The U.S. today pledged to aid France's widening aerial assault on al Qaeda-linked rebels in Northern Mali, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would provide the French with intelligence and airlift support and the State Department said it would send civilian contractors to the region as early as this week to train an African-led military force.
"I commend France for taking the steps it has," Panetta told reporters. "We have promised that we'll work with them and cooperate with them."
Panetta said he did not want to "go into all the particulars" about the nature of U.S. assistance, "but it suffices to say that it's basically in three areas. … One is, provide limited logistical support; two, provide intelligence support; and three, provide some airlift capabilities."
France began military action Friday at Mali's request after the radical Islamist rebels began a rapid advance south. By Sunday, French jets had bombed training camps in militant areas and hundreds of French forces were involved.
Panetta said the rebels' push south had added urgency to the situation.
"It was clear to France and all of us that that could not be allowed to continue, and that is the reason France has engaged, and it is the reason we are providing cooperation," Panetta said.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Monday the Obama administration has agreed to help coordinate and train an African-led force, which will be structured under the West African regional organization known as ECOWAS. The force will receive a mandate by the United Nations, similar to the African peacekeeping force in Somalia AMISOM. The United States has historically been the primary funder of AMISOM, but Nuland said it is too early to determine whether the same will be true for the force going to fight in Mali.
"It was France who was requested to help by the Malians," said Nuland. "They had the assets to do it. They were willing to do it. They are asking us to help them in a number of ways that we are now reviewing."
Said Nuland, "We have traditionally had relationships of burden- sharing when we embark on global security operations. It speaks to the strength of our allies and our ability to share burden around the world with them."
For months U.S. officials have been involved in discussions with leaders from France, Mali, and neighboring West African countries about the best way to proceed militarily against the Islamist extremist groups who seized the northern half of the country last April. The jihadists are accused of human rights abuses such as enlisting child soldiers and stoning to death women accused of adultery as they enforce a strict interpretation of Sharia law.
The top U.S. military commander for Africa, General Carter Ham, recently said there is evidence that extremists from other African countries have traveled to Mali to train with the al Qaeda affiliate that has moved into the country.
Intervention by a UN-backed ECOWAS force wasn't expected to come for several more months, but late last week the rebels pushed further south to capture another key city. On Friday, France surprised many by immediately sending warplanes to push the rebels back and is continuing to go after rebel targets in northern and central Mali.
While France has greater political and economic ties to its former colony, the United States has long shared concerns about terrorists finding safe haven in the country's desolate northern region. The U.S. military has been involved in counterterrorism operations in Mali since 2002. In the past decade, Mali has been among several West African countries that received training from the U.S. military intended to improve security in the region by strengthening the nations' ability to defend against jihadists and rebel groups. The U.S. is also involved in intelligence gathering, with the frequent use of surveillance drones to keep an eye on extremist groups.
Panetta told reporters he could not say how long the fight against the Islamist rebel groups in Mali would take, but analysts expect it could become a long, difficult battle against the rebels who are well armed with the weapons that flooded into Mali after the fall of neighboring Libya last year.
"It will likely last for quite some time," said African analyst Mark Schroeder of the U.S.-based global security analysis firm Stratfor. "The rebels in northern Mali have been embedded among the local population there and know where to hide in the mountains."
"This is home for the jihadists in northern Mali, and they are going to fight for it," said Schroeder.