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Why France is taking on Mali extremists

News analysis

Updated at 7:24 a.m. ET: Often the butt of jokes about its modern military prowess and once characterized as a nation of "surrender monkeys," France's decision to put boots on the ground in Mali to battle Islamist insurgents will surprise some.

In what threatens to be a lengthy and dangerous campaign, Friday's sudden military action marked an urgent escalation in the regional conflict.

Faced with the prospect of Mali falling into the hands of jihadists — including some who boast links to al-Qaida — French Mirage and Rafale jets spent the weekend bombarding rebel strongholds while 550 of the country's troops battled militants.

France was warned Monday it had "opened the gates of hell" by intervening in Mali. Paris had "fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia," a spokesman for the MUJWA group of rebels told Europe 1 radio.

But some analysts suggested French President Francois Hollande, a Socialist who has been dubbed "Monsieur Caramel Pudding," had little choice but to act.

"It is difficult to see what other option France had," Paul Melly, associate fellow of the Africa program at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, told NBC News on Monday.

Having the former French colony under the control of rebels could have created a haven for al-Qaida militants, Melly said, in area much closer to Western Europe than Afghanistan or the Middle East.

Since a military coup in March last year, extremist groups including al-Qaida in the Magreb (AQIM), MUJWA and Algeria’s Ansar Dine have flourished and imposed Shariah law in some parts of the country.

France says its intervention was a response to an urgent appeal from Mali's president. That was prompted by an advance by a heavily armed rebel convoy. 

Mali’s military has proved weak in tackling the rebel uprising. Units that had been trained by United States special forces almost immediately defected to the rebel side — a collapse that "astounded and embarrassed to American military commanders," according to The New York Times.

The newspaper reported that the United States has spent between $520 and $600 million in the past four years in an effort to prevent West Africa replacing Afghanistan and the Middle East as a new theater of conflict with Islamist terrorists.

France on Monday insisted it was satisfied with the progress of the campaign — named Operation Serval after a wild cat — and rejected any parallel with the protracted U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.

Military engagement would last "a matter of weeks," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris, saying: "Later on, we can come as back-up, but we have no intention of staying forever."

France has not asked NATO for assistance, but two British C17 cargo planes are providing support.  Troops from neighboring states of Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Togo, are now expected within days.

The Obama administration is set to announce military support for French forces in Mali, U.S. officials told NBC News. This is likely to include intelligence and overhead surveillance involving unmanned drones. Officials added that it was possible that a small number of U.S. advisers could be tasked to work directly with French forces on the ground, but not in a combat role.

Mali graphic
Mali graphicReuters

"We stand by our French allies and they can count on U.S. support," Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, in the office of the defense secretary, told The Associated Press.

Rebels seized the central town of Diabaly on Monday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Reuters, adding that French and Malian forces were also battling heavily-armed rebel groups in the west of the country, which he admitted was "a difficult spot."

French fighter jets identified and destroyed this numerous rebel training camps that served as bases for terrorist groups, the French defense ministry said Sunday.

Dozens of Islamist fighters were also killed when rockets struck a fuel depot and a customs house being used as their headquarters, Agence France Press (AFP) reported.

Reuters highlighted that Mali has traditionally been relatively stable until a Tuareg rebel was "hijacked by Islamists":

Two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bastion of democracy in turbulent West Africa but that image unraveled after a military coup in March left a power vacuum for MNLA Tuareg rebels to seize the desert north. 

The MUJWA, an AQIM splinter group drawing on support from Arabs and other ethnic groups, wrested control of Gao - the main city of the north - from the Tuaregs in June, shocking Mali's liberal Muslim majority with amputation of hands for theft under Sharia law. 

'Death trap'

Heavily armed thanks to their involvement in neighboring Libya, the Islamists are likely to deploy all possible tactics against French forces on the ground.

"They have been preparing these towns to be a death trap," Rudolph Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon, told the New York Times. "If an intervention force goes in there, the militants will turn it into an insurgency war."

Not all experts agree with comparisons to Afghanistan. "It isn't helpful to see it in those terms," Melly told NBC News.

In contrast to the tribal society of Afghanistan, often dismissed as ungovernable by despairing Western military commanders, Mali "has had a structured, functioning government for the past 150 years," he said.

"The West African form of Islam is not in tune with the hardline, Shariah law that the jihadists have been trying to impose, so there isn't popular support for it. Education is valued, for example, and women play a role in public life."

However, finding a political solution will be a long task will not be easy.

"The underlying problems that led to the rebellion in the first place still remain," Melly added.

There is also a growing humanitarian crisis. "Thousands of people are fleeing across the border into Mauritania and into camps where there is not enough provision for them,” Alessandra Giuffrida, an associate of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, told Al Jazeera.

The term “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” was first applied to the French on "The Simpsons" and was popularized by National Review journalist Jonah Goldberg, who claimed he had made it “an accepted term in official diplomatic channels around the globe.

In 2003, a so-called "Google bomb" sent people searching for "French military victories"and using the "I'm feeling lucky" command to a page that asked, "Did you mean French military defeats?"

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube and Reuters contributed to this report.

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