The U.S. has been stressing the avoidance of “mission creep” in Mali even as American support increases for the French-led effort to oust Al Qaeda affiliates from the vast West African desert state.
Through last week, Air Force C17 Globemasters had flown 47 missions to Mali, ferrying 975 French troops and more than 1,200 tons of equipment and supplies to the fight against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb rebels for control of northern Mali, according to Defense Department figures.
The Air Force had also flown 83 refueling missions delivering more than 544,000 gallons of gas to French Rafale and Mirage attack aircraft in close air support of French and Chad troops.
In March, President Obama authorized $50 million in “immediate military assistance to Chad and France in their efforts to secure Mali from terrorists and violent extremists.” The State Department has also committed $6.6 million to support free elections in Mali.
The White House also disclosed plans to set up a base in neighboring Niger to operate drone flights over Mali for the French, and also monitor the cross-border movement of fighters from the Boko Haram extremist group in Nigeria in support of AQIM. For now, the Predator and Reaper drones will be unarmed and used only for intelligence and reconnaissance, Defense Department officials said.
In addition, the U.S. Africa Command has spent $550 million over the past four years to train and equip West African security forces in stabilizing the shaky regimes of the region and in combating terrorism.
Last week, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, summed up the U.S. efforts in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, stressing that U.S. forces were strictly limited to a support role and would not engage in combat.
“We are supporting French efforts with information, airlift, and refueling, and are working with the Department of State to support the deployment of West African forces to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali,” Ham said.
“Recently, we began unarmed, remotely piloted aircraft operations from Niger in support of intelligence gathering efforts in the region,” Ham said.
Ham said the inroads made by AQIM were “worrisome to me,” but "I think we have an opportunity now to work a preventive effort in concert with African forces and with allies and friends globally to suppress the threat, to reverse the trend.”
"And that does not necessitate a large commitment of U.S. forces,” said Ham, who will retire shortly and be replaced at U.S. Africa Command by Army Gen. David Rodriguez. “And I do not believe that a large commitment of U.S. forces is necessary or appropriate under the current circumstances.”
In dealing with the continent as a whole, the focus of U.S. Africa Command was on “low-cost, small footprint, innovative approaches that characterize our relationships with partners in a number of areas of the world, to include Africa,” a senior DOD official said at a Pentagon briefing last week.
To accomplish the mission, Africom headquarters will remain in Stuttgart, Germany, rather than moving to the continent or operating out of a base in the U.S., said the senior official who spoke on grounds of anomymity.
The senior official declined to predict how long the U.S. will maintain the drone base in Niger but suggested it could be long-term. The goal of the U.S. was to maintain “situational awareness,” the official said, and as long as Al Qaeda-influenced groups remained a threat, then “we are very interested, you know, in looking at the key nodes or hubs, if you will, and then the connections among them.”
As for the French effort in Mali, President Francois Hollande has announced his intentions to begin withdrawing next month some of the 4,000 troops who were sent there in January to drive the rebels from northern towns and protect the more than 5,000 French nationals in Bamako, the capital.
In pursuing the Al Qaeda groups to the northern mountains, the French have encountered the suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices that the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last week, a 24-year-old corporal became the fifth French soldier to be killed in Mali when his patrol vehicle hit an IED in the north. Three other French troops were wounded.
On Monday, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere arrived in Mali to discuss a training mission for German troops with Malian forces.
Several other European Union nations have also pledged to send trainers to assist in setting up a United Nations peacekeeping force ahead of elections tentatively scheduled for July.