LISBON—Obama administration officials applauded French airstrikes in Mali on Monday, describing them as a critical part of a larger Western campaign against al Qaeda and its offshoots.
"We're concerned that anytime al Qaeda establishes a base of operations, while they may not have any immediate plans for attacks the United States and in Europe, ultimately that remains their objective," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, referring to the expansion in Mali by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. "It is for that reason we have to take steps now to ensure AQIM does not get that kind of traction."
The U.S. has begun sharing intelligence information with the French, senior defense officials said, and is considering a request from Paris for additional intelligence and logistical support for its warplanes in Mali. American officials have begun preparing U.S. surveillance drones for possible deployment.
Mr. Panetta wouldn't describe the potential assistance in detail, saying no final decisions had been made.
The French began targeting AQIM and its allies over the weekend after a plea from Malian officials for help in stemming a military advance.
The U.S. State Department lauded the French action. "We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
American officials have pushed as their preferred solution a regional military force to take the lead in action against insurgents.
But Mr. Panetta voiced support for the French intervention, saying it was required once militants in northern Mali began expanding areas under their control. "It was clear to France and all of us that that could not be allowed to continue, and that is the reason France has engaged, and it is the reason we are providing cooperation," Mr. Panetta said.
Mr. Panetta spoke en route to Portugal for meetings with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
Mr. Panetta said that as the U.S. and allies have stepped up pressure against al Qaeda fighters, such as in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the organization has sought out havens elsewhere.
"Obviously, with the turmoil in Mali they found it convenient to be able to use that situation to gain some traction," he said.
He emphasized that the U.S. hadn't ignored or overlooked the growing strength of al Qaeda's northern and western African affiliates.
Mr. Panetta often mentions the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates in speeches. Since taking over as Secretary of Defense in 2011, he has regularly mentioned AQIM as a threat.
"We have been watching it for a long time. We have been paying attention, we haven't ignored the fact they have made efforts to locate there," Mr. Panetta said.
The deliberations on what action to take in Mali continue after a failed French commando effort, backed by the U.S., to free a French hostage held by militants in Somalia, across the continent on Africa's eastern edge.
After the weekend raid, the fate of the hostage, a French army consultant, was unclear Monday. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday that the hostage was believed to have been killed by his captors, while one French soldier died in the operation and a second soldier was reported missing. Al-Shabaab, the group that kidnapped the French hostage in 2009, said on Monday that the second soldier had died of his wounds.
Wall Street Journal
January 15, 2013
By Julian E. Barnes