By Chris Lawrence
The United States military could provide logistical and intelligence support in the French effort against Islamist rebels in Mali, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.
The U.S. will "provide whatever assistance it can" as part of what Panetta said was the U.S. global efforts against al Qaeda.
"We have a responsibility to go after Al Qaida wherever they are. And we've gone after them in the FATA. We're going after them in Yemen and Somalia. And we have a responsibility to make sure that Al Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali," Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Europe.
The State Department said Monday the U.S. is in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made for support, reports CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty.
“We are reviewing the requests that they have made," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
The U.S., she said, is “not in the position to support the Malian military directly until we have democratic processes restored by way of an election in Mali. We are not in a position to train the Malian military until we have democracy restored.”
Panetta described the assistance as both logistical and intelligence. The U.S. has already started sharing intelligence from satellites and intercepted signals with the French, defense officials said Monday. In addition, the Pentagon is considering sending refueling tankers so that French jets can fly longer, more sustained combat mission, according to the officials.
Drones "are under consideration," according to defense officials, though the military's stash of unmanned aerial vehicles are in heavy demand.
"That's one of the things we're working through now, is how many and from where we'd be able to provide those assets," said one of the officials, noting that drones are being used in other conflict areas such as Afghanistan and Yemen.
Although both caveat that these would be surveillance drones and said there are no plans yet to deploy armed unmanned aerial vehicles.
The officials also say another intelligence-gathering assets under consideration are piloted planes.
"There's no real air defenses to speak of in Mali, outside of AQIM firing guns in the air. So anything we send does not have to be our most secretive, less detectable equipment," one of the officials aid.
The US also considering giving "airlift capacity" to the effort, similar to what the British have provided in two cargo planes, according to the officials. This "would help the French with moving equipment, vehicles and people" to where they're needed in Mali, the officials said.
Panetta said al Qaeda's Mali affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is not an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland but does pose a risk if it gains a foothold. U.S. officials have said group was tied to the recent attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
"While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective and it's for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction," Panetta said, according to a transcript of Panetta's remarks to reporters.