French urgency, U.S. caution collide in Mali intervention

Children wave to media in the the recently liberated town of Konna January 26, 2013.     REUTERS/Eric Gaillard (MALI - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY)
Children wave to media in the the recently liberated town of Konna January 26, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard (MALI - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY)
Photo by REUTERS
| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 7:50 p.m.

WASHINGTON — 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 say President Obama is too reluctant to use military force.

According to interviews with officials, 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-Qaida.

The United States quickly responded to French requests for troop transport airlift and additional intelligence. But a two-week-old French call for U.S. refueling planes for French aircraft striking targets in Mali remains pending, American and French officials said.

“What we've been working through is not viewing Mali as a one-off but rather as part of a continuum of counterterrorism efforts and decisions that we're making to address the situation in northern Africa” over the medium and long term, a U.S. official told The Washington Post.

The Obama administration is seeking an additional $32 million to train African troops to fight the Islamists in Mali. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Friday the request had been made to Congress, The Associated Press reported.

When Hollande phoned Obama this month to tell him that France was about to mount a major operation in the north African country, the French president was in a hurry and called his U.S. counterpart to inform, not to consult, according to French and U.S. officials. France's ambassador to Mali had sent an urgent warning: If the city of Mopti fell to Islamists, there would be nothing to stop them.

“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.

American 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.”

The Americans question whether French President Francois Hollande's intervention, entering its third week, was coupled with an exit strategy.

Obama has shown himself to be cautious — too cautious, Republican critics say — about foreign interventions.

There are disagreements within the White House and Congress about support for the Mali mission, said GOP Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

“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,” said Rogers.

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