PARIS -- This was not the war President François Hollande wanted.
In just two hours last Thursday, after a plea for help from Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, Mr. Hollande decided to send in French warplanes and ground troops.
It was supposed to be a quick and dramatic blow that would send the Islamists scurrying back to their hide-outs in northern Mali, buying time for the deployment of an African force to stabilize the situation. Instead it is turning into what looks like a complex and drawn-out military and diplomatic operation that Mr. Hollande's critics are already calling a desert version of a quagmire, like Vietnam or Afghanistan.
Some here speak of Mr. Hollande's "Sahelistan." Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, reminded Mr. Hollande of "the danger of a military operation without a clear enemy, with the risk to civilians that is bound to engender hostility among the citizens." He warned of "neocolonialism."
Mr. Hollande, who has a reputation for indecisiveness, has certainly taken on a difficult task. The French are fighting to preserve the integrity of a country that is divided in half, of a state that is broken. They are fighting for the survival of an interim government with no democratic legitimacy that took power in the aftermath of a coup.
But Mr. Traoré, 70, does represent the internationally recognized government of Mali, said a senior French official, shrugging. And then, like every French official on the topic, he asked a questioner to imagine the alternative -- "another Somalia" on the western edge of Africa, lawless and dominated by Islamic radicals close to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who would set about instituting the harshness of Shariah law all over Mali, stoning adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves, while engaging in the drug and arms smuggling, kidnapping and terrorism that funds their notion of jihad.
That prospect, the officials insist, is why the entire region, including Algeria, has supported the French intervention, which was also backed by the Security Council. The French initiative has also had public support, if provoking quiet concern about overreaching, from allies like the United States and Britain.
It was not supposed to be this way, French officials and experts acknowledge. Sometime in the autumn, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085, African troops from the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, together with a retrained and reinspired Malian Army, were supposed to take back the north of the country. Those African forces were to be trained with the help of the European Union and guided in their mission by French forces in an advisory capacity, with the United States helping to provide financing and airborne reconnaissance, intelligence, air transport and air-to-air refueling.
France was supposed to have a largely civilian role, not itself engaged in fighting and with no troops on the ground. Ecowas and the Malians were supposed to fight their way into northern Mali and clear it of Islamists.
Just 10 days ago, before Mr. Hollande's sudden action, a senior adviser at the Élysée described how slowly the Mali operation was going. He described the difficulties with Ecowas, with squabbles over financing, training and transporting Ecowas troops, and how hard it had been to get Washington, after the Libyan civil war, to pay attention to a deteriorating situation in Mali and the risks of Islamic terrorism spreading in the Sahel.
The Americans finally started listening to French concerns last September, he said, but had their doubts about how easy it would be to drive the Islamists out of the vastness of northern Mali. And Washington did not consider the Ecowas plan to be well conceived.
The Islamist rebels chose not to wait around, of course, launching their push to the south and prompting French intervention in a singularly leading role. With 1,800 troops now in Mali and a projected total of 2,500, the French do not need help on the ground, officials insist. But they are pushing Washington to move more quickly through the interagency process to provide reconnaissance drones, air transport planes and refueling planes. European and NATO allies like Britain have already moved to help, with the British quickly providing two C-17 transport planes to move troops and equipment.
On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain gave explicit support to France and an implicit push to Washington and European allies to do more in West Africa to fight radical Islamic terrorism. "Those who believe that there is a terrorist, extremist Al Qaeda problem in parts of North Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong," he told Parliament.
Mr. Cameron called the Algerian drama a warning. "What we know is that the terrorist threat in the Sahel comes from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which aspires to establish Islamic law across the Sahel and northern Africa, and to attack Western interests in the region and frankly, wherever it can," Mr. Cameron said in words that will please Paris. "Just as we have reduced the scale of the Al Qaeda threat in other parts of the world, including in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so it has grown in other parts of the world. We need to be equally concerned about that, and equally focused on it."
Most experts think that the French, even if they drive the Islamists out of major populated areas in the north of Mali, will not move in force throughout the vast desert. The French still mean to prepare the ground for Ecowas and Malian troops, to create the stability that can allow new political negotiations on Mali's future.
Mali will only succeed, French officials say, if the state is reconfigured, with significantly more autonomy for the Tuaregs in the north, who have long wanted their independence, and rebuilt governmental institutions and legitimacy. That of course will take some time, even if it is done under the auspices of Ecowas or the United Nations.
Camille Grand, a defense expert and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said the French objective is "to return to the status quo ante, where those Islamist groups are cornered in the gray zones on the borders, with limited ability to act and not controlling population centers, where it is difficult for them to make raids or take hostages."
Those goals, he said, are "definitely something that makes sense from a military standpoint. But "if the ultimate objective is to eradicate the presence of radical Islam in the Sahel," he warned, "it probably won't happen; it's a bridge too far for anyone."
In all likelihood, Paris is not that ambitious. But Mr. Hollande's critics worry that he may already have gotten himself in deeper than he planned, or even realizes. In a column Friday in Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrède wrote that the French endgame is unclear. "In launching itself militarily in the front line, France also takes on a responsibility" for the reconstruction of the state, she said. "The after-intervention -- we have seen it elsewhere in the world -- is the true headache of interventions. The ultimate test will be there."
John F. Burns contributed reporting from London.
Correction: January 19, 2013, Saturday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of the caption with the picture atop this article misspelled the name of the Malian town where soldiers were monitoring a checkpoint. It is Niono, not Nioni.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.