French forces have rolled back Islamist militants in Mali "much faster" than the United States expected but now face the daunting task of building long-term security in the region, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday.
"They have made tremendous progress, I give them a lot of credit," Panetta told AFP in an interview at the Pentagon.
"They have moved much faster than we had anticipated. They now control Timbuktu and Gao and have moved into the north to capture some of the cities in the far north as well. That's very good progress," Panetta said.
Despite the swift advance, the most difficult challenge lies ahead to ensure security does not unravel again, said Panetta, who is due to retire from his Pentagon post later this month after decades in Washington.
"But the challenge now is to make sure that you can maintain that security and that you are not overstretched and that, ultimately, as you begin to pull back, that the other African nations are prepared to move in and fill the gap of providing security.
"And that's going to take some work," he said.
French President Francois Hollande planned to visit Mali on Saturday and appeal to African nations to take the lead in the fight against Islamist militants.
France is anxious to hand over the military operation to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed, which the United Nations is considering turning into a formal peacekeeping operation.
The French campaign, launched three weeks ago after a push south by rebel fighters raised fears the country could become a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda-linked extremists, has claimed a rapid succession of victories in key Islamist strongholds.
Panetta spoke as French troops were poised to secure the northeastern outpost of Kidal, the rebels' last bastion.
The Pentagon chief said the United States fully endorsed the French intervention due to the threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror network's branch in the Sahel region.
And he denied there was any reluctance to provide logistical support, despite a more than two-week delay in Washington's decision to provide three aerial refueling tankers to French warplanes.
"In no way, was there any kind of resistance either here or at the White House to try to assist the French because frankly AQIM is an enemy of the United States," he said.
"And we think that the French took the right step in trying to go after them and ensure that they could not establish a base of operations from which to attack Europe or the United States."
The United States also has provided intelligence from drone surveillance aircraft and transport planes to ferry French military equipment and troops, he said.
He said the US military would expand its efforts in the region to counter Al-Qaeda affiliates and assist African armies against the militants.
"The United States has to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that Al-Qaeda has no place to hide," said Panetta, who served as CIA director before taking over the Pentagon in 2011.
"It was always clear to me that AQIM was an element of Al-Qaeda that we had to keep our eye on, and that has proven true," he said.
Asked about plans to use an air base in Niger under a new agreement, Panetta said the US military's Africa Command would do everything possible "to try to work with the countries in that region to make sure that AQIM is not only weakened but ultimately defeated there as well."
He said African countries had to play the leading role in countering extremists but acknowledged that some of their armies needed training and assistance.
"The African countries have to accept some responsibility here for ensuring that a country like Mali is secure and does not become a safe heaven for Al-Qaeda," he said.
"There is some work to be done. Some countries obviously have developed a better (military) capability, countries like Chad, Senegal.
"But there is lot of work to be done to provide the quality of training and capability that is going to be necessary for an African force of some sort to be able to make sure that we provide security in Mali."