While France has greater political and economic ties to its former colony, the United States has long shared concerns about terrorists finding safe haven in the country's desolate northern region. The U.S. military has been involved in counterterrorism operations in Mali since 2002. In the past decade, Mali has been among several West African countries that received training from the U.S. military intended to improve security in the region by strengthening the nations' ability to defend against jihadists and rebel groups. The U.S. is also involved in intelligence gathering, with the frequent use of surveillance drones to keep an eye on extremist groups.
Panetta told reporters he could not say how long the fight against the Islamist rebel groups in Mali would take, but analysts expect it could become a long, difficult battle against the rebels who are well armed with the weapons that flooded into Mali after the fall of neighboring Libya last year.
"It will likely last for quite some time," said African analyst Mark Schroeder of the U.S.-based global security analysis firm Stratfor. "The rebels in northern Mali have been embedded among the local population there and know where to hide in the mountains."
"This is home for the jihadists in northern Mali, and they are going to fight for it," said Schroeder.