House GOP lining up behind US effort in Mali

A number of top House Republicans are voicing their support for the Obama administration’s decision to support counterterror operations by French forces in the West African country of Mali.

GOP lawmakers agree the Pentagon’s participation in the French-led offensive should stop short of U.S. troop deployments. But ongoing counterterrorism efforts in northern Mali will be critical in ensuring the country does not become a safe haven for extremist groups to attack the United States and its allies. 

“When confronting a shared threat, we should have our ally’s back,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in a statement issued Tuesday. 

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The ability of al Qaeda-linked groups to find sanctuary within Africa’s vast expanse of ungoverned regions and stage terrorist strikes against targets in the U.S. is a “cancer [that] could not go unaddressed,” Royce said. 

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, said the United States needed to do what it could “to beat this threat back.” 

But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, made clear that the fight in Mali was one in which the French and their allies in Africa would have to take the lead. 

“The French are leading the way. We should help them where we can,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “But everything has a limit, and we’ll see where that limit is.” 

So far, the Pentagon has agreed to provide intelligence and military logistical support to Paris to aid the French attempt to sweep members of al Qaeda’s West African cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, from northern Mali. 

French warplanes have been pounding al Qaeda positions inside northern Mali since Sunday. On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it was Washington’s “responsibility” to back the French offensive in Africa. 

But that responsibility must not include the deployment of American forces into Mali, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill on Tuesday. 

“We ought to look at providing every complement of capabilities — short of troops on the ground — to ensure that [French forces] are successful,” according to Rogers, who sent a committee delegation to Mali last September. 

“This could be a bigger problem in the future if we don’t deal with it,” Rogers added. “I am very worried about us not getting it right.”

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) agreed that congressional approval for U.S. troop deployments into northern Mali would be politically impossible on Capitol Hill. 

Panetta told reporters on Monday that putting American boots on the ground in Mali was not an option being considered inside the Pentagon. 

That said, Smith noted that the tough financial outlook facing the Pentagon might make support missions like the one in West Africa more difficult, in light of dwindling DOD resources. 

That pressure could increase as the United States turns its focus away from Afghanistan and Iraq and to other hotspots across the globe, Thornberry added. 

“We are going to have a lot more of these situations” like Mali bubble up as American military leaders move into the post-Afghanistan era at the Pentagon, Thornberry noted. 

“We have got to make sure we have the tools to do that,” Thornberry added. 

One solution, according to Smith, is to make sure American allies in the region such as Algeria, Kenya and others play a more active military role in counterterrorism operations in Africa. 

American and allied support to African-led efforts to dismantle extremist groups like al-Shabab in Somalia is “the most effective way” to deal with situations such as Mali, according to Smith. 

While the Somali model for future counterterrorism operations could have some success in Africa, Thornberry said, the United States “always has to be willing to do what it takes, unilaterally, to protect our interests.”