No secret, U.S. wants in on North African counterterrorism

The Defense Department is determining how the U.S. military can get more involved in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups spreading across North African countries. Actually, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said so openly, two months go. Exactly how the U.S. should get more involved in the region, though, reached new levels, according to ...

STR/AFP/GettyImages
STR/AFP/GettyImages
STR/AFP/GettyImages

The Defense Department is determining how the U.S. military can get more involved in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups spreading across North African countries.

The Defense Department is determining how the U.S. military can get more involved in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups spreading across North African countries.

Actually, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said so openly, two months go. Exactly how the U.S. should get more involved in the region, though, reached new levels, according to a Washington Post story on Tuesday, which reports that the White House "has held a series of secret meetings in recent months" on the issue. 

In the Pentagon today, however, officials are pretty even toned about it all. There is no desire or planning in the building toward "unilateral" military actions in North Africa, which the Post described as being heard out in the White House — including unilateral drone strikes. In fact, the E-Ring is told the focus is on working with national militaries in the region to give them what they need, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, to include drones, and a whole lot of other training.

But there remains a whole lot of grey to figure out, including what can be done, what permissions are needed, and what drone assets can be shifted to eyeball the vast width of the African continent from as a far away as Pakistan.

"There are no plans, at this stage, for unilateral U.S. military operations in Mali or in the region," Pentagon press secretary George Little said in Tuesday’s press briefing. "As always, we’re paying very close attention to the situation in the region, and stand ready should our partners in the region and regional actors such as ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) request our assistance. But at this time, that’s where we are."
 
Little said the Pentagon is focused on building capacities in the region, but would not say on the record if additional drones were part of any assistance requests coming from North Africa. "With regard to specific requests, I wouldn’t get into those in a public forum. I’m not prepared to make any announcements today."

The Pentagon has made no secret that it is willing, eager even, to get a much higher level of counterterrorism operations in North Africa going. Panetta, on the first stop of his Middle East visit in Tunisia in July, said, "We continue to be concerned about continuing Al Qaida presence in places like Yemen and Somalia and in North Africa.  And so for that reason, we strongly urge countries like Tunisia to develop a counterterrorism operation that can deal with that. And there are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that would help them effectively deal with that threat.  And they expressed a willingness to work with us on that effort."

The phrasing was important: "They expressed a willingness to work with us." In other words, the U.S. is doing the asking there, wanting countries like Tunisia to open their borders to American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to get an early crack against terrorists groups who want to use the largely unwatched, remote, and sometimes ungoverned spaces across North Africa.

On the way into Tunisia, Panetta also told reporters, "I will reaffirm the commitment of the United States to the stability of the Middle East and North Africa. Our goal is to advance security by supporting peaceful change throughout the region. This means we believe that establishing strong partnerships with new governments in the region."

"They have growing concerns about how to deal with Al Qaeda, how to deal with AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and they’ve also indicated growing concerns about how to protect their borders."

So, step one: establish partnerships (where more are needed, like in post-revolution Tunisia). Step two: ask North African governments to "work with us." Step three? Well, that appears to be what the White House is hearing out.

As has been reported, Africa Command’s commander, Gen. Carter Ham, in several African countries, has given public assurances the U.S. wants no unilateral involvement in Mali. But that’s not what the Pentagon wants, anyway. It wants to help North African militaries help themselves.

The bottom of the Washington Post story gives a handy primer on how AQIM has grown outward from Algeria to Mali, and how the U.S. has armed, equipped and aided neighboring countries to handle spill-over concerns. Some of Mali’s government officials have said they wan the ECOWAS to help take the counterterrorism lead. That’s what they’re saying in the E-Ring, too.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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