WASHINGTON: France's military intervention in Mali has revived trans-Atlantic tensions over security issues, this time involving a key counterterrorism battlefield, along with dismay from critics who see US President Barack Obama as too reluctant to use military force.
According to interviews with officials from both sides, the French have privately complained about what they see as paltry and belated American military support for their troop deployment, aimed at stopping the advance of militants allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Americans question whether French President Francois Hollande's armed intervention, which is entering its third week, was coupled with a thought-through exit strategy.
Hollande called Obama on Thursday, Jan. 10, and in a brief conversation about Mali, told the US leader that France was about to mount a major military operation in the north African country.
Hollande was in a hurry and called Obama to inform, not to consult, according to French and US officials. France's ambassador to Mali had sent an urgent message to Paris, warning that if the strategic city of Mopti fell to armed Islamic militants, there would be nothing to stop them from capturing the capital, Bamako, and controlling the entire country.
France launched its military operation on Jan. 11.
"Had we not intervened, the whole region would have become a new 'Sahelistan'," said a senior French official, referring to the Sahel region of Africa south of the Sahara Desert.
But France's sense of urgency ran headlong into American concerns about whether Paris had a long-term plan for Mali, and about getting the US military deeply involved in a new foreign conflict as Obama begins his second term in office, the officials said.
'MINIMAL' US SUPPORT?
The United States has given what US officials say is significant intelligence support to French forces in Mali, and has helped to airlift French troops and equipment into the country.
France wants more US and European help to move its soldiers and materiel. More urgently, it wants US aerial refueling capability for its planes, French officials said. That would help France conduct airstrikes to relieve pressure on French troops should they encounter trouble in northern Mali, they said.
A US official said France's refueling request is under active consideration.
US support has been "minimal" in practice, one US official acknowledged on condition of anonymity. Washington, this official said, gave France a "hard time" when they asked for increased support, and the French will "remember us for that."
Obama, who took office when the United States was mired in two costly wars, has shown himself to be cautious - too cautious, mostly Republican critics say - about foreign military interventions. He limited the US role in the campaign that helped oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and has resisted months of pressure for more muscular support for rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
There are disagreements within the White House and Congress about US support for the Mali mission, said Republican Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"This is not new ... We're seeing an ongoing debate about our participation level in Syria. We saw that same level of debate about our participation in Libya, and now we're having that exact same philosophical stalemate and debate on what we do with the French in Mali," Rogers said in an interview.
Obama and his aides "don't want their hand forced by French action," said Todd Moss, vice president of the Center for Global Development think tank and a former top official in the State Department's Africa bureau.
"There is very little, if any, political support in the US for military action in a place like Mali," Moss said.
Obama spoke to Hollande by phone on Friday and "expressed his support for France's leadership of the international community's efforts to deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali," the White House said in a statement.
The White House said Hollande thanked Obama for the "significant support" provided by the United States.