US Steps Up African al-Qaida Fight

France and the U.S. last week solidified a partnership to combat terrorism and quell sectarian violence across the southern reaches of the Sahara.

The French-American cooperation put renewed emphasis on the role of U.S. Africa Command, led by Army Gen. David Rodriguez, which is expected to figure into President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Obama has already announced plans to convene a summit of African leaders at the White House later this year that will focus on development and coordination with the training and advisory assistance of African Command to suppress al-Qaida-linked groups active in the region.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry re-affirmed the commitment to Africa, stating that the U.S. will continue to back "efforts by the African Union, regional leaders, and our French allies to disarm all armed groups."

Islamic fundamentalist groups like al-Shahab and al-Qaida have established posts throughout northern Africa. The U.S. has responded by sending surgical numbers of U.S. troops to the region. 

The U.S. has also flown drone surveillance missions and launched attacks on suspected terrorist group leaders. On Sunday, a member of the Somali rebel group al-Shahab was killed by a missile fired by a drone, an al-Shahab commander told the Associated Press. 

At a Pentagon briefing last Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gave preliminary outlines to a plan for an expanded presence of French troops in the Sahel region backed up by U.S. logistic and intelligence support.

Hagel praised France for "taking decisive action in Mali, as well as other locations, to displace extremists that were gaining a foothold there."

"I also commended France's leadership in helping the African Union's international support mission to provide humanitarian assistance in the Central African Republic," Hagel said. His talks with Le Drian focused on "ways we can continue working together in Africa, and other locations, to address shared interests and challenges going forward."

Le Drian welcomed "the opportunity to explain to Chuck Hagel the new military positioning of French forces in Africa, which we're going to set up in order to better identify and better target terrorist threats in this huge area, which goes from Mauritania to the Horn of Africa."

Earlier last week, Le Drian told the Associated Press that the regional counter-terrorism operation he envisioned would have French troop outposts in Chad, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali.

"We are reorganizing our deployment in Africa to be more reactive about potential crises," Le Drian said. "We will have the same number of soldiers -- 3,000 in the Sahel region -- but they will be organized differently."

"We are going to re-inforce Abidjan as an entry point, a logistical support post," Le Drian said of the Ivory Coast's commercial capital, "and then we'll boost the intervention capacity on each of the different sites" to counter what he called a "security vacuum" in the Sahel.

Le Drian also noted that the French intervention in Mali had possibly worsened the situation in Libya by pushing extremist groups to the north.

"What we notice is that there are concentrations of terrorist groups in the south of Libya," he said at the Pentagon, "and this has been accelerated through the French intervention in Mali."

"And there is a kind of trafficking freeway from Guinea-Bissau all the way to the Horn of Africa with drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, human trafficking, and which go in part through south Libya," Le Drian said.

Le Drian's remarks echoed the repeated warnings of Marine Gen. John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, that the drug pipeline from South America to West Africa and then to Europe was providing funding for insurgents in the Sahel.

To support French forces, Air Force C-17s made two flights from Kigali, Rwanda, to Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. The flights brought an additional 74 mechanized Rwanda troops, eight vehicles and seven pallets of equipment to the CAR to bolster the 1,600 French troops and 5,000 African Union troops already on the ground, Pentagon officials said.

The flights last week brought the total number of C-17 flights into the CAR to 14, carrying a total of 632 Rwandan troops and 34 vehicles, the officials said.

In his statement Monday, Kerry said "we are transporting, equipping, training, and providing logistical support to African-led International Support Mission (MISCA) troops and have committed up to $101 million to do so."

The U.S. has also provided C-17 airlift for French and African Union troops in Mali, as well as aerial refueling for French Rafale and Mirage fighters. Le Drian said about 1,000 French troops would remain in Mali indefinitely to cambat the threat from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In December, President Obama gave an indication of the growing involvement of the U.S. military in Africa in the unclassified portions of his message to Congress on "MilitaryOperations in Support of U.S. Counter-terrorism Objectives."

"In furtherance of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, the United States continues to work with partners around the globe, with a particular focus on the U.S. Central Command's and U.S. Africa Command's areas of responsibility," the message said.

Since late 2011, the U.S. has had 120 troops deployed to Uganda "to serve as advisors to regional forces of the African Union Regional Task Force that are working to apprehend or remove Joseph Kony and other senior Lord's Resistance Army leaders from the battlefield," the message said.

In the hunt for Kony, U.S. troops have occasionally gone into South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic, the message said.

About 200 U.S. troops are also in Niger "to provide support for intelligence collection and to facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region," the message said.

The main hub for Africa Command on the continent was at Camp Lemonnier in the tiny Horn of Africa state of Djibouti, where about 4,000 U.S. troops, contractors and CIA operatives are based to monitor activities on the Horn and across the Red Sea in Yemen.

Earlier this month, a small team of U.S. advisory troops called the "Mogadishu Coordination Cell" deployed from Djibouti to Somalia to aid in the fight against Al Shabab insurgents.

Pentagon officials said it was the first stationing of U.S. troops on the ground in Somalia since the "Black Hawk Down" operation in 1993.

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