Mali: U.S. State Department Daily Press Briefing: Mali

document

Excerpt from the United States Department of State daily press briefing:

MS. NULAND: Happy Monday, everyone. I am sorry we are so late again. We have a New Year's resolution to try to be on time, which we are already failing miserably at. I hope other people are doing better at their New Year's resolutions. I have nothing at the top; let's go to what's on your minds.

QUESTION: Can we start with Mali? I think last Friday you said that neither the Malians nor the French had asked for any assistance and that the U.S. - you didn't outline any American assistance at that point. Can you update us on any conversations that have taken place and any assistance that is now being provided?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, let me just say that with regard to the action that the French are now taking in response to a Malian Government request, we share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven. We are in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made for support. We are reviewing the requests that they have made. But I don't have any decisions to announce yet today.

QUESTION: Okay, because we've heard about various things that have already been decided. I think the French have even said communications assistance is being provided. Are you saying that that isn't being provided yet?

MS. NULAND: At this stage, I think what we have to say is that we've had a number of requests; we're looking at all of them. But I don't have anything to announce yet.

What I would say though is we are also working with ECOWAS to encourage them to accelerate the deployment of their troops. There are a number of African countries who are starting to express a willingness to go. We've also made clear that we're prepared to use our ACOTA support - this is our Africa Contingency Operations Training - to urgently get trainers out to those countries who might be ready to deploy, including getting trainers out to them this week. There is an ECOWAS summit meeting on Wednesday where we're hopeful that they'll make some deployment decisions as well.

QUESTION: So are these conversations strictly between you and the French, or are you having discussions with the Malians as well about any support they want?

MS. NULAND: With regard to support for the military operation that the French are undergoing, obviously we're having those consultations with the French. We're having separate consultations with ECOWAS with regard to supporting the deployment of African troops to support the Malian military. But as you know, we are not in a position to support the Malian military directly until we have democratic processes restored by way of an election in Mali.

QUESTION: You said that they're going to have a foreign ministers meeting on Thursday about the situation in Mali, which will look specifically at things that the EU can do including accelerating training for Mali's military. Is the U.S. going to be working in concert with the EU here, or are they going to be working on parallel tracks? How's this going to work?

MS. NULAND: Well, we're always working in concert with the EU on these kinds of things, and obviously with France being a prime member in the EU, the idea is to have this fully coordinated. But we have three tracks, obviously. We have the Malian military's own efforts, which as you've said the EU is looking at supporting with training. That corresponds with the UN Security Council resolution. We are not in a position to train the Malian military until we have democracy restored.

We also have the ECOWAS deployment of African troops in support of the Malian military. As I said, our goal there would be to help with the training of those troops and to provide financial support once the arrangements can be made through the UN.

And then the third track is obviously the invited support that the French are now providing and what the French might need from us in terms of support for their military operation. So all three of those are moving together, and we're working with everybody to try to keep them coordinated.

QUESTION: The U.S. position on this has been - at least up until this past weekend - was that there were sort of political improvements in the Malian political situation had to go in concert with any thought of military intervention. What is the U.S. doing to hasten the political solution to the problem there?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, Andy, our Embassy remains open in Bamako. We are in concert with the security track, pushing hard on all stakeholders in Mali to commit to and begin preparing for the elections that are supposed to take place by April of this year. That's going to require a free, fair, transparent electoral process. So those conversations are ongoing, and we very much believe that there is no purely security solution to the problems in Mali. There has to be obviously a restoration of democracy. There has to be an inclusive conversation with stakeholders in the north who are willing to renounce terrorism. And there has to be an economic program as well to address some of the grievances of the have-nots, if you will, in the north.

QUESTION: You still see that as a realistic timeframe for the elections if this intervention and what might - could be a continuing conflict in the country? Wouldn't that potentially delay any sort of elections that they might have?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we want to see democracy restored as soon as possible. The constitutional goal is April. I think we have to see how things move forward. But obviously it's in the interest of Mali if we can hold to that timetable.

QUESTION: The French are saying that they - that the forces they've encountered on the ground are actually better trained and better armed and organized than had originally been thought. Does that surprise you?

MS. NULAND: You mean that the rebel forces are better --

QUESTION: The rebel forces on the ground. Yeah.

MS. NULAND: Well, I think we've been, as you know, concerned about infiltration of al-Qaida in the Maghreb, in Mali, and across that belt for some time. The Secretary's been expressing those views publicly for many months. This is one of the hallmarks of AQIM is that they are generally quite well trained and quite effective, particularly if there's no counter pressure on them, which there hadn't been until the French launched their military action over the weekend.

QUESTION: So you think some of the rebels that they're fighting are actually AQM as opposed - AQIM as opposed to just the local Islamist groups?

