WASHINGTON – The widening war in Mali has opened divisions between the White House and the Pentagon over the danger posed by a mix of Islamist militant groups, some with murky ties to al-Qaida, that are creating havoc in West Africa.
Although no one is suggesting that the groups pose an imminent threat to the United States, the French military intervention in Mali and a terrorist attack against an international gas complex in neighboring Algeria have prompted sharp Obama administration debate over whether the militants present enough of a risk to U.S. allies or interests to warrant a military response.
Some top Pentagon officials and military officers warn that without more aggressive U.S. action, Mali could become a haven for extremists, akin to Afghanistan before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Militants in Mali, “if left unaddressed will obtain capability to match their intent – that being to extend their reach and control and to attack American interests,” Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview.
But many of Obama’s top aides say it is unclear whether the Mali insurgents, who include members of the group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threaten the U.S.
Those aides also worry about being drawn into a messy and possibly long-running conflict against an elusive enemy in Mali, a vast, landlocked country abutting the Sahara desert, just as U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.
The internal debate is one reason for a delay in U.S. support for the French, who airlifted hundreds of troops into Mali last weekend and launched airstrikes in an effort to halt the militants from pushing out of their northern stronghold toward Bamako, the Malian capital.
The Pentagon is planning to begin ferrying additional French troops and equipment to Mali in coming days aboard U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jets, according to Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman.
Military planners are still studying the airport runways in Bamako to determine whether they can handle the huge C-17s. If not, they will land outside Mali, and the French troops – an armed infantry battalion of 500 to 600 soldiers – will be flown into Mali on smaller aircraft.
The U.S. is also providing France with surveillance and other intelligence on the militants.
U.S. officials have ruled out putting troops on the ground, except in small numbers and only to support the French.
After 2001, Washington tried to tamp down Islamic extremism in Mali under a counter-terrorism initiative that combined anti-poverty programs with training for the military. The U.S. aid was halted, however, when military officers overthrew the government last March in a violent coup.
Ham has warned for months that AQIM was growing stronger and intended to carry out attacks in the region and internationally.