LISBON -- In what could draw the United States into another conflict in North Africa, the Obama administration has pledged to help the French who are fighting Islamist militants in Mali, and that assistance could include air and other logistical support, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said on Monday.
The United States was already sharing intelligence with the French when their warplanes on Sunday struck camps, depots and other militant positions deep inside extensive Islamist-held territory in northern Mali. Defense officials said no decisions had been made on whether the United States would also offer help with midflight refueling planes and air transport, but they said those options were under review.
Defense officials would not rule out the possibility that American military transport planes might land in Mali, where the United States has been conducting an ambitious counterterrorism program for years. American spy planes and surveillance drones are in the meantime trying to get a sense of the chaos on the ground. The defense officials would not discuss whether the United States has armed drone aircraft over Mali.
But Mr. Panetta, who spoke to reporters on his plane en route to Portugal for a weeklong trip Europe, said that the chaos in Mali was of deep concern to the administration and praised the French for their actions. He also said " what we have promised them is that we would work with them, to cooperate with them, to provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them in that effort."
Mr. Panetta said that even though Mali is far from the United States, the Obama administration was deeply worried about extremist groups there, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. "We're concerned that any time Al Qaeda establishes a base of operations, while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective," he said.
For that reason, Mr. Panetta said, "we have to take steps now to make sure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction."
The United States has spent between $520 million and $600 million over the last four years to try to combat Islamist militancy in the region, including in Mali, which was until recently considered a prime example of what could be accomplished with American military training. American Special Forces trained Malian troops in marksmanship, border patrol and ambush drills.
But the situation collapsed when heavily armed Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya and teamed up with jihadist groups like Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, which have carried out a harsh repression in northern Mali. Elite Malian commanders defected to the enemy and took with them troops, guns and their American-taught skills. An American-trained officer then overthrew Mali's elected government, paving the way for half of the country to fall to Islamic extremists.
A confidential internal review completed last July by the Pentagon's Africa Command concluded that the coup had unfolded too quickly for American commanders or intelligence analysts to detect any clear warning signs, but other military officials disagreed, saying the intelligence analysts had grown complacent..
Mr. Panetta sought to make the case that the United States was not surprised by the recent events in Mali and said that the Obama administration had been watching militants there for a long time. "When they began offensive operations to actually take on some cities, it was clear to France and to all of us that could not be allowed to continue, and that's the reason France has engaged and it's the reason we're providing cooperation to them," he said.
Mr. Panetta also said that "the fact is, we have made a commitment that Al Qaeda is not going to find any place to hide."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.