DOD anticpates al Qaeda return to Mali

"I have some confidence but . . . I wouldn't say that it's high confidence," the terror group's West African cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, will not return to Mali, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs Derek Chollet told Congress Monday. 

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His comments come as French forces are preparing to wind down their four-month counterterrorism campaign in the country against AQIM fighters  who had taken over the northern part of the country. 

With the help of U.S. intelligence and airlift assets, French forces were able to flush out AQIM fighters from the northern city of Gao and group's various strongholds in northern Mali.

But with Paris now planning to pull most of its 4,000-man force out of Mali and hand control of those operations to Malian and regional forces by the end of the year, it remains unclear whether those troops can maintain the gains made by the French. 

"I am hopeful, but . . . I don't think we're there yet," Chollet told members on the Senate Armed Services subcommittee of emerging threats regarding the Malian army's ability to hold the north against AQIM and other Islamic militant cells on the continent. 

Members of the European Union and the United Nations are already planning to move military advisers into the West African nation, to train and organize Mali's armed forces, Michael Sheehan, head of the Pentagon's special operations and low-intensity conflict directorate, said Monday. 

"It's a very weak army, notwithstanding all the aid that we provided them over the last five years or so," Sheehan said. "It remains to be seen how it will evolve and develop into a professional force." 

That said, the Obama administration has barred the Defense Department from providing any support to the Malian military, according to Sheehan. 

Committee member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for increased military support from the Pentagon for Mali during a recent trip to the country. 

"We will work with the French forces, assess the French and allied forces on the ground, and see to what extent we can provide equipment, training, and technology to rid Mali of these rebels which include al Qaeda," McCain, who traveled to Mali with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), earlier this month. 

McCain reiterated those demands on Monday, spurring on a contentious exchange with Sheehan during the hearing. 

The Arizona Republican pressed Sheehan on whether the Malian army would be able to take the fight to AQIM, questioning whether the group would be able to reemerge in northern Mali. 

"Senator, I've been studying Al Qaida for 15 years . . . I know exactly what it takes for them," Sheehan said sharply, in response to McCain's aggressive line of questioning. 

"Mr. Sheehan, I have too [and] I'm asking you a question," McCain shot back. 

In response, Sheehan replied that AQIM "will attempt to reconstitute themselves" in Mali.  "We'll see whether [they] will be able to establish a strategic capability from there over the years ahead," he added.