The US is likely to play a more active military role in Mali, where French-led forces are battling Islamist rebels, after the country holds elections, the head of a key US senate subcommittee said on Monday.
Washington has been providing intelligence, transport and mid-air refueling to France, which launched its intervention last month, but cannot work directly with the Malian army until a democratically elected government replaces current leaders who came to power after a coup, said Christopher Coons, chair of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ Africa subcommittee.
“There is the hope that there will be additional support from the United States in these and other areas, but ... American law prohibits direct assistance to the Malian military following the coup,” Coons told journalists in the Malian capital.
“After there is a full restoration of democracy, I would think it is likely that we will renew our direct support for the Malian military,” said the senator, who led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Mali to meet with interim Malian president Dioncounda Traore and French and African defense officials.
US military aid to Mali before the coup in March last year consisted largely of training and equipment such as vehicles, a US Department of State official said.
However, military assistance “would obviously be resumed in a way commensurate with the current needs. Priorities would have shifted a bit,” the official added. “There could be other kinds of assistance that had there not been a coup we could have provided, or requests for things now that we can’t provide.”
Some US lawmakers criticized US President Barack Obama’s administration last week for not doing more to help France in Mali.
“This is a NATO ally fighting al-Qaeda-linked terrorists — it shouldn’t be that hard,” US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce said.
The hint of greater involvement by the US after elections adds to the complicated calculus of picking a date for the polls.
Traore has said he wants elections by July 31. However, critics say that is too soon given the problems Mali still faces, including ongoing insurgent attacks, a deeply divided military and hundreds of thousands of people who have fled their homes.
The minister responsible for organizing the elections, Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, said last week the timeline “can be changed if necessary.”
France, which launched its intervention on Jan. 11 as al-Qaeda-linked groups that had occupied the north for 10 months made incursions into government territory, is keen to share the military burden in Mali, and has announced plans to start bringing its 4,000 troops home next month.
The EU formally approved a military training mission on Monday that will be tasked with getting Mali’s under-funded army ready to secure reclaimed territory.