For four days in mid-January, Oumar Traoré hid in a field next to his hometown of Diabaly, in central Mali, and watched French warplanes pound Islamist rebels. "The French would wait until the rebels had to move. Then they'd hit them while they were running," says Traoré, whose neighborhood had become a rebel base. "The bombing was intense. There were burned trucks all around my neighborhood."
French fighter-bombers screaming 200 ft. (60 m) overhead might summon dark memories of imperial rule in France's former colonies of West Africa. But this time, the French and their allies say, neither the jets nor the 2,200 French troops who are now on the ground in Mali will be there to stay. Their target is specific: an al-Qaeda franchise that threatens not just Mali but also all of West Africa and Europe and is capable of simultaneously waging a civil war in Mali and taking hundreds of Western and local hostages at a gas plant in Algeria. The French mission is also limited: to repel the rebels, who earlier in the month made a push toward Mali's capital, Bamako; to prepare the way for the Malian military and a force of other West African soldiers to carry on the fight; and then to get out.
That strategy is largely the result of a broad consensus that has formed in Western capitals about how terrorism should be fought around the world. From Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia and the Philippines, the new mantra among allies such as France and the U.S. allies that fell out dramatically only 10 years ago over whether to fight the Iraq war is this: Assist, yes; pay, sure; send in drones, planes and even small amounts of troops if you have to. But over the long term, let the locals sort it out. "Afghanistan dragged on and on," says Raffaello Pantucci, a specialist on Saharan Islamist groups at the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank in London. "There is an eagerness not to repeat that."
France in particular has history it doesn't want to repeat in Africa. French military missions on the continent have often been deeply resented for their explicitly political aims, including shoring up client strongmen. Malians seem to like the sound of not having the French around for too long. The limits France has publicly set for itself "weeks," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said of the intervention may help explain why French troops were welcomed in Bamako by legions of motorcycle taxis flying the Tricolor from their handlebars.
But if Mali has taught the world anything, it's that a whole new front of Islamist terrorism can rear up without many seeing it coming. And already, as the region recovers from the bloody hostage taking by allied Islamists in neighboring Algeria, there are signs that an early exit from Mali may not come easily for France.
Mali's islamists have their origins in remnants of Algerian rebel groups that disappeared into the Sahara at the end of the country's bloody civil war in the 1990s. For years, they were an irritant but were considered more criminal than terrorist. They confined themselves mostly to kidnapping tourists for ransom and to smuggling, especially cocaine that was en route from South America to Europe. When the group changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007, the move looked suspiciously like an exercise in opportunistic branding. A Malian intelligence officer tells TIME that several gangs staged kidnappings, but many sold their hostages to AQIM for it to ransom, as its name extracted far higher payoffs.
Regional governments and foreign diplomats became more concerned about AQIM's ambitions when it opened links to Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group conducting a bloody insurgency in nearby northern Nigeria. But concern escalated to alarm two months later with the fall of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who had close links to the Tuaregs tribesmen whose Saharan homeland takes in parts of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya and employed thousands in his army. When his regime collapsed, the Tuaregs fled home, taking a giant arsenal with them. The Islamists, flush with cash from years of crime, splurged.