But by jumping into the fight, she said, the U.S. risks making Mali a magnet for would-be jihadis from across the region. That could lead to the emergence of the same assortment of international fighters who have challenged American and allied forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
That leaves the French, who continued airstrikes on the Islamist-held town of Diabaly on Thursday. France has 1,400 troops in Mali and plans to increase its force to 2,500.
Meanwhile, fighting erupted between Islamists and Malian soldiers in the central city of Konna, whose capture by militants first prompted French military intervention, fleeing residents said Thursday.
Nearby African countries have been unable to work out a deal for a local intervention. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali's neighbors, but they have yet to arrive, leaving France alone to lead the operation.
EU foreign ministers on Thursday approved sending a military training mission to shore up the Malian army and enable the country's government to regain control of all its territory. No combat role is envisioned for the EU mission.
President Francois Hollande says France won't leave until Mali is safe.
The U.S. doesn't want to be pulled into a mission with such a difficult long-term goal. And, as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, stabilizing Mali will require a government and a military that is strong enough to hold the territory and keep the peace after extremists are defeated. For that reason, the administration had long demanded progress toward the restoration of democracy before an intervention — a position it only recently tempered as Touareg rebels in the north and their Islamist extremist allies rapidly gained ground.
"We have tried to play a useful diplomatic role and we continue to do so," Johnnie Carson, the top diplomat for Africa, said Wednesday. But, given the immediate crisis, he added: "We support the French efforts in Mali. We believe that it is important that AQIM be defeated, that we give support to the region."
The U.S. also has spoken of helping the "immediate deployment" of an African-led mission that would work with the French, but that force has been repeatedly delayed by disputes over how many troops each country contributes and for how long, and who pays.
It is unclear, anyhow, how much can be expected of some 3,000 soldiers from Nigeria and other Western African nations against extremists who since April have seized an area of desert the size of France.
The early evidence suggests it will be tough going. French officials have indicated that the rebels are better armed than expected, aided by caches of weapons stolen from the abandoned arsenal of the Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader killed by rebels in 2011, and Mali's army after it abandoned the north. And despite far superior air power to anything West African nations might muster, France's initial effort hasn't been conclusive.
"Anytime you confront an enemy that is dispersed and that is not located necessarily in one area makes it challenging," Panetta said Tuesday. Stopping the extremists "represents a difficult task," he said, "but it is a necessary task."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Rome contributed to this report.
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