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U.S. officials discuss situation in Africa, Mali conflict

MODERATOR: Let’s start with Michael Gordon, New York Times.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], what specific military support is the United States going to provide the French? Have – are there any requests by the French that the United States does not intend to fulfill? And there was a recent kidnapping I just heard about of American citizens from Algeria by a group coming out of Mali. Can you provide us some information on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: First of all, the French have made a number of requests to us. Those requests have been largely channeled to the Department of Defense. Secretary of Defense Panetta has commented on that. I will say that you should ask the DOD to give you more detail on that. The broad outlines of the requests have been for greater information and intelligence sharing, and also for transportation and lift of equipment, but the decisions on those issues are with the intelligence community and with DOD.

Let me say something about the broader outline of information and intelligence. We have always had an information sharing platform with the French. We have in recent days, in response to the requests that have been made, we have augmented and expanded it. We think that it’s important to help them as much as we possibly can. But the details of what will be done should rest with the Department of Defense.

I think I’ve outlined very clearly what we at State are prepared to do in terms of using our ACOTA monies and authorities and what the Secretary of State has given us the green light to do.

MODERATOR: And the Algeria question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Algeria question is evolving. Information is still coming in on that. That is an issue that is largely in the hands of our Middle East bureau. We are following it from a southern angle, but the information is still sketchy and evolving, and I’d rather not comment on a situation in which we may make comments that could impact the safety and security of those individuals who have been reportedly kidnapped.

I might just add for geography’s sake that where we are hearing about this incident, it is up in the upper northeastern corner of Algeria close to the Libyan border, not close to the Malian border.

MODERATOR: And we may have more to say on this later today when we see you as the situation evolves. Brad, and then Anne.

QUESTION: Just a quick one on Mali – a couple things. The legal basis for lifting and entering Mali – what would that be? Are there any issues that need to be resolved on that considering the coup and – well, I guess you’re not dealing directly on military cooperation with the Malian government? And then —

MODERATOR: For lifting ECOWAS forces, is that what you’re asking?

QUESTION: For lifting whoever – French, ECOWAS – for basically entering the theater of the conflict.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me just say very clearly again that under current U.S. law we are prohibited from providing any direct assistance to the current Malian government. U.S. law clearly states that we must break off all but humanitarian assistance when a democratically elected government has been overthrown by a military regime. We will help ECOWAS countries and other African countries to help stabilize the situation, and we will help transport them into the region. But we will not help directly Malian forces. This is what the French are doing. This is what the European training mission is going to be deployed to do. Our assistance will be complementary, but it will not be direct in any way to the Malian authorities. And I think that’s the great distinction.

QUESTION: Yeah, but – sorry. If you enter Mali to bring French troops there, what’s the authority that you can enter Mali? It’s not – the French don’t give you authority to enter Mali – by troops, bring troops closer to the battle.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. The Malian Government made a specific request of the United States, as they did the French, several days ago for assistance in combating the threat posed by the rebels in the north. And so we do not expect any difficulty in arranging for transportation of ECOWAS or African troops into Mali if that is what we do.

MODERATOR: And if I might just add to that: It’s all in support of UN Security Council Resolution 2085, which the Malian Government has welcomed. Yeah.

QUESTION: The French thing is – would be based on – if you took French troops into Mali —

MODERATOR: That’s how the French – the French have notified the Security Council that they are operating pursuant to 2085 and at the invitation of the Malian Government. Let’s move on.


QUESTION: Wait a second.

QUESTION: That’s not answered at all.

QUESTION: Did – is it – can you take – to answer his question, can you take French troops under these legal authorities into Mali?




QUESTION: And this official request by the Malian Government, which clearly has a military goal at the end, you don’t consider military cooperation in any way with the Malian Government?

MODERATOR: Obviously, we are working through all of these legal issues, but we are –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We are working through the legal issues, but we are confident that we can, in fact, move ECOWAS troops into Mali in accordance with 2085 and in accordance with current existing laws.


QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Well, just to clarify, though, we’re talking about two potential movements here – the movement of French forces and reinforcements for the operation and support of the Malian Government, which the French responded, and secondarily, the ECOWAS forces. Is there any legal distinction for the United States in troop transport? And then what – under what basis would the air force – presumably personnel required to fly – what would there – once they’re on the ground, how are they able to protect themselves?

MODERATOR: On that last one, that’s a DOD –


MODERATOR: That’s a DOD issue, Anne, so –

QUESTION: But I mean, that’s an obvious question, right? I mean, you are going to have U.S. forces in-country, and I assume that’s something that you guys (inaudible) about.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me say that it may seem – there are two issues here. The one that we are dealing with at State is for us fairly clear at this juncture, and it’s one that we faced repeatedly in dealing with Somalia. When I say that we are prepared to transport troops from ECOWAS countries into Mali, there are multiple ways in which that can be done in which there are no U.S. military involved. We can, first, hire the aircraft of a African country to fly the troops in. Nigeria or South Africa has lift and capacity. We can say that we will pay for their fuel and their air time to move those troops in.

