A French soldier checks passengers of a transport truck arriving Feb. 14 in Gao, northern Mali. Malian forces have stepped up security around the port and the main market in an effort to stop the infiltration of rebel fighters in the town. (Jerome Delay / AP)
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WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials said Thursday that France will lead the fight against terrorists in north Mali without U.S. combat support, but one adviser to U.S. forces in Africa warned that the United States may not be able to avoid direct involvement.
French and Malian forces continue to fight remnants of jihadist Muslim militias in north Mali that are headed by al-Qaida's North African franchise, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday, Obama officials from the State Department and the Pentagon said the militias pose a significant threat to U.S. interests and security. But the United States will not send troops to aid the effort.
"We are assisting the French; we are assisting the Africans, but we have no plans in engaging ourselves or putting boots on the ground," said Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs.
Currently, the United States is providing support to the French on intelligence, transportation and diplomacy, as well as financial aid.
Some panel members asked whether the administration will add armed drones to the surveillance aircraft fleet that the U.S. has deployed above Mali, given their success in targeting al-Qaida extremists in Yemen and elsewhere.
"We are not considering armed drones at this time," said Amanda Dory, deputy assistant for African Affairs at the Department of Defense.
U.S. diplomats and the military are focused on efforts such as coordinating a multinational African peacekeeping force that is supposed to take over for the French, who have said they plan to depart Mali, Carson said.
While that approach may be fine now, more direct U.S. involvement may be unavoidable in the future, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Atlantic Council and an adviser to the U.S. military's Africa Command.
"At some point the U.S. may have to ratchet up the instruments it deploys — including possibly targeting key AQIM leaders in order to throw the extremists into disarray — in order to buy time for" the political work to get done, Pham said.
AQIM and its allies have lost administrative control of the main towns in northern Mali and "bragging rights" that come with holding an area the size of Texas, "but it is perhaps a bit premature to count the militants out," Pham said.
The jihadists did not suffer many casualties; most of those killed appear to have been low-level fighters, and their leaders have shown strategic restraint in the past, he said.
"AQIM has shown that it has the patience to wait for the opportune moment to surge," he said.
A few thousand African troops are in Mali, or en route, to help restore the Malian government's control over an area that 2,500 French troops have wrested from the jihadists.
Pham says, however, that there are issues with the African replacement force. He says it is undermanned and mostly untrained for desert warfare.
News outlets have reported several recent suicide bombings in Mali, and French troops over the past weekend fought a new battle with rebels in the Malian city of Gao, almost a month after liberating it from radical Islamist militias that overran the north in the midst of a coup in the capital, Bamako, last spring.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said how the situation in Mali is handled could have consequences for U.S. national security. Royce said the militants in Mali are believed to be connected to the terrorists who attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, including two former Navy SEALs, were killed in that attack.
"While the French understandably would like to wind down their mission quickly, an abrupt turnover to a United Nations or African-led force would be a disaster," Royce said. "This militant threat remains too committed and too deadly to push this mission onto an ineffective, under-resourced or hamstrung peacekeeping force."
Carson said Mali's problems cannot be solved by military means alone.
"The military successes of the French and Malian forces will be short-lived without the restoration of democracy and reconciliation with Tuareg separatists in the north," he said.