Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mali Exposes Flaws in West's Security Plans

January 23, 2013, 10:17 p.m. ET.

Mali Exposes Flaws in West's Security Plans

By ADAM ENTOUS and JULIAN E. BARNES in Washington and DREW HINSHAW in Bamako, Mali

France's attack on Islamic extremists in Mali this month is exposing major strains in the Western world's security strategy.

As the French assault gained steam in West Africa, France sought help from its allies—only to find that the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization states either weren't ready or couldn't offer much. Canada and the U.K. quickly ponied up three cargo planes, two of which broke down en route.

By far the biggest breakdown, however, played out between the U.S. and France, as Washington sent what Paris saw as mixed messages about U.S. levels of commitment to taking on an al Qaeda affiliate in Mali before and after the French attack began.

The Conflict in Mali

French officials involved in planning the Mali campaign say they had expected quick, robust U.S. military support based on comments by Pentagon officials in a series of private meetings, including one last October in Paris about how to tame violence in North and West Africa. According to French officials in attendance, the message that day from Michael Sheehan, the Pentagon's point man for special operations, seemed clear: Stop the group known as AQIM—al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—and its allies from creating a desert safe haven.

NATO officials at the meetings also say U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's message to France and other allies on the sidelines of a NATO summit last fall was that the Pentagon would do "whatever it takes" to help with an intervention in Mali against AQIM.

Senior U.S. defense officials dispute those accounts, saying Washington's messages to France may have been "lost in translation." During the meetings, the U.S. officials said, neither Mr. Panetta nor Mr. Sheehan directly urged France to use force and didn't promise specific support.

Speaking Wednesday before a congressional hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven," though she offered few specifics. "We've got to have a better strategy," she said.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the White House wants to speed the transition from the current French campaign to one led by African forces, "so that it's sustainable over the long term."

In talks with the French and others, Mr. Sheehan and others have specifically pushed for an African-led response against AQIM, U.S. officials said. Aides to Mr. Panetta said his comments were meant to convey general U.S. support for the aims of the French in Mali.

Another senior U.S. official defended Washington's level of support for the French, calling it a "tough love" approach. The message to France and other European allies, this official said, was that Washington won't foot the bill as global policeman at a time when European powers are cutting defense investments.

Moreover, U.S. defense officials said France shouldn't be surprised by the American response given the unilateral nature of the operation they launched. "We weren't consulted. We were informed when they went in. This isn't a combined operation," the senior U.S. defense official said.

French officials say they consulted their American counterparts. One senior French official sized up the feeling in Paris after the White House balked at Paris's request for air tankers to refuel French fighters over Mali. "We are doing the job without you," the official said.

The White House did agree, however, to provide several cargo planes for a few weeks. It initially asked France to reimburse the costs, though the U.S. later backed down on that. The White House is still considering providing air tankers for refueling, officials say, as well as more advanced surveillance aircraft that could aid French targeting.

For months, the world's major powers have been hammering out plans for action against terrorist threats from Africa—concerns amplified in recent days by a terror attack in Algeria that left at least 37 hostages dead. But the West's global security apparatus is showing strains. The war-weary U.S. is reluctant to intervene, while other countries, particularly in debt-ridden Europe, are less able to do so.

After France rushed in to Mali to confront al Qaeda affiliates, it had trouble lining up help from allies. French fighters take up positions Wednesday.

The tension is a dramatic example of a growing trans-Atlantic disconnect. On the one hand, the U.S. complains about European allies' unwillingness to spend on defense, citing Libya in 2011 when, lacking adequate ammunition supplies, drones and tankers, they turned to Washington. Meanwhile, some allies complain that U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere is driven by American interests and priorities.

France launched its Mali offensive on Jan. 11. Within a week, Paris flew about 2,000 soldiers to its former colony with a mission: reclaim two tiny farming towns that al Qaeda and its allies in Mali had swarmed days earlier. By the 10th day, Paris had expanded that mission to include land assaults on towns nestled in the prickly desert occupied by Islamist gunmen.

Logistical problems arose quickly. France made urgent requests for cargo planes, air refueling tankers and a surge of sophisticated American surveillance aircraft to monitor rebel communications and movements. As the U.S. deliberated over how to respond, Britain offered the temporary use of two C-17 cargo planes. One of the planes experienced mechanical problems and was grounded in France, British officials said.

The Canadian Royal Air Force contributed one of its C-17s, for an initial period of one week, but it suffered a "generator issue" and was also grounded, according to a spokesman for Canada's Minister of National Defence. Officials say the U.K. and Canada quickly found other planes to replace the ones that broke down. Denmark and Belgium are also providing help with transport, French officials say.

On Jan. 14, the mission's fourth day, a French detachment arrived in Bamako, Mali's capital, without mosquito nets and spent four nights battling the swarming pests. Cargo space is limited, French officials said, and some things were overlooked initially because of the rushed nature of the operation. The French also shipped bottled water to Mali before soldiers finally found a vendor in Bamako.

Skeptical of the need for a big U.S. role, the White House so far has authorized the Air Force to ferry a mechanized infantry battalion of about 800 French troops to Bamako. The U.S. hasn't responded to the request for air refueling tankers needed by the French air force to keep up the pace of attack sorties in support of ground troops.

