The Obama administration has been slow to hop on the Mali intervention bandwagon and some reporting from the Los Angeles Times indicates why:
Militants in Mali, "if left unaddressed, ... will obtain capability to match their intent — that being to extend their reach and control and to attack American interests," Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview.
But many of Obama's top aides say it is unclear whether the Mali insurgents, who include members of the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threaten the U.S.
Those aides also worry about being drawn into a messy and possibly long-running conflict against an elusive enemy in Mali, a vast landlocked country abutting the Sahara desert, just as U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.
"No one here is questioning the threat that AQIM poses regionally," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations. "The question we all need to ask is, what threat do they pose to the U.S. homeland? The answer so far has been none."
It's hard to know just what kind of aims and "intent" AQIM has, since different leaders may have a different conception of their mission. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, AQIM is more of a regional outfit and to the extent that it wants to target foreign countries, France and Spain top the list. Although as this CFR backgrounder makes clear, that picture may be changing with possible links between AQIM and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Still, the Pentagon risks setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy if it ends up quickly diving into a war in Mali. AQIM will have regional aims up until the minute U.S. bombs start falling on their heads. At that moment, they will no doubt broaden their sights.