero, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, was sent to Mali on Monday. She is the highest-ranking administration official to visit the country since the coup.
Mrs. Clinton made a point to make Algeria her first stop on her five-day trip that will focus predominantly on the Balkans, with stops in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo.
The administration has been keen to work as closely as possible with Algeria, which sits between Mali and Libya.
“Obviously, against the context of what happened in northern Mali when the government forces up there collapsed and the coup happened, Algeria’s importance in this realm has become ever more important,” one senior State Department official said. “We have an awful lot at stake here, an awful lot of common interests, and there’s a strong recognition that Algeria has to be a central part of the solution.”
“Our cooperation is going to be vital in terms of the restoration of order in northern Mali and reducing the space that AQIM has to operate in and the kinds of options it has available,” the official added.
A senior American diplomat in Africa, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that while the U.S. wants to see the rebels routed, it has no interest in active involvement in the military mission, unless Mali and West African states explicitly ask for such assistance.
The 15-nation regional bloc — the Economic Community of West African States — has discussed sending 3,000 troops to help oust the Islamist militants from northern Mali. There are, however, questions about the extent to which more troops may be needed.
U.S. officials seem wedded to the belief that a truly successful military intervention would require a major role from Algeria, whose reforms have headed off the Arab Spring tumult experienced by its neighbors and left it with the strongest military and best intelligence in the region.