When radical Islamist militias poured out of their sanctuaries in the barren remote north of Mali, threatening the African nation's capital and its more prosperous and populated south, the French acted quickly to help their former colony.

Unfortunately, we don't seem anywhere nearly as quick to help our NATO ally and lead partner in ousting Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in freeing Mali of this newest menace.

The French acted one day after the extremists captured three key towns in the midsection of Mali, giving them jumping-off points to invade the south where the Malian army, like its government in a state of chaos since an attempted coup last March, seemed unlikely to stop them.

Thanks to superior air power and the stiffening presence of a relative handful of French troops, the Islamist rebels were forced to flee the three towns and retreat to the north, where they are now regrouping Long-term, this could buy time for everyone's preferred solution -- a pan-African military expedition to suppress the rebellion. And soldiers from other African nations are gathering in Mali.

Until that multinational force is ready to take over -- and that is likely to be later rather than sooner -- the French need our help and, indeed, have asked for it. However, the extent of our help seems limited to supplying intelligence and, according to The New York Times, as of Tuesday dispatching Air Force C-17s to haul 80 French troops and 120 tons of their equipment into Mali. And the Times says the U.S. will transport a 600-member French mechanized infantry unit and its equipment to Mali.

The French have reportedly asked us for air-to-air refueling tankers and additional airlift capacity, and they promise to provide security to protect the ground operations of these air operations.

For obvious diplomatic reasons, the U.S. does not want to be seen as helping wage war in another Muslim country, and few Americans could likely locate Mali on a map, assuming they've even heard of it.

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But we should help the French as much as possible in keeping Mali out of the extremists' hands. The alternative is abandoning it to Islamic extremists, including an active and growing offshoot of al-Qaida, and we saw how well that worked out in Afghanistan.

Dale McFeatters is a nationally syndicated columnist.