MS. NULAND: We've been clear about that all along that we think AQIM is playing a significant role in this.

QUESTION: And now it seems to be that the - I think - the Malian officials are saying themselves that this is not just an offensive to push them back north. They're actually now trying to root them out to make it a final kind of push then get them out of the country. Does that not - does the fighting on the ground not really change the logic of a UN resolution? Because if the idea is to go in and train Malian forces who are already fighting, doesn't - isn't there some kind of dichotomy there?

MS. NULAND: Well, I mean, there are a number of things that are now happening simultaneously, as we said in response to Andy's question. The UN Security Council resolution, first of all, speaks of all three tracks: the security track, a political track, and an economic track.

On the security track, there are the two pieces of it that are represented. The first is strengthening the Malian military so even as the Malian military works with France and eventually with ECOWAS to try to rout out these havens where the rebels have taken root, they're still going to have to be strong enough to hold that territory once they reclaim it to be good representatives of the best democratic values of Mali when they are there. That means no reprisals, et cetera. They're going to have to be able to handle population security, et cetera, going forward. We think they're going to need not just the support from France that's ongoing now but that they're going to need some long-term support from African forces to get themselves reestablished as we deepen and strengthen the ranks of Mali military that can hold territory by themselves.

So we see this French effort supported by the Malian military, then the ECOWAS effort, and then ideally you'd get to a point where Malian military can be clean, democratically led, and can hold territory by themselves. But that's some time out in the future, so that means we have to also focus on training for them.

QUESTION: And there have been some threats now made against France as well with the rebels saying that they'll strike back at the heart of France. And I believe there's been some security measures that the French have taken in various places, not just in France, to try and mitigate any such threat. Do you believe this is a threat that could also come against other actors such as the United States as they become more gradually involved?

MS. NULAND: Well, it's obviously not surprising. This is the MO of these - the modus operandi, if you will, of these kinds of transnational terrorist groups that if they face significant opposition then they threaten to come after you in other ways. I think we are all well aware of the requirement to be vigilant about our own security including in the homeland. But that's why it's so important to get this operation done and get it done right, because they have been able to develop another safe haven across that region that needs to be routed now.

QUESTION: Are the French doing it right by that - by what you've just put forward?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we are in close consultation with the French. I think it would be inappropriate a couple of days in to be giving this operation a grade. But obviously we were in consultation with them before it started and we are working very closely to monitor the situation going forward.

QUESTION: You're not worried about being dragged into a war by the French, like sort of what happened a couple of years ago in Libya?

MS. NULAND: We're going to make - first of all, we made our own decisions with regard to Libya. It was a shared, NATO-led operation under a UN Security Council resolution, so I would reject the premise that anybody dragged us in. We'll make our own national decisions now with regard to the kinds of support that France may need that we'd be willing to offer.

QUESTION: But you're comfortable with them playing the leadership role on this?

MS. NULAND: You know the longstanding relationship between France and Mali. The request of the Malian Government went to France. It didn't come to a larger international contingent. And obviously, as allies and as long-term partners in these kinds of efforts, we are looking at what the French might need in terms of support.

Guy.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up, and sort of the same question but in a different way. Why does it make sense for the United States and for the Obama Administration to have France be out in front and leading on this?

MS. NULAND: Again, it was France who was requested to help by the Malians. They had the assets to do it. They were willing to do it. They are asking us to help them in a number of ways that we are now reviewing. But we have traditionally had relationships of burden sharing when we embark on global security operations. You'll recall when we had the Cote d'Ivoire situation where France also had long-term historic ties, when UN forces got bogged down, the French were willing to give it a push and they were able to do so. So the situation is somewhat similar, but it speaks to the strength of our allies and our ability to share burden around the world with them. It's a good thing.

QUESTION: Does it seem like the Malians went to the French because of those historic ties to you? Is that the view of this Department?

MS. NULAND: I'm not going to parse how that came about one way or the other.

Scott.

QUESTION: Have you gotten assurances from French leadership right now that the French Government is in tune with the United States' goals in Mali in terms of restoring a democracy?

MS. NULAND: Well, if you look at the Security Council resolution that we passed and the various statements that we've made since, France and the United States are joined in all of the goals and objectives that we have there, which start with restoring democratic governance to Mali. So yes, and obviously we're in consultations as allies about the way forward.

Scott.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Last week the holdup for this ECOWAS force was because you were waiting to hear back from them about some of the things about who was going to deploy and the long-term financing.

MS. NULAND: Right.

