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Le Figaro, France

Mali: US under Pressure from France


By Laure Mandeville

Translated By Kim Wang

23 January 2013

Edited by Lau­ren Gerken


France - Le Figaro - Original Article (French)

Considering American disengagement in long wars abroad, the negotiation of the logistics surrounding American involvement in the French military operation in Mali raises difficulties.

Correspondent in Washington

American planes have started to transport troops and French materials toward Mali, in response to requests for air support, which the French have been making for several days. The number of in-air tanker aircraft sent by the Pentagon could be counted on one hand. France will have tankers from the U.S. Air Force (America has a fleet of some 350 tankers), which they badly needed in the grand scheme of their operations in Mali.

But behind these announcements — presented in Paris and Washington as an example of “excellent cooperation” in military policy, connecting the two countries — is a complicated diplomacy between France and its ally across the Atlantic. The reality is that Paris is up against the fatigue of a U.S. that, after ten years of engagement in costly (in men and in money) “anti-terrorist” wars in far-off countries, has been dreaming of retreating into its own borders to devote itself to its own challenges.

This hostility has begun again in the uncertain terrain of Mali, where Americans recently suffered heavy setbacks after having trained and supervised a Malian army, some of whom succeeded in organizing a coup, while others rallied the Islamic rebellion in the North. This became tangible in the last days of the negotiation, which was made as a result of the help that the U.S. brought to France's surprise intervention in Mali. Even if ongoing consultations continue — President Obama and President Hollande spoke before French troops were sent and have spoken several times since — it remains difficult to determine the extent to which the U.S. will be involved and what they have in mind. Do they even know themselves?

Request for Financial Compensation

Certainly, the Pentagon and the White House are relieved that the French have taken responsibility. The U.S. remains appreciative of the French army's capabilities and is fascinated by their speed of decision making, done without prior public debate and directed toward the presidency — an unthinkable situation in Washington, where the executive branch must humiliatingly pass through Congress in order to declare war. “In the card game that is our struggle for power, our capacity to intervene in Africa is our key card as compared with the Americans,” noted a French diplomatic source.*

This does not stop the U.S. from dragging its feet to assume a supporting role. Thus, the French were very “surprised” by the way Washington treated their requests for air support, according to an independent source confiding in Le Figaro. Though they agree in principle, the U.S. remains unclear about the exact terms of this aid. Notably, Washington requested that France cover the expenses for allocated planes, a demand which reveals concerns about the budget crisis in the U.S. The aforementioned independent source described this as “an unprecedented request” in terms of Western cooperation.

Paris denies the existence of a political deadlock, despite the negotiation and an internal American bureaucratic debate. Besides the issue of financial compensation, the U.S. has also put forth legal arguments, claiming that sending in-air refueling planes destined to strike targets may make the U.S. appear co-belligerent in the conflict. France seeks to ensure that American air support will be guaranteed if its troops find themselves in a difficult situation, which is still an ongoing debate. But according to one independent source, the French ambassador increased the pressure on the U.S. this weekend, calling on multiple contacts in the White House, including the senior advisor to the president, Valerie Jarrett and Sen. John Kerry, in order to remind them of the importance of American support.

A Draft for Resolution

Since the beginning of the crisis, the U.S. has brought immediate and substantial relief to its French allies through intelligence, thanks to their satellites. But informed critics emphasize that they seem in no hurry to engage more directly in the Mali conflict, where the U.S. does not see a clear outcome. Several months ago, certain representatives from the Pentagon had advocated for drone strikes against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). France, familiar with the terrain, is fearful that large-scale strikes could attract hordes of jihadi on Mali terrain (and could put the French hostages detained by Aqmi in danger), and so has lessened these attacks, preferring instead to focus on more discrete counter-terrorism missions.

When the situation worsened in autumn, the Hollande administration had been primarily trying to accelerate the movement of African forces into the buffer zone between the North and the South, with the ultimate goal of re-establishing territorial integrity in Mali. But the U.S. had slowed down the process, shuffling their feet and judging the project as botched and rushed. They called for previous elections in Bamako, which is today headed by a government issued by a coup. Disagreements were severe enough that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, described the draft resolution as “crap” before a vote had taken place in December to confirm the right to use force and to deploy African troops in the future.

A Growing Awareness of Progressing Danger

Today, after the surprise generated by the forced march of Islamists toward the South and the lightning fast decision made by Paris to intervene, the current American credo consists of affirming its “support” for France and encouraging the deployment of African forces as soon as possible. The U.S. also promises to be very active in phase III of the Africanization of the conflict, especially in terms of providing financial support and training. But certain critics, Americans included, emphasize that apart from Chadians, who have experience with war in the desert, other African forces involved with the situation are ill prepared to fight in the desert terrain of northern Mali and will struggle to take it over from the French.

This reality poses the more acute question of whether Western forces can be brought as reinforcement if the situation worsens or drags on. The dramatic hostage situation in Algeria, caused by the same Islamist terrorist groups that are threatening Mali, seems to have prompted a realization in certain countries, like Great Britain. Experts speculate that the death of three American hostages could potentially change the parameters of Washington's engagement. But the current problem remains relatively absent from the American media, likely due to coverage of the inauguration.

The idea that the U.S. could eventually engage in covert operations to strike AQIM and its allies, as a result of the death of its citizens and the spread of instability, is theoretically possible. But for now, experts assure that this possibility is not in the picture. “They are increasingly aware of the danger that AQIM poses,” according to a French diplomatic source. “For them, terrorism is Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and potentially Nigeria. For years we have striven to raise awareness of the Sahel issue. It takes time to move an American Steamer, but progress has still been made.” He added that they are sure that the confirmation of John O. Brennan as the head of the CIA would help French interests, as he is a counter-terrorism expert who is “very knowledgeable about the subject at hand.”*

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.



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