STUTTGART, Germany — Germany’s foreign minister was in Mali on Thursday, a visit that underscores the growing concern in Europe about al-Qaida-linked terrorists establishing a foothold there, and, in particular, indications from German leaders that they would be willing to lend support for a noncombat mission in the West African country.
Germany, NATO’s second largest member, has been reluctant to get militarily involved in any potential conflict, staying on the sidelines, for instance, when NATO intervened in Libya.
More than a year later, Germany is sounding a different tune when it comes to Mali.
“They were criticized left and right for not taking part in Libya, and now the Germans are trying to make up for that,” said Jan Techau, an expert on German security and foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
When it comes to security in Africa, the U.S. and France took key leadership roles during the intervention in Libya and they maintain military relations with numerous African states.
In Mali, a military coup in March has brought widespread disorder to what was believed to be one of Africa’s more stable democracies. Since the coup, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, along with other militants, has been able to seize territory across much of the country. For the West, Mali as a potential safe haven and training ground for militants conjures images of Afghanistan.
Europe is concerned about such a scenario so close to its backdoor.
In recent weeks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle have indicated Germany is open to supporting any international effort in Mali.
Westerwelle traveled to Mali on Thursday for meetings with leaders of the weak interim government, saying the stabilization of Mali is vital for the entire Sahel region, according to the Foreign Ministry website.
“A lawless area on the southern edge of the Sahara, in which terrorists find a refuge, would also endanger our security,” Westerwelle was quoted as saying.
In late October, Merkel said Germany would be willing to commit military trainers as part of a potential EU mission in Mali.
“Free and democratic states cannot accept that international terrorism is finding a safe haven in the north of the country,” Merkel said at a conference of Germany’s armed forces. “We know Mali’s armed forces are too weak to act — they need external support, and a European training mission is therefore thinkable, as is material and logistical support.”
“Germany is prepared to take part in a support mission for Mali, if the conditions are clarified and established,” Merkel said.
For Germany’s partners in NATO and the EU, such comments could be an encouraging sign given Germany’s historical reluctance to engage in potentially messy security matters.
“It was unusual for her (Merkel) personally to speak up like that and it is a sign the Germans are haunted by the Libya story,” Techau said. “They put themselves on an off track and they’ve been trying to make up for it in a number of ways.”
Still, analysts remain skeptical about Germany’s commitment, given its history of emphasizing humanitarian or support missions and shunning military engagement.
“A lot of this is just cosmetic,” said Anand Menon, a European security and defense expert with the London-based Chatham House. “Let’s wait and see what the details of the deployments are before we think Germany has changed.”
While Germany often talks about the need to bolster the military capacity within the EU, “every time it comes to deploy forces, they say no,” Menon said.
Part of that reluctance to engage in military matters stems from the scars of World War II, but Germany also has grown content on the sidelines, Menon said. “It’s quite a comfortable place to be isn’t it?” Menon said. “It allows them to be classic free riders.”
The EU is likely to intervene in some capacity, but working out the details of even a small mission will take at least six months if not longer, according to analysts.
The EU is now considering a plan to send some 200 troops to Mali to help train the country’s military to take on the Islamists in the north. Under that plan, Germany could contribute as many as 60 troops. A Mali intervention plan led by roughly 3,000 troops from the Economic Community of West African States also is being considered by the United Nations.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is looking at a strategy that mirrors how it engages in Somalia, where training, logistical support and funding for African Union troops has pushed the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab to the brink of defeat. France also is looking to step up its activities in Mali and is reportedly considering the deployment of drones to the region.
While no one in the West is talking about direct military intervention with combat troops on the ground — the focus has been primarily on providing trainers and logistical support to Mali and other militaries in the region — a more engaged Germany could be helpful.
Still, in an expansive region of ungoverned space the size of France, it’s not clear what difference regional militaries backed by Western funding and logistical support will accomplish. Experts on the region have cautioned that any attempt to stabilize the area would be daunting for a small ECOWAS force with Western backing.
But for Germany and the EU, sending in modest numbers of troops also is about sending a message, Techau said.
“The EU mission, it’s small. It’s a footnote,” Techau said. “But right now, the Europeans feel, yes, we are threatened. We have to show we can do something and this is a way of doing that.”