QUESTION: Now that has accelerated, so have you heard from them about these - to answer these questions, or have - the situation just been overtaken and it's necessary to get troops there now and the rest will just be figured out?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we had on the Security Council, all of us, been warning that the situation was urgent, that the pace of action was too leisurely, if you will. And clearly, when the rebels started moving south, that was a wakeup call to everybody. And now with the urgent Malian call for outside help, I think it was not just to the French but it was also to ECOWAS to please speed it up. So we're all focused on that as well.

So our sense from our ECOWAS contacts is that they are rolling up their sleeves now to try to get in as quickly as they can and that this summit on Wednesday is very much focused on that.

Please, Jill.

QUESTION: You're saying the situation was urgent and you shared that. That was your belief. And yet it feels as if the French are way out ahead of the United States, and I guess it raises that issue of is the United States actually as actively engaged as it could be under the circumstances if you believe that al-Qaida - AQIM is there and that it's an urgent situation.

MS. NULAND: Well, let me remind that we were in full consultation with the French on Mali for a number of weeks before they decided to deploy. When they were invited to deploy and before they made those decisions, we were in consultation with them. So this has been very much an allied effort to support Mali, but the division of labor has been that the French would begin the military support while we focused on trying to get ECOWAS ready and going to come in behind them. And that's been the way we've moved forward, but we do now have a number of requests for support from the French which we're looking at as well.

So this speaks to the kind of partnership that we've had not just with France but with other allied countries when emergent situations have developed. And we've done this kind of partnership before. Sometimes we're in the lead with allied support; sometimes an ally is in the lead with U.S. support. So I don't think this is all that unusual, frankly.

QUESTION: Do you have a sense of the size of the rebel force on the ground?

MS. NULAND: I don't have a sort of a lay-down here that I'm able to share. I think there've been a number of estimates, including UN estimates, over time, but I don't have anything to share at the moment.

QUESTION: And are there fears that this could turn out to be quite a prolonged kind of engagement?

MS. NULAND: I think it remains to be seen. In so many of these situations, you have hardcore fighters, whether they're from the outside or whether they are local rebels committed to a violent resolution of their grievances. You have other actors in the community who are dissatisfied with the government but - and therefore may be attracted to an extremist course of action if they don't feel like they're - they have any other alternatives. So it's hard, often, to get numbers about hardcore fighters versus those who are piling on because they think that their grievances might be better addressed to the barrel of a gun after they haven't seen them addressed politically. This speaks to why you have to not only have a security strategy; you also have to have a political strategy and an economic strategy, ideally going hand in hand.

Please, Dana.

QUESTION: Going back to the ECOWAS force, in terms of the trainers that you said may be going, can you give an indication of what countries they may be going to?

MS. NULAND: Well, Dana, we looked at this before we came down. We have indications from ECOWAS itself and from a number of African countries within ECOWAS bilaterally, that they are looking at deploying, but I don't think it would be appropriate for us to be naming them before they name themselves. So I think we'll wait and see who comes forward, ideally on Wednesday at the summit.

QUESTION: And going back to the division of labor, will the United States be the primary funders of this force?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we're still trying to work out the funding mechanism. But I think, as you know, from a U.S. perspective we think the best way to fund the UN-covered operation would be the same way we covered the Somalia operation, which was voluntary contributions. We think that'll be most efficient. But we haven't got --

QUESTION: But we were the primary funders of that (inaudible).

MS. NULAND: We were the primary funders. Again, we need to agree on the mechanism before we can agree on the shares. We're looking at all of it, with our partners.

Please.

QUESTION: Just to clarify something, so still in consultations with France. So does that mean that no support has yet been given?

MS. NULAND: Again, we don't have anything to announce yet on decisions to support this mission. When we do, it'll be out there for all of you, probably coming from either the White House or the Pentagon, I would guess.

QUESTION: What is the official position on the Malian Government from this government? Do you still see them as illegitimate, as a ad-hoc junta that doesn't have legitimate authority?

MS. NULAND: We've talked about this a little bit. We have a transitional governing structure now. As you know, it went through one change sometime in December. We do support that transitional structure in the interim, but we see them as having the primary focus of preparing for broad-based, legitimate elections in April.

We also have been concerned about Colonel Sanogo and his continuing influence, both politically and in security terms, in Bamako. We've been urging the transitional government to marginalize him, et cetera, and for the Mali military to marginalize him. So until we get to an elected structure, we haven't restored democracy, obviously, in Mali.

QUESTION: But you're recognizing this transitional structure's authority --

MS. NULAND: We are.

QUESTION: -- for the country right now.

MS. NULAND: We are. Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. NULAND: With the caveats that I gave you.

Lalit.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: On Sri Lanka., the Chief Justice --

QUESTION: If we could stay in Africa (inaudible).

