In what could be one of the first (unintended) consequences of the French military intervention in Mali, the Washington Post reports:
An unspecified number of Americans were taken hostage by Islamist guerrillas early Wednesday in a brazen attack on a remote gas-production facility in Algeria, the U.S. State Department said.
The attack — which reportedly resulted in the death of two people and the capture of several dozen foreign workers, most of them European — appeared to be retaliation for Algeria’s decision to allow France to use its airspace to send warplanes to neighboring Mali, where French forces have been conducting airstrikes and support operations to aid Malian troops in their battle against Islamic insurgents.
Read more here
The New York Times, also reporting on the story says:
The attack on the gas field appeared to be the first retribution by the Islamists for the French armed intervention in Mali last week, potentially broadening the conflict beyond Mali’s borders and raising the possibility of drawing an increasing number of foreign countries directly into the conflict.
Read more here
My first column “introducing” the French-led, U.S. assisted, public-ignored, Mali military intervention elicited such an overwhelming response that a follow-up is certainly called for. [satire]
First, since the Mali intervention is not a NATO operation (yet), it was equally roundly ignored during the opening of the NATO Chiefs of Defense meeting held in Brussels today and attended by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey — judging from an American Forces Press Service release.
The closest the host of the meeting, Danish Army Gen. Knud Bartels, chairman of NATO’s military committee, came to mentioning Mali might have been this: “NATO and its partners have more than 110,000 service members deployed in five operations and missions in eight countries and at sea in the Mediterranean and off the Horn of Africa.”
Again, although France is of course a NATO member, it is doubtful whether its troops who are at this very moment “fighting Mali’s Islamist rebels in street battles in the town of Diabaly,” are included in those numbers. (France has approximately 800 troops in Mali and their numbers are expected to rise to 2,500.)
But back to the U.S. involvement, or non-involvement.
Yesterday, during a press conference in Lisbon, in response to a question on Malio by Portugal’s Minister of Defense, Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said:
There — there is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time. We have commended the French for this effort to try to go in to Mali to stop the AQIM, these terrorists and members of al Qaeda from being able to develop a base of operations in Mali. And we have — we have always been concerned about efforts by al Qaeda to establish that kind of base. And our commitment ever since 9/11 has been to go after al Qaeda wherever they are and to make sure that they have no place to hide.
And so the effort that France has embarked on is one that the international community supports. The United Nations has supported what the French are doing. And our hope is that we can work with the French to provide whatever assistance we can to try to assist them in that effort.
The hope is that ultimately they will be able to succeed in establishing better security for Mali and that ultimately the African nations will be able to deploy a presence there to ensure that they can do everything necessary to make sure that Mali is secure and free from the influence of al Qaeda and AQIM.
In Madrid, during a joint appearance with Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes Eulate, Panetta continued his statements of support for the French action, short of offering U.S. troops on the ground:
The U.S. and French governments are discussing a range of possible assistance the United States can offer, he said. Panetta yesterday told reporters the French had requested intelligence, logistics and airlift support.
“We are in discussions with the French, and we are discussing in Washington some of the requests that have been made, to determine exactly what assistance we can provide,” the secretary said. “Our goal is to … do what we can to provide whatever assistance is necessary.”
Panetta told reporters he can’t yet offer a likely timeline for French military action in Mali.
“[We are following] events, trying to get a read as to what efforts they’re committed to taking there and what their objectives are. I can’t really give a full analysis … as of this moment,” he said. “Any time you confront an enemy that is dispersed … makes it challenging.”
In Mali, stopping a scattered enemy advance across a large area is a difficult but necessary task, the secretary noted.
“For that reason, we’ve commended France for taking that step,” he said. “And I believe the international community will do all we can to try to assist them in that effort.”
In the meantime, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is urging the Obama administration to do more to help the French in their Mali intervention.
“If you do a refueling a flight for the French that’s a great thing,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said. “But is there more you can to shorten the battle? I think there is.”
Rogers said the United States has a wide range of capabilities that it could use without committing ground troops. He declined to specify but the United States is a world leader in surveillance and intelligence gathering through the use of drones and manned aircraft.
“These are battled hardened extremists,” Rogers said.
The success extremists have had in Mali over recent months will likely attract extremist militants from other parts of the world, Rogers said. “They are very good at selling their success stories,” Rogers said.
Stay tuned — or not.