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French military prowess isn't always fully appreciated in the United States.

But there are few troops anywhere in the world better prepared for their task than the marines, foreign legionaries, and other elite French units rolling north to confront the Jihadist militants controlling much of Mali.

"The French special forces are tip top, they're up there with the best of them," says Brooks Tigner, chief policy analyst at Security Europe, a specialist newsletter.

"They also have vast experience in expeditionary forces in West Africa," he adds. "They really know the territory, the boundaries, the topography and the ethnic problems. They are very well placed."

Among America's European allies, only the British can match France's ability to project significant military force overseas. However, not even they have much experience operating in the string of former French colonies across North and West Africa - where the recent rise of Islamist groups is posing the international community's latest security threat.

French troops have deployed in more than a dozen African missions during the past two decades. French and British planes took the lead in NATO's air campaign over Libya in 2011, when French forces also successfully intervened to halt a civil war in Ivory Coast. Three years earlier, they spearheaded a European operation to prevent Sudan's conflict from spilling over into Chad.

Despite talk of quagmires at the start of both those operations, the French troops achieved their objectives with minimal trouble.

Although French newspapers have raised concerns that the current operation to retake an area twice the size of France risks degenerating into an Afghan-style mess, French leaders are confident the 2,500 troops in Mali can get the job done, then hand over to a regional force of African troops.

"Our objective is the total reconquest of Mali," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a recent TV interview. "We are not going to leave any pockets of resistance."

Despite their confidence, however, the French are aware that a prolonged conflict against well-armed and well-motivated Islamic opponents could stretch their forces and their finances. Like other European countries, France has been cutting defense budgets as it grapples with staving off economic crisis.

Military spending in 2011 fell below NATO's target level of 2 percent of economic output for the first time.

According to the latest NATO figures from 2011, the only allies apart from the United States with defense spending above the threshold were Britain and crisis-wracked Greece. By contrast, US defense spending stood at 4.8 percent of GDP.

Downsizing has been a longer-term trend, however. The French armed forces have fallen in number to 227,000 from 548,000 since 1990. Military planners currently operate on the premise that France can sustain the deployment of 30,000 troops overseas, compared to up to 50,000 barely a decade ago. Some senior officers have cast doubt even on the 30,000 figure.

"We've got a pocket-sized army of great quality, but ultimately vulnerable," said a senate report published last year.

Before the Mali deployment, France already had 4,750 troops on operations around the world, including 1,650 in Afghanistan, 950 in Chad, 900 in Lebanon, and 460 in Ivory Coast.