Secondly, we can go out to a major contractor, commercial, in Europe or in Africa, and say to them, “Would you be prepared to lift troops and equipment from these ECOWAS countries into theater?” We would pay for that. We could even ask a non-African country if they wanted to rent their aircraft to do it. So it doesn’t require, from our vantage point, to do the things that we intend to do, and we are supportive of doing, for us to have troops on the ground.

The other questions you’ll have to address to DOD. We have helped move Ugandan troops into Somalia, we’ve helped move Burundian troops in, and all of this has been done through commercial and/or other African military aircraft.

QUESTION: One separate follow-up —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s not as difficult as it might appear.

QUESTION: One separate follow-up —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And we would pay for that out of our authorities.

QUESTION: What is the difference between not paying for lethal arms at the outset, but paying for ammunition in the resupply? How does that work?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into that because we’re not even contemplating that in Mali. What we are contemplating – when we say “train and equip,” we’re thinking about a lot of very basic training, and we’re talking about a lot of very basic equipment that has nothing to do with the lethal equipment. It’s ensuring that all the soldiers have flashlights, all the soldiers have water canteens, all the soldiers have a medical kit and equipment, all the soldiers will be able to have a kitchen facility that they can eat at on a regular basis, that each unit has a medical supply unit with the appropriate equipment to be able to handle a range of accidents or lethal or semi-lethal wounds. It is ensuring that they have Kevlar vests and helmets, and the proper equipment for boots and uniforms, that they have malaria prophylaxis. There are a number of things that are there.

We also, in the training aspect of this, want to make sure that they have the appropriate maps, that they have the appropriate GSP systems. There are many things that we can do that will help ensure that this will be an operation that’s successful for them.

MODERATOR: So just to clarify, yesterday the podium briefer made an error in making reference to lethal support. It’s purely nonlethal.


QUESTION: Do you have a sense from the French what their exit plan is, what their game plan is, our advice to the French on that? And do you really think that ECOWAS is up to the task? Because as far as I know, they’ve offered about 3,000 troops, which a lot of analysts have just called tokenism. It’s been the same plan that they’ve offered month after month.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me say to the first part, you’d have to ask the French what their exit plan is. We have seen the statements from President Hollande. We have seen the statements from Foreign Minister Fabius, and they say their desire is to go in, stop the current rebel offensive, to stabilize the situation, prepare the ground for the ECOWAS forces, and then to leave the country. That is what it appears they want to do.

With the second question on ECOWAS – generally, do I believe that ECOWAS has the capacity to do the job, to provide a security and intervention force? Based on past history, the answer is yes. Look at the success of the operations backed by ECOWAS in both Liberia and in Sierra Leone. They have engaged. They have put troops on the ground in West African countries. And they have been successful in their partners and in their collaboration with others in helping to turn around both Liberia and Sierra Leone. They have made commitments, I think, and we’ll see how those commitments are fulfilled in the days ahead.

MODERATOR: Dana Hughes, ABC.

QUESTION: I have a few questions. The first is I just want to be – I just want clarification as to whether the ECOWAS force will be fighting alongside the Malian army and whether that is a violation at all of U.S. law? Secondly, I have questions about the funding mechanism for the ECOWAS force and if we are going to be the primary funders, in term – I know you just said that we’re not going to pay the salaries. So who will be paying salaries, if the host countries will be paying salaries? And then thirdly, I wonder what kind of lessons you might have learned from the AMISOM mission and the AMISOM force that you’re applying to ECOWAS?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Lots of questions, Dana. First of all, it is important that the Africans maintain a leadership role in the fight against AQIM and radicalism, not only in Mali but across the Sahel. The ECOWAS countries will be fighting alongside of a Malian military, but it is an ECOWAS military, not a U.S. military, so they don’t have any prohibitions. All we’re doing is assisting them to get there and assisting them to be really prepared after they arrive in country. It’s their national decision, and it’s also in their national interest to be working to get rid of AQIM, not only in Mali but because of the potential threat that it poses to the regional states.

Funding. We expect that funding will come from a variety of sources and a variety of nations. What I’ve done is to outline roughly what we are prepared to do in support of ECOWAS. We know, again, emerging from UN Security Council Resolution 2085, that the French are going to work with the European community to bring some 250 European military trainers into Mali to help to train, strengthen, and rehabilitate the Malian military. We will not have any role in that. This will be something that the Europeans take on. This is something that other countries may voluntarily pay for themselves.

