Clinton, on the first stop of a five-day trip overseas, met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as the United States and its allies ramp up preparations to fight northern Mali's breakaway Islamist republic.
The plan would see Mali's embattled government in the south and its West African neighbors taking the military lead, with the United States and European countries in support.
Washington is keen to eliminate the north as a haven for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which may have been involved in September's attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. And its growing concern has been reflected even in the election campaign, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney citing the remote African country's instability early in this month's foreign policy debate with President Barack Obama.
When Mali's democratically elected leader was ousted in a military coup in March, Tuareg rebels seized on the power vacuum and within weeks took control of the north, aided by an Islamist faction. The Islamists then quickly ousted the Tuaregs and took control of half the country.
As further evidence of the U.S. intensifying its diplomatic work in Mali, Maria Otero, an under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights was to travel to Mali on Monday. She is the highest ranking Obama administration official to visit since the coup. She'll meet with Mali's prime minister, human rights activists and internal refugees over four days of meetings.
Any military intervention would likely require Algeria, whose reforms have headed off the Arab Spring tumult experienced by neighbors such as Libya and Tunisia and left it with the strongest military and best intelligence in the region. Algeria is warming to the idea of an intervention, U.S. officials say, but more talks are needed.
The 15-nation West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has discussed sending 3,000 troops to help oust the Islamist militants from the north. Many, though, question how Mali's weak military could take the lead on such an intervention and analysts believe more ECOWAS soldiers would be needed to take and hold the France-sized area of desert now controlled by the militants.
While the U.S. wants to see the rebels routed, it has no interest in active involvement in the military mission, unless Mali and West African states explicitly ask for such assistance, a senior American diplomat in Africa said. That leaves the U.S. only able to nudge its regional partners to coordinate on a plan, said the official, who demanded anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved the idea of an African-led military force to help the Malian army oust Islamic militants. But its details are still unclear. American and European officials are waiting on the Malians and their West African neighbors to come forward with the final plan.
From Algeria, Clinton leaves for three days of talks in the Balkans. She'll join the European Union's top diplomat in meetings with the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, urging those nations to make the necessary reforms to join the EU and NATO. She'll finish with meetings in Croatia and Albania, NATO's two newest members.