US Africom is expecting to be asked to provide support for West African military intervention in northern Mali, a top US General said on Wednesday. According to US intelligence, any military intervention force will encounter an estimated 800-1200 "hardcore" fighters.
"It won't be a surprise to us," says US Africa Command General Carter Ham. "It's likely that they'll ask us for some assistance in intelligence. It's likely they will ask us for some help in logistics, equipping the force."
Ham says they are ready to "seriously consider" any requests. Although nothing specific has been asked for yet. He expects those discussions to take place when Ecowas [Economic Community of West African States] presents its plan for military invention to the UN Security Council.
The head of the US Africa Command says their intelligence from the region is "imperfect". But they estimate there are between 800-1200 "hardcore" fighters in northern Mali as well as "supporting entities and sympathisers".
The African Union has backed the Ecowas plan to send 3,300 troops into northern Mali. It will be discussed by the UN Security Council before the end of the year.
A number of armed groups have occupied Mali's northern territory since a military coup in March. According to Ham, the most worrying of those is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
"Ultimately if left unaddressed, this terrorist network will present an imminent threat to my country and to others," he says. "It's very likely that some of the terrorists who participated in the attacks in Benghazi [on the US consulate] have some linkages to AQIM."
Furthermore, Ham says that Africom has "clear indications" of AQIM working with the hardline Nigerian militant group Boko Haram. "AQIM is in our estimation Al-Qaeda's best financed affiliate."
When asked about providing air support for the military intervention in northern Mali, Ham questions whether that will be called for.
"When you start to get into capabilities that are very visible and very kinetic, the question of being African-led needs to be addressed," he says. "But that certainly needs to be a consideration."
Ham does not entertain any discussion of using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, over northern Mali. Neither does he confirm or deny that bases in Nema, Mauritania or Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, would be convenient for providing US support.
He is also cautious about what training for Malian troops the US could provide. He explains that the US is legally prevented from training soldiers from the Malian army because the Malian army coup leaders remain in positions of influence within the government.
"We're certainly looking for indications that the interim Malian government recognises that the presence of the military coup leaders is unhelpful," says the four-star general. "At least for the United States it presents a legal barrier to interaction."
Ham is certain that Algeria will play a "key" role to helping to resolve the crisis, whether there is Ecowas military intervention or not.
Algeria opposes the use of armed force in Mali. Ham says that Algeria's suggestion of separating those groups with political aims and those with "terrorist motivations" could be a way forward.