We have not, for example, been paying salaries for the AMISOM troops in Somalia. We have had pre-deployment training programs. We have had sustainment programs and equipping programs, but we have not paid salaries for the Ugandans, for the Burundians, for the Djiboutians, for the Kenyans, or Sierra Leoneans. That money has largely come from funding through the European community. We do not plan to provide salaries to soldiers who are in Mali doing work on behalf of their own countries. So we’ll do that.

Lessons learned from AMISOM and Somalia. There are many, but I won’t say anything, other than it is important to ensure that the African nations and leaders in the region are committed to the effort, see the problem the same, and are willing to effectively work together to eliminate it.

In the case of Somalia, there was unanimity within the East African community. There was unanimity within IGAD. There was unanimity within the AU. And that also was clear, that there was unanimity within the international community. We do best if we are in a strong supporting and sustaining role and not in a role in which we are taking the lead. This is primarily an African problem, which has both regional and international dimensions, and therefore we should help support, but we believe it’s important that the Africans maintain a leadership role in recognition of where the problem is and how it could impact them most directly.

MODERATOR: Andy Quinn, Reuters, please.

QUESTION: On the ECOWAS side of things, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you see as a potential timeline here. There has been talk out of the region that ECOWAS – certainly some elements of ECOWAS – are hoping to have their troops on the ground within 48 hours, which, given the amount of training and equipping that you’re talking, about seems maybe optimistic. How quickly do you expect you will be able to roll out what you see as necessary as far as the training and equipping goes, and what does that mean for a timeline for actually getting them in place?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t know the timelines. Various countries have said various things both publicly and privately, so I’m not going to try to say here when people are actually going to move. I will say that some countries have indicated that they are prepared to move quickly. Those countries probably will not rely initially on any pre-deployment training or equipment packages from us. They may, on their second or third rotations, come to us and say, “Will you give us training and assistance?” And we’re prepared to take a hard look at any request that comes to us.

We do, as I say, have funding available now to do train-and-equip packages, and we are prepared to entertain this. We have told all of the members of ECOWAS that we are prepared to do this, and we have notified we have a pocket of money right now for – that we can use immediately. We’ve notified Congress that we are going to reprogram additional monies so that it will be available for use to fulfill the commitments that were made in this building.

MODERATOR: Nicole, go ahead.

QUESTION: Andy just asked my question.

MODERATOR: Okay. Nicolas.

QUESTION: This is a follow-up to Michele’s question. France has said that they will send up to 2,500 soldiers, which is a big number of soldiers for a small country like France. It’s roughly the number of people they have sent to Afghanistan for 10 years involvement. So don’t – is it not, for the U.S., an indication that the conflict – the French involvement would last months, if not years, and that there is no clear exit plan for the French, and that eventually the U.S. could be dragged into the conflict?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s a question for France.

MODERATOR: Only a slightly loaded question there.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s a question for the French Government. It’s not a question for Washington policymakers to determine for the French. The French will determine what is in their best interest. They will determine how long they plan to stay. It’s not for us to have any kind of judgment on what they are doing.

They have made a serious commitment based on what they see as a serious security situation, and they’ve made it in response to a request from the Malian Government and from other states in the region. But I can’t tell you what the French Government is thinking. You’d have to address that question to them.

QUESTION: You’ve always said it has to be African-led, so I wonder if you’re advising the French on this one. I mean, you’ve been talking about this with the French for the past year.

MODERATOR: The French themselves have said that they are doing this preparatory to the ECOWAS force coming in.

We’re going to take two more quick ones and then I need to let [Senior State Department Official] go.

QUESTION: In your requests to the French, you make no judgment at all on the merits of their mission, on the goals and on the scope of it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We support what the French are doing. They have gone in at the request of the Malian Government and also at the request of other states in the region. Their reasons for doing so are clear. It was to stop what appeared to be a major offensive by the rebels to move into the southern part of the country. If the rebels had been successful in their efforts, it might have meant a collapse of the Malian Government and a larger and bigger control of the Malian territory by AQIM and rebels and Islamists.

MODERATOR: We’re going to take two more and then I’ve got to let [Senior State Department Official] go. We’re going to be CBS, Margaret Brennan, and then Roz.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. These U.S. efforts of support in the various forms are aimed at helping to stabilize Mali. What’s the U.S. Government’s definition of what constitutes “stabilize”? And can you give us an assessment of the strength of AQIM and other extremist groups? The parallel is often made that this is a potential Afghanistan. Is that a fair comparison?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: For me, stabilization is comprised of both a political and a security element, and it attempts to deal with all of the three major concerns that I’ve outlined before. I think that it is absolutely critical that the Malian Government put in place a strategic roadmap and a timetable for the return of a democratic government.

