French General François Lecointre, speaking after an initial fact-finding trip to Mali, where troops are fighting with French help to push back Islamist rebels who occupied the north of the country, said the army there was in a "very broken-down" state.
"It has been under-equipped, badly paid, badly trained and it is an army which has just suffered a full year of successive defeats which has considerably weakened it. There is a true moral strength to be rebuilt," he said in Brussels.
The EU has approved a 15-month mission to train Malian soldiers but Lecointre said a longer-term commitment may be needed to reconstruct the army.
French forces intervened this month after Mali appealed to Paris for urgent military aid to halt advances by the Islamists and defuse the risk of Mali being used as a springboard for jihadist attacks in the wider region or Europe.
"Recent events have highlighted that what might have seemed at the start like a short-term training mission of the Malian army is really a fundamental, absolutely necessary action for an army which collapsed very quickly in the face of the Tuareg offensive," Lecointre said.