By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
PARIS, Jan. 31, 2013 – On his first trip to France as deputy defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter will meet with military leaders and advisers here tomorrow for talks on topics that include the French-led fight against terrorists in the West African nation of Mali.
France is Carter’s first stop on a six-day trip that will include the Munich Security Conference and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and afterward visits with military and government leaders in Turkey and Jordan.
Traveling with the deputy defense secretary are several senior defense officials, among them James J. Townsend Jr., deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy.
“The French are putting together their own forces,” Townsend told American Forces Press Service, “but with contributions from a lot of other nations, including the Untied States, to help the Mali government bring about some stability and deal with terrorism to the north.”
French forces began military operations in Mali on Jan. 11 when they entered the country to help Mali’s struggling forces fight back against what one senior defense official described as a “coalescing” over the past year of Islamic extremists in Mali.
Seeking to make the former French colony a sanctuary for their kind, the official said, extremists in Mali form a complex picture of shifting alliances that includes a mix of members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, along with an offshoot called MUJAO, a French acronym that stands for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, another group called Ansar al-Din, and “numerous different traffickers of all kinds who have aligned themselves” with AQIM.
“As we go see the French,” Townsend said, “the most immediate issues we’ll talk about [will include] what’s happening in Mali, what French planning is, what their goals are, how it’s actually going, and our [and other nations’] participation in helping the French.”
Among African nations, Togo, Niger and Chad are contributing to the fight in Mali, as is the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, called AFISMA. The Economic Community of West African States organized this military mission to support Mali, which is an ECOWAS member nation.
Other European nations are helping the French in Mali by airlifting supplies into the country. They include Sweden, Belgium, Spain and others, Townsend said.
This week, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little summarized U.S. contributions to efforts in Mali.
Since Jan. 11 the United States has shared intelligence with the French, he said. On Jan. 21 the U.S. began providing airlift support to the French army and on Jan. 27 began refueling support for French air operations, Little added.
As of Jan. 27, the U.S. Air Force had flown 17 C-17 sorties, moving more than 391 tons of equipment and supplies and nearly 500 French personnel into Bamako, Mali’s capital, the press secretary said.
Several refueling missions also have been conducted so far, he added, noting that the United States is in constant consultation with France on their operations in Mali.
The United Nations is also engaged, Townsend said, so the French are working with the U.N Security Council.
And the senior defense official said the European Union has a “quite robust force commitment” — up to 460 troops at the moment — to deploy to Bamako for an initial training cycle for Malian forces that will run from April to September.
The goal, both officials say, is to help Malian forces gain the ability to control their own nation and keep it from becoming a safe haven for extremists.
During Carter’s meetings here tomorrow, Townsend added, “I think we’ll also talk about the broader issues, too, in terms of the implications of all of this,” including recent events in Algeria, where Islamist extremists this month stormed a BP gas facility and caused the deaths of hostages and their own militants, ultimately releasing many hundreds of workers and foreigners.
Townsend said he thinks the United States and France will have to discuss how the trans-Atlantic community deals with such events.
“The French are dealing with Mali,” he said, “but how will we deal with Syria, with whatever the future might hold there?”
Much instability has arisen from the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and now from the Arab Spring unrest, the deputy assistant secretary said.
“I think Mali and our French visit shows that we’re all in this together,” Townsend said, “and we’re trying as best we can to help one another deal with this instability, this threat to our security.”
The senior defense official said circumstances necessitated a jump-start in Mali by France, but that both countries are keenly concerned about getting to the point of transition there.
“One of the most important points going forward — and this is also a conversation with the French — is the point at which there is some kind of handoff back to the African-led force,” the official added.
“I think that will be an important transition point as events unfold,” she said. “They and we agree this needs to be an African-led process and an African-led approach.”