Second, I think that it is important for the Malian Government to negotiate a credible and durable solution to the political grievances of northerners, including Tuareg.

And thirdly, I think it is important for the Malian Government, along with ECOWAS and elements of the international community, to effectively break the stranglehold that rebels have over northern Mali. That does not mean the capture, elimination of every northern rebel, but it does mean a significant move towards the liberation of major cities and towns in the north, including places like Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal.


QUESTION: Sure. Picking up on Margaret’s point, this idea of the Malian Government, the U.S. isn’t engaging with it, but yet it knows that there is an emergency that the Malian Government is facing. Obviously, the U.S. would rather see some other form of government there. Is there any leverage diplomatically that the U.S. is trying to use to bring about a change in the political situation inside the government? And what other countries may be assisting, since the U.S. is not directly engaging?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The international community recognizes this. If you look at key operative paragraphs of UN Security Council Resolution 2085, you will see in there a strong demand by the international community that a roadmap and a timetable be put in place for the return of the current government to civilian and constitutional rule through elections.

We’re not the only ones who are pushing this. I believe that many in the European community and many in Africa also strongly support this. The statements by ECOWAS leaders, statements by the European leaders, and even the statements by some of the French authorities have all made reference to the need to move the country back onto a positive democratic trajectory.

This is absolutely essential as the security progress moves forward. You must have a credible government in Mali in order to prevent a recurrence of instability after stability has been restored.

QUESTION: Are there other nations, other regions, that might be able to act as brokers to try to bring about this political reconciliation? I mean, particularly since the —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There are. Let me just say, I think that we have seen the government of Blaise Compaore and Burkina Faso trying to host reconciliation talks between the Tuareg and the government in Bamako. We’ve seen discussions being held by the Algerians with the Tuareg all designed to help bring about a reconciliation and a response to some of the unmet political grievances of northern groups.

QUESTION: And one on Somalia, just one on the recognition question.

MODERATOR: One quick one, and I’ve got to let him go. He’s got a busy day.

QUESTION: Just a following on the recognition thing, does that mean there are going to be, either now or in the future, any kind of permanent U.S. presence in Mogadishu, eventually an embassy, ambassador? And does the Secretary have any – are they going to announce any formal new aid packages or any – in conjunction with this recognition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No formal announcement of any new aid package here, although the President, Hassan Sheikh, this morning met with the Deputy Administrator of AID, Ambassador Don Steinberg, and members of his development assistance team. They will outline the kinds of things that we might be able to do for Somalia going forward. But there will be no announcement of any new aid package.

The fact that we recognize a government there will allow us to do things through USAID that we have not been able to do before. The fact that we recognize them as a legitimate government will allow the World Bank and the IMF to do things that they would not have been able to do before. This is major and it’s significant.

QUESTION: Can we get a fact sheet?

QUESTION: So it’s the start of a process.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is the start of a significant process, which underscores the return to stability that has occurred in Somalia over the last four years. Secretary Clinton, in August of 2009, went out to Nairobi and met with the then-president, new president of the Transitional Federal Government.

Coming out of that meeting, she made it absolutely clear that we needed to do everything we possibly could to do two things. One is to keep the Transitional Federal Government standing up and moving forward. And the second thing was to do everything that we could to contribute to the defeat of al-Shabaab. Over the last three and a half years, that has been our primary objective, and it has been accomplished. In three and a half years, we have seen a roadmap put in place that has resulted in a new president, who is here now, a new prime minister, a new constitution, and a new and smaller parliament, and the defeat largely of al-Shabaab across Somalia, and certainly driving them out of the major cities.

This has been a major accomplishment. The leaders, the residual leaders of al-Qaida East Africa, those individuals who were the last remaining individuals associated with the bombing of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7th, 1998, have been vaporized. They are no more.

We no longer hear of Fazil Haroun. We know longer hear of Saleh Nabhan. We no longer hear of Swedan. All of these people are gone, and Shabaab is on the run. We are, in fact, and will continue to look at the prospects of reopening in Mogadishu. We are travelling. Our team, led by Ambassador Jim Swan, travels into Mogadishu almost on a daily basis these days.

And so a lot has been accomplished. The Secretary had a mission: Don’t let the TFG fall; don’t let Shabaab (inaudible). That mission has been accomplished.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much, [Senior State Department Official]. And we will see all of you.

QUESTION: Can I ask about the failed hostage rescue thing this weekend, what —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me just say that we mourn, along with our French colleagues, the death of their colleagues. But I will also say, too, Michele, which is a lesson for Mali, throughout all of this last three and a half years, not one – not one American soldier, not one American diplomat has been lost on Somali soil as we have made this substantial progress.

MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you shortly.

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