The United States began flying French forces and equipment to Mali this week but remained cautious about offering more help to Paris amid concerns over being drawn into a potentially open-ended intervention.
Joining Britain and other countries lending support to the French intervention, the US Air Force deployed a small team of airmen on the ground and C-17 cargo planes for five flights to Mali since Monday, ferrying 140 tons of supplies and 80 French troops, Pentagon officials said.
Since launching military action against advancing Islamist fighters in Mali 11 days ago, Paris asked Washington to share intelligence, transport planes and tankers to refuel French warplanes.
President Barack Obama's administration initially appeared ready to deliver on all three requests but it has yet to give a green light to the aerial refueling tankers.
The Pentagon denied the administration was deliberately delaying a decision on the request.
"It's been just over 10 days since the French began their operations. We have provided intelligence support and airlift as well and we're going to continue to work with the French to determine what their future needs might be," spokesman George Little told reporters.
"This is not any kind of slow roll on our part. This is a deliberate effort to consult with the French to assess how best we can support them in the context of support provided by other countries."
Officials privately acknowledged that the White House had reservations about the objectives and timeline of the intervention, and whether the threat posed by Islamist fighters on the ground reflected a vital US national interest.
The Obama administration is asking "questions about what we're signed up for," a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP. "What kind of mission would this be?"
Unlike providing transport planes, refueling French fighter jets would represent a more serious commitment, as only the United States can provide that capability on a large scale.
As a result, the administration was proceeding carefully, the official said.
In the meantime, the American military was poised to begin refueling French aircraft if called upon.
"We could start moving tankers right now," the official said.
An initial arrangement had assumed the French would reimburse Washington for airlifting troops, tanks and other hardware to Mali but the Americans have since dropped that requirement, the official said.
Italy said Tuesday it would offer a tanker for the French in Mali but the US military has an unparalleled capability when it comes to refueling, with a vast fleet of about 414 tanker planes.
In the NATO-led air war in Libya in 2011, the United States accounted for roughly 80 percent of all refueling operations.
Republican Senator John McCain criticized the administration's stance and said the United States needed to be doing more to help the French confront Islamists aligned with Al-Qaeda.
"We could have played a much larger role. I'm glad we're assisting the French. We need to do whatever we can to be of assistance," McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters.
While avoiding any direct military action in Mali, the US administration has thrown its support behind a proposed UN-backed African force and was urging members of the regional bloc ECOWAS to take part.
"I think you know that we've been pushing all of the ECOWAS countries for more than a month now to look at what they could do in terms of available forces, in terms of the kinds of capabilities that were required," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
She welcomed Chad's pledge to contribute 2,000 troops to the force and said Washington had sent about 100 private trainers to advise armed forces from Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Togo.
by Dan De Luce Â© 2013 AFP
Date: Jan 22, 2013