Mutinous soldiers gather in front of the State Television Station in Bamako, the capital of Mali, on Thursday, March 22, 2012.

Mutinous soldiers gather in front of the State Television Station in Bamako, the capital of Mali, on Thursday, March 22, 2012. (Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT)

STUTTGART, Germany — Regional leaders in Western Africa meet Tuesday amid efforts to pressure military leaders to step aside in Mali, where last week’s coup is threatening to derail U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

U.S. officials say they hope an emergency meeting of the Economic Community of West African States will mark a step toward resolving the crisis, restore civilian leadership and avert the need to freeze funding to Mali.

“Any U.S. assistance to the government of Mali beyond what we give for humanitarian purposes is at risk if we cannot get back to a democratic situation in the country,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Friday.

Following last week’s coup, led by a Malian army captain with U.S. training, the African Union moved to suspend Mali as a member state. The European Union cut off development aid and France halted security cooperation with the poor but strategically important nation. Canada also has frozen funding.

The U.S. so far has only threatened action. In the meantime, U.S. military engagement with the country continues. “We do have some folks who are still working on counterterrorism issues,” Nuland said Friday.

The U.S. reluctance to quickly cut off assistance to Mali underscores the importance U.S. officials attribute to the region, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, serves as a destabilizing force across a vast swath of territory in northern Africa.

Faced with a potential famine this year, the presence of AQIM and a rebel separatist movement in the north, Mali is confronting a range of destabilizing challenges that could ripple across the region, said Benjamin Soares, a scholar with the African Studies Centre in the Netherlands.

“It is a conundrum for the U.S. because this coup has happened, and it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. Are they (the junta) up to the task to dealing with the rebellion in the north and dealing with AQIM? There’s a lot of questions,” Soares said. “But can the U.S. and other donors just cut off money?”

The disruption caused by the coup also could be a boon to both al-Qaida and the separatist Azawad National Liberation Movement, known by its acronym MNLA, resulting in more regional instability, according to some experts.

“The coup has created excellent conditions for al-Qaida to entrench itself in Mali with minimal interference, and is probably the greatest gift possible for those seeking to create the new nation of Azawad,” wrote Andrew McGregor in a report for the Jamestown Foundation, a security focused group. “Unless the internal collapse within the armed forces can quickly be reversed, both AQIM and the (Azawad National Liberation Movement) will score what may prove to be irreversible gains against a state rendered largely defenseless by its own military.”

Paul Melly, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House, says there is an opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the standoff, though it will require “skillful and discreet negotiation” and international pressure.

“The mutineers feel (President Amadou Toumani) Touré has been too soft in his response to the MNLA and the kidnap gangs of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And there is resentment at corruption in the command structure, which left some ordinary soldiers deprived of salaries and essential supplies,” Melly wrote in an article on the Chatham House website.

“The uprising was an almost spontaneous overflowing of anger, rather than a carefully planned grab for power by ambitious generals,” Melly wrote. “It may be possible to devise a compromise that addresses the mutineers’ grievances about army conditions while permitting the restoration of normal constitutional government, especially as Touré was due to be replaced by an elected successor in just a few weeks.”

U.S. Africa Command routinely rotates small teams through Mali, focused on training missions requested by the Malian government and military, according to AFRICOM. Any decision on whether to discontinue such programs will be made by the State Department, according to the command.

Mali has participated in several large AFRICOM-sponsored multi-national exercises, focused on everything from counterterrorism programs to communication and logistics drills. Malian personnel, including the ringleader of the coup, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, also have participated in several U.S.-funded International Military Education and Training programs in the United States, including basic officer training, according to AFRICOM.

Mali falls under the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a State Department-led initiative aimed at dealing with terrorist groups operating across West and Northern Africa.

“There are real security threats in Mali,” Nuland said, “and as they (the junta) have taken this action, it has not been beneficial to the overall security of the country, which they are empowered to protect.”

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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