WASHINGTON (Reuters) - France’s military intervention in Mali has revived trans-Atlantic tensions over security issues, this time involving a key counterterrorism battlefield, along with dismay from critics who see U.S. President Barack Obama as too reluctant to use military force.
According to interviews with officials from both sides, the French have privately complained about what they see as paltry and belated American military support for their troop deployment, aimed at stopping the advance of militants allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Americans question whether French President Francois Hollande’s armed intervention, which is entering its third week, was coupled with a thought-through exit strategy.
Hollande called Obama on Thursday, January 10, and in a brief conversation about Mali, told the U.S. leader that France was about to mount a major military operation in the north African country.
Hollande was in a hurry and called Obama to inform, not to consult, according to French and U.S. officials. France’s ambassador to Mali had sent an urgent message to Paris, warning that if the strategic city of Mopti fell to armed Islamic militants, there would be nothing to stop them from capturing the capital, Bamako, and controlling the entire country.
France launched its military operation on January 11.
“Had we not intervened, the whole region would have become a new ‘Sahelistan’,” said a senior French official, referring to the Sahel region of Africa south of the Sahara Desert.
But France’s sense of urgency ran headlong into American concerns about whether Paris had a long-term plan for Mali, and about getting the U.S. military deeply involved in a new foreign conflict as Obama begins his second term in office, the officials said.
The United States has given what U.S. officials say is significant intelligence support to French forces in Mali, and has helped to airlift French troops and equipment into the country.
France wants more U.S. and European help to move its soldiers and materiel. More urgently, it wants U.S. aerial refueling capability for its planes, French officials said. That would help France conduct airstrikes to relieve pressure on French troops should they encounter trouble in northern Mali, they said.
A U.S. official said France’s refueling request is under active consideration.
U.S. support has been “minimal” in practice, one U.S. official acknowledged on condition of anonymity. Washington, this official said, gave France a “hard time” when they asked for increased support, and the French will “remember us for that.”
Obama, who took office when the United States was mired in two costly wars, has shown himself to be cautious - too cautious, mostly Republican critics say - about foreign military interventions. He limited the U.S. role in the campaign that helped oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and has resisted months of pressure for more muscular support for rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
There are disagreements within the White House and Congress about U.S. support for the Mali mission, said Republican Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
“This is not new ... We’re seeing an ongoing debate about our participation level in Syria. We saw that same level of debate about our participation in Libya, and now we’re having that exact same philosophical stalemate and debate on what we do with the French in Mali,” Rogers said in an interview.
Obama and his aides “don’t want their hand forced by French action,” said Todd Moss, vice president of the Center for Global Development think tank and a former top official in the State Department’s Africa bureau.
“There is very little, if any, political support in the U.S. for military action in a place like Mali,” Moss said.
Obama spoke to Hollande by phone on Friday and “expressed his support for France’s leadership of the international community’s efforts to deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali,” the White House said in a statement.
The White House said Hollande thanked Obama for the “significant support” provided by the United States.
France has 2,500 soldiers in Mali, which it sent to block a southward advance on the Malian capital by Islamists occupying Mali’s north. While French and Malian troops have appeared to make progress in recent days, the Islamists have proven to be better trained and equipped than France anticipated.
The U.N. Security Council last month authorized deployment of a 3,300-member African military force, known as AFISMA, to Mali. The full force was originally not expected to be ready until at least September. It now appears that the Africans will be contributing many more troops with a sharply accelerated deployment schedule, although there are questions about how well trained and equipped they are.
Even before Hollande acted, the United States had been reluctant for months about supporting international intervention in Mali, causing French-U.S. frictions at the United Nations.
Remembering that it took the Americans weeks to decide on their level of support for the aerial mission over Libya in 2011, France decided to act immediately when Islamist forces in Mali began moving south, the French officials said.
One French official described Obama’s policy as almost “isolationist” - very reluctant to intervene, especially without a clear, easily sellable U.S. strategic interest at stake.
The Obama administration has said it will do whatever it can to ensure France is successful in disrupting the militants’ progress.
Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said, “We continue to share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region, and we support the French operation.”
The United States, Vietor noted, is working to accelerate the deployment, training and equipping of the African force.
Privately, U.S. officials are more skeptical, suggesting that Paris has developed its plans on the fly, and has no clear exit strategy.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that the French military effort has evolved and developed over time, and as that’s happened we’ve worked with them to get the clearest-possible picture of not just their short term planning but also how they view this operation looking in three months or three years,” an Obama administration official said.
France has not specified how long its troops will stay in Mali, where they hope to split local Tuareg rebels away from AQIM militants and into talks with the Malian government.
“The longer we stay, the bigger the risks,” the senior French official said.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and David Alexander, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, David Lewis in Dakar, and Catherine Bremer in Paris; Writing by Warren Strobel; Editing by Doina Chiacu