By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
MADRID, Jan. 15, 2013 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta discussed U.S. assistance to the French in Mali during news conferences today in Lisbon, Portugal, and here in the Spanish capital.
On Jan. 10, France began airstrikes against forces in Mali affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
During a news conference in Lisbon this morning with Portuguese Defense Minister Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco, Panetta expressed support for France’s action.
“We have commended the French for this effort to … stop the AQIM -- these terrorists and members of al-Qaida -- from being able to develop a base of operations in Mali, and we have always been concerned about efforts by al-Qaida to establish that kind of base,” the secretary said. “And our commitment ever since 9/11 has been to go after al-Qaida wherever they are and to make sure that they have no place to hide.”
Panetta also noted that the international community and the United Nations support the effort. A reporter asked whether U.S. officials are considering sending ground forces to Mali. “There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time,” the secretary replied.
Later, during his joint appearance here with Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes Eulate, Panetta repeated the basic points he first made yesterday about U.S. support for the French action in Mali.
The U.S. and French governments are discussing a range of possible assistance the United States can offer, he said. Panetta yesterday told reporters the French had requested intelligence, logistics and airlift support.
“We are in discussions with the French, and we are discussing in Washington some of the requests that have been made, to determine exactly what assistance we can provide,” the secretary said. “Our goal is to … do what we can to provide whatever assistance is necessary.”
Panetta told reporters he can’t yet offer a likely timeline for French military action in Mali.
“[We are following] events, trying to get a read as to what efforts they’re committed to taking there and what their objectives are. I can’t really give a full analysis … as of this moment,” he said. “Any time you confront an enemy that is dispersed … makes it challenging.”
In Mali, stopping a scattered enemy advance across a large area is a difficult but necessary task, the secretary noted.
“For that reason, we’ve commended France for taking that step,” he said. “And I believe the international community will do all we can to try to assist them in that effort.”
Morenes, speaking through a translator, noted that Panetta’s meetings with Spanish leaders “laid the foundations for significant cooperation in the future.”
“We specifically talked about Afghanistan and Mali,” he added.
European defense ministers have been monitoring the situation for more than a year, Morenes said, and in December they had reached preliminary agreements to train Malian and Economic Community of West African States forces. The movement of extremist forces toward Mali’s southern regions was “sudden, in a way,” he said, which meant that a new response had to develop quickly.
Talks he held with the French minister Jan. 11 and last night indicated the French plan is to prevent terrorist groups from reaching Mali’s capital of Bamako, which would create chaos, Morenes said. “The French minister told us that they wanted to stop that offensive and to … [proceed with] the Mali training mission,” he added.
Morenes said that at a meeting of NATO’s foreign ministers Jan. 18 in Brussels, “we had planned to get ahead of the offensive.”
“Now, [we are] adjusting to a new situation, post-offensive,” he noted.
The Spanish minister added that Spain already has agreed to a French request that Spain allow overflights of its maritime airspace. Panetta and Morenes agreed it is vital to world security to prevent terrorists fro developing a safe haven in Mali.
“[The] objective is to make sure AQIM never establishes a base for operations – in Mali, or for that matter, anyplace else,” Panetta said.