No easy exit for French fighting terror in Mali
France, breaking its own rules with a surprise military intervention in Mali, raises the specter of an African quagmire in a new theater of the West's war on terror just as France and other U.S. allies emerge from the old one in Afghanistan.
The operation against radical Islamists seen as a threat to Europe also undermines President Francois Hollande's promise to end the cozy, paternalistic ties France has long sustained with its former African colonies.
France fears a new sanctuary of terrorism could take root in Mali, and says fast action was the only choice after sudden extremist advances last week.
French authorities contend that Mali and its neighbors in West Africa, Europe and especially France are threatened by three radical organizations, including an al-Qaida affiliate, that control northern Mali and are looking to extend their grip to the crucial south and the capital of Bamako to set up a terror state.
French authorities acknowledged Sunday that the militants have turned out to be better-armed and equipped than France had initially thought.
Eyes around the world are on France to see what it does next.
Will French troops move into a support role, behind African troops, as initially set out for the West by a United Nations Security Council resolution on Mali? Or will they be lured into deeper involvement at the behest of Mali and other African nations - and, perhaps, take Western allies with them?
To avoid entrapment, "The purpose (of the French mission in Mali) has to be limited in scope but it has to have specific strategic purposes," said London-based security and terror analyst Sajjan Gohel.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian painted the mission in broad strokes: "We need to get rid of this terrorism that threatens to put at risk the security of Mali and the security of our country and of Europe." He refused to say when the intervention would end.
But an aide to French President Francois Hollande stressed the importance of transferring responsibility to regional players. "The important word is africanization, meaning rapid deployment of the African force," said the official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified.
Hollande, not seen as a man of bold action, had for months rung the alarm bell about the dangers stalking unstable Mali, where a temporary government has led the poor west African country since a March coup d'etat.
Islamist radicals who moved in to fill the power vacuum have whipped and amputated limbs of those they consider sinners, to force them to conform to their interpretation of Islamic law, and have destroyed the ancient tombs of local saints in cities such as Timbuktu.
The French president led the long effort for passage of the U.N. resolution to come to Mali's aid. African soldiers were to back up Mali's weak army after training from the West - and once an acceptable military plan was in place.
The radicals' sudden two-column advance toward the south last week and a direct plea for help from Mali was Hollande's call to faster action.
Hollande repeatedly promised his countrymen there would be no French boots on the ground. But by Sunday, hundreds of French forces were involved in a military operation in Mali, and Rafale fighter jets had bombed training camps and other installations near Gao, one of three cities held by the militants. A helicopter pilot was killed in the first 24 hours of the action that began Friday.
Families of eight French hostages thought to be held in northern Mali fear the captors could avenge the French action by killing their loved ones. Their fears grew when French security forces bungled a rescue attempt of a secret agent held hostage in Somalia this weekend, leading an operation that ended with the captive dead.
But Hollande, whose popularity has plunged since his election in May, received rare and nearly complete backing at home for his action in Mali.
Western allies have also voiced support for the French action with some offers of help - but, significantly, no troops.
"We stand by our French allies and they can count on U.S. support," said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, in the office of the defense secretary, adding that information sharing and logistics will be the likely contribution.
The U.S. was also expected to send in drones. Britain agreed to send aircraft to help transport troops. Germany offered political support by firmly said no combat troops.
Francois Heisbourg, international analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research summed up up the French argument like this: "A friendly state is on the verge of being put under the jihadi boot, they ask us to intervene ... If they go under, we have a much bigger terrorism problem."
He compared the situation to the Afghanistan of 2001, when French troops joined the NATO mission there. Last month, France drew the curtain on its Afghanistan engagement, pulling out the last of its fighting troops. The U.S. is winding up its military operation next year.
Then comes Mali.
France has some 6,000 citizens and economic and strategic interests throughout the Sahel desert region that includes Mali, interests to be protected.
But the real fear is that a state run by radical Islamists could spread the doctrine throughout the Sahel and do what al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the leading radical groups in Mali, has failed to do from its home base in neighboring Algeria - strike across the Mediterranean.
At the moment, the threat is limited to Mali and potentially its neighbors - where terrorists can target western interests but lack the structure to do damage elsewhere, said Gohel said of the Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank. "But they are growing in ascendancy. ... We're seeing the Talibanization process taking place inside Mali."
French authorities worry that the radicals could contaminate the diaspora of Malians in France and elsewhere, much as some Algerians in France took up the jihadist cause in the 1990s, sending weapons and money to Islamist insurgents in Algeria - and carrying out terrorist attacks in France.
What may make this campaign different is Hollande's promise to end a long-standing informal policy of paternalism with former African colonies and fawning gratitude in return. The policy, known as France-Afrique, was widely detested by all those outside the circles of privilege and special favors.
The French "are keenly aware of the need not to lose the political support of the Africans, collectively and individually," said Heisbourg.
Experts say France must avoid ballooning their mission.
But it's not easy for France to pull out of former colonies where it maintains ties and sees security concerns - and sometimes is asked by the local government for protection. As Heisbourg noted: "We've been in Chad for ... 45 years."
Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.