The U.S. and France have long shared intelligence with each other, and both sides say that cooperation has increased in recent weeks, although the French are pushing for more. U.S. military surveillance planes have been flying over Mali collecting intelligence for months and at least some of that information is being shared with the French.

Within the U.S. there are divisions among policy makers at the Pentagon, White House and State Department over the extent of the threat posed by AQIM and how the U.S. should respond. At the Pentagon, anti-AQIM hawks including Mr. Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary, want to go after the terror group's leaders, defense officials say.

At the White House, top policy makers are more cautious. They see AQIM as a lesser threat to the U.S. than other groups, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in Yemen. They tend to favor a strategy that relies heavily on building up the capabilities of African armies to take on the threat themselves, aided by U.S. intelligence and training.

The prospect of a new terror war in Africa would clash with a key message of President Barack Obama's inaugural address. In his Monday speech, he said a decade of military conflict was ending and that "enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

Mr. Obama has expanded U.S. drone campaigns against al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen. But many aides favor limits on U.S. lethal action that would allow the targeting of only AQIM leaders who intelligence agencies conclude are plotting attacks directly against the U.S., rather than a broader campaign like France's, administration officials said. They acknowledge this could change if there were new attacks like the siege this month at an Algerian natural-gas complex that left three Americans dead.

U.S. defense officials note that, unlike other global al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM can't mount attacks directly on the U.S. But a senior defense official said that may only be a matter of time. "They are direct threat to France, Spain, Western Europe, the U.K. It doesn't take long for them to be a threat beyond that," the official said. "There is going to be a fight that goes on. We have to win."

A senior U.S. official also said the French should have known that "when you start using military force, those are presidential decisions, not DOD decisions," referring to the Department of Defense. Obama administration officials who question the need for more U.S. involvement in Mali say France has unique advantages operating there. Mali is a former French colony, and France has extensive intelligence networks there as well as long-standing military-to-military relations.

The French perception of mixed U.S. messages was compounded by what they view as other perceived slights. For instance, the White House nixed plans for a day trip by Mr. Panetta to Paris this past Sunday, NATO officials said, as part of a tour of other European capitals. Officials worried the visit might raise expectations about Washington's level of military support in Mali at a time the White House is trying to extricate the U.S. from the war in Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

French options for help from European allies or NATO are limited because of budget woes across the continent. "The allies will do their best, but they are keeping support minimal at the moment because of the many questions of how long the mission will be and how deep it goes. It is a very complex crisis," said Heather Conley, the Europe Program Director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

NATO is giving only limited help because of the "political, psychological trauma of Afghanistan," she added. "There is reluctance to go into a conflict without a clear exit strategy."

Since the financial crisis hit in 2009, European governments have cut military spending by roughly 10% annually overall. French military spending has held up better than other countries in the bloc, declining less than 7% in total from 2009 to 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

French military capabilities, however, are uneven. The country has developed advanced fighter planes. But its air refueling tankers are old and, in some cases, in disrepair, hence the request for U.S. help. Washington's reluctance has prompted the French to appeal to other allies, including the Canadians, this time for air tankers, NATO officials said.

France's airlift capacity is also severely limited. To supplement France's limited supply of transport aircraft, Paris is renting cargo planes from companies in Russia and Ukraine.

French officials attributed the allies' lagging response to the sudden nature of the French operation, acknowledging it takes time to get government authorization for deployments.

In the 2011 NATO air campaign against Libya that ousted Moammar Gadhafi from power, the mission relied heavily on the U.S. for refueling planes and armed drones. That effort was supported by European countries including France. But Libya was a relatively easy lift, compared with Mali. The front line was basically Europe's backyard—a short flight across the Mediterranean from bases in Italy, Germany and Spain.

Getting to Mali is trickier. The vast nation is landlocked, its capital days of travel time from the nearest port. Reaching Timbuktu is famously difficult: the desert heart of al Qaeda's insurgency is protected by hundreds of miles of rocks and dunes in every direction. It took a recent convoy of French forces three days to get to Bamako from the closest major port in the Ivory Coast.

Alternatives under review include Mali's railroad, which France already built once—in 1924—and today would need to rebuild. There is also the twisted, muddy Niger River, which the French floated down to conquer Mali in the first place, fighting on foot and on horseback, 130 years ago.

The logistical bottlenecks are mounting as African armies prepare to deploy up to 5,000 troops under a United Nations mandate to reinforce the French. Last week, the tiny country of Togo dispatched 145 troops. It took two days and four separate flights for the troops to arrive, because they needed to borrow the president's jet, which seats only 45. "They're 145 here, but they don't have a vehicle," said a French major in Mali, who identified himself only by his first name, Eric, per French army protocol.

On the back lot of Bamako's airport, France is struggling to build a war machine capable of liberating a country twice its area. "It's not worth the trouble to bring in planes full of troops if they don't have food, water, mosquito nets, all that," said another French major, who identified himself by his first name, Renaud.

One recent Thursday in Bamako, 400 French soldiers walked off a plane, but a French major who identified himself as Didier said there were only 100 open beds. So the French dispatched a delegation to Bamako with cash to buy 300 mattresses.

—Daniel Michaels in Brussels, Alistair MacDonald in Toronto and Cassell Bryan-Low in London contributed to this article.
Write to Adam Entous at, Julian E. Barnes at and Drew Hinshaw at

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