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U.S. military planners are working closely with African nations in advance of an offensive to wrest control of northern Mali from al-Qaida linked extremists, Obama administration officials said Wednesday.
The cooperation reflects the increasing U.S. and international concern about the political, security and humanitarian challenges in Mali after a military coup ousted the democratically elected government this year. Capitalizing on the upheaval, al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb, the best financed al-Qaida affiliate, now controls northern Mali — an area the size of Texas.
That makes it "the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African Affairs.
Officials from the State and Defense departments told senators that the United States was working with the African Union and ECOWAS, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, on a planned military action in northern Mali. But there are limits to U.S. involvement.
"We have sent military planners to ECOWAS to assist with the continued development and refinement of the plans for international intervention," said Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary for African Affairs. "Any attempt to militarily oust a AQIM from northern Mali must be African-led. It must be Malian-led," he insisted.
Earlier this week, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the top U.S. commander in Africa, warned against any premature military action in Mali, saying negotiation is the best approach, If there is an offensive, he said, it must be successful and at the appropriate time.
Amanda Dory, the deputy assistant secretary for Africa at the Pentagon, told the subcommittee that the United States is considering support for countries that contribute troops to the mission. That possible assistance includes training and equipment, as well as additional planning and advisers.
"Northern Mali has become a safe haven for extremist and terrorist groups, including AQIM and affiliates," Dory said. "As the government of Mali lost control of its northern territory, these groups took over administration of northern cities and began imposing a harsh version of Sharia law. This expanded safe haven and control of territory allows al-Qaida and affiliates to recruit supporters more easily and to export extremism."
Dory echoed recent comments by military leaders, saying AQIM played a role in the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. She declined to provide any specifics or additional information at the open hearing.
In a technological first, Mohamed Ould Mahmoud, vice president for the Lobbying Network for Peace, Security and Development for Northern Mali, testified before the committee from Bamako, Mali.
Connected via Google Hangout, he told U.S. lawmakers that organized elections in the spring are critical to the future of Mali.
European Union nations are also studying the possible dispatch of 250 troops to train the Malian Army in support of an African-led intervention against insurgents in the north of the conflict-ridden country, a French defense official said Nov. 15.