Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mali, Chuck Hagel's Cautionary Tale

If Chuck Hagel does become America's next Defense Secretary he plans to steer clear of entanglement in the war against Islamist insurgents in the Sahara.

In prepared questions to the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of his Thursday morning confirmation hearing, the former Nebraska Republican senator said he’d back the French campaign against Islamist forces in the Malian north “without deploying U.S. combat forces on the ground.” Hagel backs training a United Nations-authorized African force to take over from the French, but the U.S. military is staying out of that effort, currently overseen by the State Department.

Outside of propping up the African forces, Hagel told the panel he supports “assisting the movement of French and African forces [and] providing intelligence and planning support” to the French. Midair refueling, something the French have sought and which a U.S. KC-135 tanker began providing on Sunday, wasn’t part of Hagel’s list.

Hagel also sounded a more sanguine note about the threat to the U.S. posed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the al-Qaida affiliate in north Africa and the Sahel, than some in the Obama administration and the military have been willing to go. While he told the panel AQIM poses a “growing threat” to U.S. interests in the region and wants to deny the group a safe haven in Mali, “My understanding is that at this time, there is no credible evidence that AQIM is a direct threat to the U.S. homeland,” Hagel said.

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