MS. NULAND: You want to stay in Africa --

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. NULAND: -- and we'll come back to you, Lalit? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Contingent with this, or contiguous, rather, with this - the launch of this offensive by the French at the weekend, they also went into Somalia to try and free a French agent who is being held by the al-Shabaab. I saw on the Secretary's schedule that the Somali president is going to be in town later on this week. Could you explain what issues are going to be raised between the Secretary and the Somali president, or whether you had any information about what happened at the weekend with this offensive which went wrong, basically?

MS. NULAND: Well, first with regard to the hostage rescue effort, the U.S. did provide some limited support to France in that hostage rescue effort. As you know, I think it was yesterday evening, the President submitted a letter to Congress under the War Powers resolution which is required 48 hours after any U.S. military action, which outlined the limited technical support that we provided to French forces in an effort to be helpful. So I don't have anything further on the specifics of that.

With regard to the visit of the new Somali President, as you know, the Secretary throughout her tenure has been deeply engaged in Somalia, from 2009 to the present, through the period of the transitional government getting to this permanent democratic structure. So she's very much looking forward to welcoming the permanent, now, Government of Somalia and celebrating the progress that they've made.

I think we'll probably have - we're planning now to have a background briefing for you all on Wednesday, talking about the last four years of effort in Somalia to set up that visit, and to the Secretary and the President, and we'll see you as well.

QUESTION: This will be their first meeting, though, won't it - official meeting since he came to power?

MS. NULAND: Since he came to power, yes. I think he was among the leaders who we met on one of our trips in the fall who was contesting in the elections. I'm pretty sure he was in the room for that visit.

Please.

QUESTION: Were the planes that went into Somali airspace - did they have approval from the Somali Government?

MS. NULAND: I don't have any further details beyond what was in the War Powers resolution requirement. I'm going to send you to the Pentagon for any further details.

Dana.

QUESTION: Al-Shabaab is saying that they are going to be displaying the bodies of these French hostages that were killed. Are you concerned that this botched or that this failed rescue attempt will be a boon to them when they've been weakened?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think they are already significantly weakened, and that's evident by the increasing amounts of territory that the government is able to manage with some of the leaders in the tribal areas as well, and I think you'll see that when Hassan Sheikh is here and has a chance to talk about what's happening in his country. Look, al-Shabaab is on its heels and it's desperate to try to continue to maintain its influence, but it's not going to be successful.

Please.

QUESTION: Yes. Any comment on the recent terrorist attacks against journalists in Greece? I'm sure, as you know, today they attacked the offices of the New Democracy Party, the governing party of Greece.

MS. NULAND: Well, we obviously condemn the recent violence in Greece. We urge Greek citizens to exercise their right of protest peacefully. There's never an excuse to resort to violence.

Anything else?

QUESTION: Benghazi?

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have any update on when the Secretary might testify? And could you also tell us how her preparation is going, what she's doing to prepare for that testimony on Capitol Hill?

MS. NULAND: Well, with regard to the consultations that we've had with the Congress on the timing, I'm going to defer to the two committees to announce the hearings when they're ready to do so. But we did talk about these happening after both houses come back into session next week. So we will defer to them on any formal announcements.

Secretary is doing what she always does. She is going through all the steps that this Department is taking to implement the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board. I think you're aware that - well, first and foremost, as you know, she's made a commitment that all 29 recommendations will be implemented and that the implementation should be well in train before she finishes here. So I think she'll want to update the committees on implementation.

As you know, Deputy Secretary Nides is leading an implementation process here in the building. I think he's having his 11th meeting with the various stakeholders this week to get that work - as many of the short-term recommendations completed as possible, the medium-term ones well underway, and the longer-term ones well set up. So I think you'll hear a good accounting from her on all those things when she testifies.

QUESTION: And this is an important week because it's the week before the inauguration. I think you were mentioning that perhaps we might see some meetings that she would have with foreign visitors. Can you - is there any schedule information that you can share with us at this point about what the Secretary will do this week?

MS. NULAND: I think we did put out some scheduled things over the course of the week.

QUESTION: Yeah, you did, but I mean anything --

MS. NULAND: She's going to see Ellen Sirleaf Johnson[1] of Liberia tomorrow. She's also seeing her Colombian counterpart. I think that one is tomorrow as well. As we said, the Somali President will be here on Thursday. We've already announced the visit of the new Foreign Minister - Foreign Secretary of Japan - Mr. Kishida will be here on Friday. So it's a busy diplomatic week.

QUESTION: So these would be more - let's call them working on the relationship issues in the relationship, as opposed to farewell, right?

MS. NULAND: Oh, all of these are working visits of foreign ministers or heads of state continuing the bilateral and regional work that we do together, yes.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:56 p.m.)

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