By Carlo Muñoz - 01/14/13 09:56 PM EST
"We have a responsibility to go after al Qaeda wherever they are. And we've gone after them in [Pakistan]. We have a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali," he told reporters en route to a meeting with defense officials in Portugal.
His comments come shortly after French warplanes began airstrikes against targets in Mali late last Sunday, in an attempt to drive out Islamic extremist fighters allied with al Qaeda's cell on the continent known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), who have carved out a base of operations in northern Mali.
Recent reports state that AQIM forces have begun launching counterattacks against cities and towns in southern Mali, in retaliation to the onslaught of French military airpower.
Gen. Carter Ham, head of Africa Command, said AQIM had quietly developed into one of the most well funded and active terror cells within the organization, second only to al Qaeda's Yemen cell dubbed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
That said, Panetta commended French forces to taking action in Mali, noting the Pentagon and White House were "engaged in discussions" with Paris over what kind of support may be needed from American military and intelligence for those ongoing operations.
Specifically, talks between Washington and Paris have been centered on military logistics and intelligence support to French forces, possibly in the form of airlift and aerial refueling capabilities and use of U.S. unmanned surveillance drones.
"I'm not going to get into the particulars of exactly the assistance we'll provide, other than to say we will assist them in the intelligence arena," Panetta said, noting there will also be "some areas of airlift where we will try to be able to assist them."
American intelligence officials have been reportedly working a deal to provide Algeria with advanced surveillance satellites as part of an effort to keep closer tabs on AQIM's foothold in Mali and in western Africa.
Under the terms of the proposal, Washington would provide the satellites to military and intelligence officials in Algeria to track Islamic militants tied to the west African al Qaeda cell.
Algeria, whose southern border sits alongside northern Mali, has been reluctant to allow American intelligence and counterterrorism officials operate in and around its territory.
However, national security observers inside and outside the beltway have expressed concern that American military support in Mali and surrounding areas could escalate into a full-fledged U.S. military operation, just as the United States is poised to end the war in Afghanistan.
Panetta declined to speculate how long the Mali operation, and the Pentagon's possible involvement, would last.
"It's hard to estimate the time frame here, because obviously ... the effort is to try to do what is necessary to halt (AQIM) advances and to try to secure some of the key cities in Mali," Panetta said regarding how long French forces could be engaged in Mali.
However, he did note that that local forces from neighboring African countries are expected to take up the fight "to ensure security in Mali" once France withdraws.
In addition, the Pentagon chief said he would use his upcoming visits with defense leaders in Western Europe to gauge what level of support those countries may provide in Mali and in the overall fight against AQIM.
"We will work with them to ... provide whatever assistance we can," the DOD chief told reporters on Monday.
"[But] the larger focus is on the African nations that border on Mali, as well as countries like France that have a historic relationship to that arena," he added.