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US doesn't feel stakes in Mali 'as intensely' as France

6 min

The US has decided to lend logistical support to France’s efforts in battling al Qaeda-inspired groups in Mali, but made clear it will not send troops. According to foreign policy expert Richard Downie, the US faces legal limits on its role.


In the days following the start of France’s offensive against al Qaeda-inspired groups in Mali on January 11, top US officials offered strong statements of support.

“We have a responsibility to go after al Qaeda wherever they are,” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters during a trip to Europe, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that “instability in Mali has created the opportunity for a staging base and safe haven for terrorists”.

The US has offered logistical support (airlift assistance, reinforced intelligence and supplies to French and African forces) to French operations in the country’s former colony. But it has made no decision yet as to whether it will provide surveillance drones or aerial refuelling for French jets, as requested by France. Furthermore, the authorities have said there are no plans to send in American troops.

Ground troops in Mali:

France has deployed 2,150 troops to Mali.

African troop deployments:

The UN has authorised the deployment of a 3,300-strong force under the auspices of 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS and 1000 troops have already arrived in Mali.

Air support:

France has deployed 12 fighter jets, five refuelling planes and five C130 or C16 transport planes to provide air support. 

Indeed, the US response to unrest in Mali has been measured, even as American citizens are being held hostage by Islamist militants in neighbouring Algeria. spoke to Richard Downie, the deputy director of the Africa programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank in Washington DC. Here are highlights from the interview.

FRANCE 24: The US is cautious about getting involved in any military aspect of the situation in Mali. Why?

Richard Downie: The first thing to know is that the US has legal restrictions on support it can give to Mali directly. There is a law in the US that bars military assistance to countries where civilian governments have been toppled – like Mali, where the military coup last spring toppled president Touré. There is a transitional arrangement now, but the junta is still meddling in politics there. So the US is barred by its own legal restriction, which rules out supporting the Malian military directly.

FRANCE 24: Would there be any way for the US to get around that legal restriction if it did want to get involved militarily?

RD: Technically, in 2001 – after 9/11 – the US Congress approved the open-ended use of military force against al Qaeda and its allies. But although AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s North African branch] is seen as an offshoot of al Qaeda, that authority has not yet been used by the US.

FRANCE 24: What about the more political and strategic reasons for the US to avoid direct military action in Mali?

RD: The US is always reluctant to put American boots on African ground. You can trace some of that back to the 1993 Black Hawk Down mission in Somalia [a mission during which US forces fought Somali militiamen, resulting in two US “Black Hawk” helicopters being shot down and 18 Americans being killed]. That is still very much etched on the US military memory in Africa.

There are also certain US sensibilities toward Africans as well. America is generally wary of anything that smacks of neo-colonialism in Africa. So US policy in Africa has been to keep US boots off the ground and work with African governments and militaries so they can take initiative themselves. An example of that is that AFRICOM (the US Africa Command), the branch of the US army responsible for US with military operations and relations with Africa, has its headquarters in Germany, rather than Africa.

I think the US is aware that the African colonial experience was particularly harsh and brutal, and Africans are incredibly sensitive to any outsiders coming in again and interfering.

And finally, America’s hesitation to do more in Mali comes partly from lessons learned from other parts of the world – the desire not to repeat the same kind of messy military operations it’s engaged in elsewhere.

FRANCE 24: Is there any contradiction in the US position on Mali, given that it has long emphasised the dangers of al Qaeda?

RD: The US feeling about the situation is different from the French position. France feels this threat much more directly, and feels much more deeply concerned and involved, because it is closer geographically and has more links and ties with Mali. The US doesn’t feel the stakes as intensely. That said, if there’s any big space where terrorist elements can take up, the US is worried. That’s why they have offered logistical support, and you can expect the US to take a very active role in training the African intervention force that is currently being assembled and will eventually go into Mali.

FRANCE 24: Has there been tension between France and the US over the Mali situation and their respective positions?

RD: Publically, the US has supported France in this intervention. But behind the scenes, there have been some tensions. France has always been more forward-leaning in its approach to the Mali situation, whereas the US has been more cautious. The US position has always been finding a political solution in Mali: getting a legitimately elected government, which will pave the way for the US to assist them in battling these groups.

The international community had come to the agreement that an African intervention force, approved by the UN, would be deployed to fight the militants in Mali, with ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] being the main component. But France threw that out by going in unilaterally. I can understand why they did, but they have to be prepared to stay there for awhile. Otherwise, there will be a vacuum that would allow Islamists to take control.

I think the French went in knowing exactly where the US stood and understanding the legal limits the US faces in terms of direct military intervention in Mali. And America understands that the French have military assets in Africa, and are willing to deploy them as they see necessary. So any differences between France and the US in nuance and approach in terms of Mali can be ironed out. France and the US are the two closest allies in terms of Africa and their respective objectives there. France is America’s go-to partner in Africa.


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