BAMAKO, Mali — French fighter jets struck deep inside Islamist strongholds in northern Mali on Sunday, shoving aside months of international hesitation about storming the region after every other effort by the United States and allies to thwart extremists had failed.
The Obama Administration has promised to aid the antiterrorism operation in Mali by providing logistics help, satellite intelligence, and in-flight refueling for French warplanes, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday.
For years, the United States tried to stem Islamic militancy’s spread in the region by conducting its most ambitious counterterrorism program across the region.
But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of Mali’s elite army units, the fruit of years of U.S. training, defected when needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks, and their new skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, senior Malian military officials said.
“It was a disaster,” said one of several to Malian officers to confirm the defections.
Then a U.S.-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half the country to fall into Islamic extremist hands.
U.S. spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but U.S. officials and allies still scramble to get a picture of who they are up against.
In the face of longstanding U.S. warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists worldwide and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war.
First, they fought off a recent Islamist advance, saying the rest of Mali would have fallen into the hands of militants within days.
On Sunday, French warplanes went on the offensive, going after training camps, depots, and other militant positions far inside Islamist-held territory in an effort to uproot the militants, who have formed one of the largest havens for jihadists in the world.
Some Defense Department officials, notably officers at the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, have pushed for a lethal campaign to kill senior operatives of two of the extremist groups holding northern Mali, Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Killing the leadership, they argued, could lead to an internal collapse.
But with its attention and resources so focused on other conflicts in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, the Obama Administration long has rejected such strikes in favor of a more cautious, step-back strategy: helping African nations repel and contain the threat on their own.
Over four years, the United States has spent $520 million to $600 million in a sweeping effort to combat Islamist militants in the region without fighting the kind of wars it has waged in the Middle East.
The program stretched from Morocco to Nigeria.
U.S. officials long heralded the Mali military as an exemplary partner. U.S. Special Forces trained its troops in marksmanship, border patrol, ambush drills, and other counterterrorism skills.
But all that deliberate planning collapsed swiftly when heavily armed, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya.
They teamed up with jihadists like Ansar Dine, routed poorly equipped Mali forces, and demoralized them so thoroughly that it set off a mutiny against the government in the capital, Bamako.
The same U.S.-trained units that had been seen as the best hope of repelling such an advance proved, in the end, to be a linchpin in the country’s military defeat.
The leaders of these elite units were Tuaregs — the very ethnic nomads overrunning northern Mali.
According to one senior officer, the Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units fighting in the north at the time defected to the insurrection “at the crucial moment,” taking fighters, weapons, and scarce equipment with them.