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US takes cautious view of Mali crisis

The United States has chosen to play a cautious supporting role to France’s military action against fighters in Mali, after Washington’s own attempt to build up the African nation’s army backfired badly.
While the Pentagon promised transport planes, refueling tanker aircraft and spy planes to back up France’s intervention in Mali, officials made clear President Barack Obama was deeply reluctant to plunge America into a fresh war against insurgents.
“I think the United States was very cautious not to get involved in another complex operation, which is sold as easier than it actually is,” Stephanie Pezard, a scholar at the RAND corporation, said.
“It didn’t want to be bogged down on another front that’s maybe not of the highest strategic interest either,” she added.
But the French military action also raised questions about a much-touted US policy that hopes to counter terror groups in Africa and elsewhere by bolstering foreign armies with advice from elite American special forces. The US administration had pinned its hopes on shaping a new generation of Malian officers, but some of the units ended up defecting to join insurgent fighters, with weapons and hardware falling into the hands of militants.
And in March last year, an officer who had attended several training courses with the US military, Captain Amadou Sanago, led a coup against the Malian government, prompting Washington to suspend its security assistance.
The outcome was an embarrassment for Washington, which had held up Mali as an promising model for counter-terrorism efforts in the region. “I was sorely disappointed that a military with whom we had a training relationship participated in the military overthrow of an elected government. I mean, there is no way to characterize that other than wholly unacceptable,” General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, said last month at Brown University.
After its disastrous experience with the Malian army, the Americans came away chastened and reluctant to back a major military intervention, particularly after more than a decade of mixed results in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, experts and former officials said. “The US, having been involved in training the Malian army for a while, knows their capabilities, knows how much work there is left to do,” said Pezard.
Some inside the administration have been sympathetic to French calls for direct action, including the US Special Operations Command, which has favored targeting senior figures in the militant groups that have seized control in northern Mali, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine, The New York Times reported Monday.
But other current and former officials worry that military action will only deliver a temporary respite without political and diplomatic steps to break the link between AQIM and local groups, restore democratic rule and defuse decades-long grievances among the Tuareg community in the north. In the meantime, US political leaders preoccupied with a mushrooming budget deficit and there is little appetite for an open-ended operation.
“I’m afraid if we go down this road, it’s a slippery slope, where we make some serious mistakes that could cost us in the long run,” said Rudolph Atallah, a former Africa counter-terrorism adviser at the Pentagon.