Chad fits the role: Its nation is also largely desert, and its soldiers are battle-hardened after years of civil war. One round-faced soldier, 25, scoffed at the notion that this would be his first war. "Ive been to the front lines many times," Mokhtar Mohammed said.
Theyve also fought Islamists before, most recently to keep fleeing Libyan militias from pushing into their country. And theyve fought in the Tibesti mountains in Chads northwestern corner, which might come in useful for the wars next phase, which some experts predict will take place in the stone-and-sand mountain ranges of northeastern Mali.
Such experience is in stark contrast to Malis own forces, which infamously abandoned northern Mali in only days last year, and whose men seem to fear entering battle with jihadists, whom many Malians claim dont fear death.
The Chadians, on the other hand, seem to relish the task.
"We are Muslims like them, so we understand their ideology, and we dont fear them," a Chadian intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Ibrahim Idriss, 47, said about Islamist militants. "We view them just like everyone else."
The enemy the Chadians came to fight, though, seems to have vanished mostly to Libya and Mauritania, Idriss said out of his troops reach.
He said he expected the enemy to regroup and expand its terrorist attacks.
"Getting them out of Mali will be easy," he said. But Africas new war in the vast sandy back roads, where borders are only lines on a map, "will take a long time."
Video: French Troops in Mali Take Timbuktu Airport