French soldiers stand in front of a helicopter at the 101st airbase near Bamako, Mali, on Saturday. / Eric Feferberg, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Air Force cargo jets have begun shuttling French troops and military equipment to Mali, according to a Defense Department official.
The mission in Africa began a few hours before noon, said the source who was not authorized to speak about the mission publicly.
France sent its first wave of troops last week to help thwart the advance of Islamic militants who control much of northern Mali. The U.S. C-17 aircraft can move hundreds of troops and some heavy vehicles quickly into war zones. The mission to Mali expands the U.S. military's presence there, which had been confined to advising Mali's army and some intelligence collection.
The cargo jets are useful to the French whose air transportation capabilities are limited, said Michael Shurkin, an expert on Africa at the RAND Corp. and former intelligence analyst. The French are likely also interested in U.S. spy aircraft, including drones, which can provide real-time surveillance on the battlefield, he said.
France is less likely to request U.S. ground forces, he said, because it has troops capable of handling the rebels. The French are also more apt to press their European allies -- the Germans, Dutch and Italians -- for help on the ground. In any event, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ruled out sending combat troops to Mali.
The longer-term issue for the French, and the Malian government, will be stabilizing the vast northern desert region in which the rebels have taken hold, Shurkin said. They'll need to avoid stoking racial tensions between Arabs and other groups in northern Mali from the black Africans who hold the government, he said.
The U.S. approach to aiding the French -- airlift and intelligence assistance -- follows the Obama administration's announcement of its strategy last January to work with rather than lead other countries in dealing with regional crises, said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Some U.S. help, like airlift, will be acknowledged, while others, like special operations missions, won't.
The strategy balances shrinking Pentagon budgets with the military's commitment in Afghanistan, dealing with provocations from Iran and North Korea, and the rise of China, Cordesman said.
"It makes more sense than being the global policeman and thrusting the U.S. into every conflict," he said.
The U.S. military had been training Malian soldiers to deal with Islamic insurgents in the northern part of the country. That effort backfired when members of the Army overthrew the government. Before last week, the United States and its western allies had hoped a force drawn from African nations could help secure the country. But rapid advances from the rebels prompted France to intervene.
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