* U.S. ready to assist, but not taking the lead
* African forces to get most American help
* Algeria hostage drama highlights regional threats
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 The United States is
responding cautiously to Mali's widening civil war, hoping to
limit U.S. exposure even as French troops go on the offensive
against Islamist rebels in the African country and U.S. citizens
are caught up in a hostage crisis unfolding in neighboring
The escalation of fighting in northern Mali, where West
African troops are joining French soldiers battling al
Qaeda-inspired rebels, has emerged as the first foreign policy
flashpoint facing U.S. President Barack Obama as he begins his
second term next week.
True to form, the Obama administration's approach has been
measured and wary, promising U.S. logistical assistance but
ruling out direct U.S. military involvement in an unpredictable
"What we are seeing in Mali, in Algeria, reflects the
broader strategic challenge, first and foremost for the
countries in North Africa and for the United States and the
broader international community," Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton said on Thursday.
"Instability in Mali has created the opportunity for a
staging base and safe haven for terrorists."
Despite those concerns, however, analysts say the cautious
U.S. approach demonstrates that Washington sees few immediate
security implications for the United States itself and big risks
in a French-led military action without accompanying political
progress on the ground.
A U.S. official on Thursday said the United States has
agreed to a French request for airlift capacity to help France
move its troops and equipment to Mali - a relatively modest
expansion of U.S. assistance.
"I think the administration is going to be very wary of
getting involved in any direct military operations. That will be
an absolute last resort," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the
Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington.
"It doesn't want the political aspect of this -- which is
vital -- to get lost."
The United States has said it stands behind France's
decision last week to launch air strikes and send ground troops
to its former colony, where Islamist rebels were pressing
southwards after seizing the north of the country following a
military coup in March.
But the French move leap-frogged U.S.-backed proposals to
concentrate on returning a legitimate government to the capital
Bamako, which Washington had long insisted was an essential
first step toward restoring order to the country.
"You'd have to ask the French what their exit plan is," said
one senior State Department official.
France argued that intervention was essential to prevent a
worsening of Mali's conflict, which has displaced an estimated
30,000 people as fighters from groups including al Qaeda's North
Africa branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the local
Tuareg Islamist group Ansar Dine seized Timbuktu and other
towns. They imposed a harsh version of Islamic law, including
public amputations and beheadings.
But the United States, already accelerating plans to pull
troops out of Afghanistan and fending off pressure for more
robust action on Syria, shows little appetite for stepping into
a more direct role in Mali.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other U.S. officials say
the United States already has boosted intelligence sharing with
Other potential areas of U.S. support could include
refueling and surveillance including drones, although these are
already in high demand in Afghanistan as well as other parts of
"If we move one to Mali, for example, we take it from
somewhere else, where it is also needed," a U.S. defense
official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But with U.S. law barring direct support to governments
produced by coups such as the fragile interim administration in
Bamako, the United States is concentrating on the ECOWAS group
of West African nations which on Thursday sent its first
deployment of troops into the conflict..
"We do best if we are in a strong supporting and sustaining
role, and not in a role in which we are taking the lead," the
senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday.
"This is primarily an African problem."
The United States has offered training and non-lethal
supplies, ranging from boots and medical kits to maps, to the
African forces. It also stands ready to help transport them into
Mali, although U.S. officials say this could be done through
paying for third countries to airlift the troops rather than
using U.S. military personnel or equipment.
Western fears that the al Qaeda-linked insurgents are
expanding operations across Northern Africa were underscored on
Wednesday when Islamist militants attacked a gas field in
neighboring Algeria, taking dozens of foreigners hostage,
including some Americans..
While the attack illustrated that U.S. interests remain
exposed across an unstable region, few analysts expect it to
force a change in Washington's overall approach.
Republican U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the
House Intelligence Committee, said the parallel crises in Mali
and Algeria, like the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission
in Benghazi, Libya, showed the need for a broad and sustained
push to bolster unraveling security in the region.
"You can't just handle Mali. You can't just handle the
Tuareg. You can't just handle Benghazi. You have to have an
overarching plan that puts pressure on these groups from all of
it," Rogers told CNN on Wednesday.
"And you can't just fire a few missiles and pack up and go
home and hope for the best. It's not going to work."
Some analysts expect the United States will continue to try
to buy time, giving notional support to France while at the same
time pressing for a more durable political solution for Mali.
"Fundamentally we have to face the reality that what we have
here is an insurgency, and we have to fight a
counterinsurgency," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael
S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
"You cannot fight a counterinsurgency unless you have a
legitimate government to rally around, and that is what we do
not have in Mali right now."