WASHINGTON - The top U.S. military commander in Africa warned Monday against any premature military action in Mali, even as he said that al-Qaeda-linked extremists have strengthened their hold on the northern part of the country.
Army Gen. Carter Ham said that any military intervention done now would likely fail and would set the precarious situation there back "even farther than they are today."
The African Union and United Nations are currently discussing the funding, troops, and other assistance necessary to take back northern Mali from the extremists who took control earlier this year.
"Negotiation is the best way," Ham told an audience at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. "Military intervention may be a necessary component. But if there is to be military intervention it has to be successful, it cannot be done prematurely."
He said the plans will begin to play out in the coming weeks.
Ham's comments provided greater public detail on the worrisome coordination between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which bases its operations in Mali, and the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, which is based in Nigeria. The growing linkage between the terrorist groups, Ham said, poses the greatest threat to the region.
The Africa Union has been pressing the U.N. to take immediate military action to regain northern Mali, and Ham said that military intervention may well be necessary. But he said the African-led collaborative effort that has worked in Somalia may be the right model to use in Mali. That effort generally involves intelligence and logistical support from the United States, as well as funding and training, but the fighting is led by African nations and does not include U.S. combat troops on the ground.
AQIM is the best-financed al-Qaeda affiliate and official have long said that it has been collaborating with Boko Haram. On Monday, Ham said that AQIM is providing financial support, training, and explosives to Boko Haram and "the relationship goes both ways."
At the same time, Ham noted that Libyan mercenaries who left the country after Gadhafi's ouster have been sending heavy weapons into Mali. With that, he said, it's not unexpected to see militant training camps being set up in the ungoverned spaces, and militants increasing their recruiting efforts.
Boko Haram has made it known that the groups wants to expand its activities across the region and Europe, and it is blamed for more than 760 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.
The group's name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, and it argues for the implementation of strict Shariah law across the country.