The outgoing head of U.S. Africa Command said Thursday that the best the United States can hope for in northern Mali is the "containment" of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), not the eradication of the terrorist group.
"Realistically, we would all like to see the elimination of al Qaeda and others from northern Mali," said Gen. Carter F. Ham during a presentation at Howard University. "Realistically, probably the best you can get is containment and disruption so that al Qaeda is no longer able to control territory as they do today, no longer to control the lives of the population centers."
Ham’s comments come as French troops and the Malian military are fighting to reclaim Mali territory from AQIM. The U.S. government has linked the terrorist group to the recent attack on an Algerian oil facility that killed three Americans, as well as the assault on the Benghazi diplomatic mission that killed four Americans.
President Barack Obama has frequently vowed to "defeat" al Qaeda and said he had "decimated" the group during his reelection campaign.
Ham’s remarks support candid comments he made in July 2012 when he said the U.S. and international community missed several opportunities to deal with AQIM while it was still weak.
"As you all know, AQIM was present in northern Mali for many, many years," said Ham at the time. "And I believe there were opportunities to counter AQIM over these past several years, but those opportunities were not taken advantage of. … And now the situation is much more difficult, and it will take greater effort, again, by the international community and certainly by a new Malian government, to address the situation in the north."
Ham also addressed the administration’s intervention in Libya and its reluctance to intervene in Syria where Bashar al Assad has spent the last two years violently cracking down on a public uprising.
"It is absolutely, I think, a fair question to say, ‘Why did you act in Libya in this circumstance, under the doctrine ... of the responsibility to protect noncombatants? Why did you choose to do that in Libya and not choose to do that in other places?’" said Ham. "There are significant differences, I think."
Ham did not elaborate on these differences except to say that there was official United Nations Security Council support for the Libya mission, but not for an intervention in Syria.
"Importantly, in Libya, there was a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for this mission and authorized all available means," he said. "In Syria, there is no such security council resolution that would provide the legal underpinning for an operation in Syria similar to what was conducted in Libya."
The death toll in Syria is estimated at 60,000 lives.