The War in Mali: Does France Have an Exit Strategy?

French officials say advances against Islamist militias in Mali may permit France to begin gradual troop withdrawal in March, as soldiers from African nations assume the lead role in battling the jihadi threat

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PASCAL GUYOT / AFP / Getty Images

A French soldier drives an armored vehicle in the desert near Bourem in northern Mali on Feb. 17, 2013

It’s looking increasingly unlikely that France’s military intervention in Mali will be over anytime soon. Despite comments by French officials earlier this month that Paris hopes to begin withdrawing troops in March, it now seems evident the stiffening resistance of jihadi groups in the Sahel — pushed out of northern Mali’s cities by the French-led expedition last month — will require a lingering French presence for months, perhaps even years.

(MORE: Mali’s War: After Surging into Islamist-Held North, Will France Retreat?)

Over the past two weeks, French commandos have engaged in deadly combat with jihadi fighters, some linked to al-Qaeda, in the mountainous region in northern Mali. That included a Feb. 19 battle that killed 20 insurgents and also claimed France’s second fatality in the campaign. In the meantime, extremists have mounted suicide bombings, mine attacks and armed assaults in and around recently liberated Malian towns as proof that their capacity for violence and terrorism is anything but vanquished.

Losses have been even heavier among forces from regional African nations that have deployed soldiers to reinforce — and eventually fully replace — France’s contingent in Mali. Authorities in Chad say they lost 23 soldiers — and killed 93 Islamists — in recent combat with retrenched Islamist units.

The wider threat from regional extremists has been demonstrated in other ways. On Feb. 25, a video posted on YouTube by radicals claiming to represent the Nigerian group Boko Haram took responsibility for the Feb. 16 kidnapping of a French family of seven in northern Cameroon. That brought the total of French nationals held by Islamist groups in Africa to 15, with captors demanding the release of their jailed comrades as well as millions in ransom payments. French authorities refuse to negotiate with abductors and say their activity won’t undermine French resolve to battle the jihadi threat in Africa and beyond.

Yet French authorities aren’t abandoning plans to begin withdrawal of France’s 4,000 troops from Mali next month. During background briefings on Feb. 25, officials in Paris said they still hoped conditions would be met to allow France to start a gradual pullout as newly trained Malian soldiers and reinforcements from neighboring African nations stream into reclaimed stretches of northern Mali, which had been under rebel and Islamist control for 10 months. Those off-the-record comments echoed a speech made on Feb. 22 by the head of France’s armed forces, Admiral Edouard Guillard, about a French withdrawal beginning in March.

“This is obviously conditions-based … yet, I don’t see any reason not to begin some drawdown,” Guillard said in the speech. “The first phase is nearly finished, and that was reconquering Mali on behalf of the Malian government and the international community. The second phase is handing over to the African forces, and this is being done.”

Like Guillard, however, authorities in Paris are careful to qualify the March withdrawal. For that to happen, they say, progress to corner and neutralize Islamist fighters pinned down in northern Mali must continue. As part of that process, they add, increasing numbers of African troops will make up the crux of what Paris expects to become a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping force and mission.

In the meantime, the French officials stress, even if a pullout can commence in March, it will only involve limited numbers of France’s contingent in what will be a long process that can’t be completed until full stability in Mali has been restored. And that horizon seems particularly remote for French air forces, whose missile strikes have been essential in facilitating the pursuit of extremists on the ground.

Be that as it may, French diplomats argue that even a modest start to a long pullout procedure would be significant. The French public largely supported the Mali operation but could easily grow weary of it if it begins looking like a slog. With memories of heavy-handed outside interference in domestic affairs still vivid in many African minds, the start of a pullout would help alleviate fears in the region that former colonial ruler France might seek to re-establish its presence and influence in the region under the cover of intervention in Mali. Securing a successful transition to regional African control — ideally under U.N. auspices — is crucial.

“The operation has gone well, but the real question is whether it will give rise to longer-term stability arrangements in Africa, among Africans, with limited outside help requested,” confided a French diplomat, who follows the Mali intervention closely, last week. “If we can make the follow-through work, it may provide a model for crisis intervention the international community may want to replicate — and extremists could find quite troublesome.”

MORE: France’s Mali Mission: Has al-Qaeda Already Been Defeated?

PHOTOS: War in Mali: France and African Allies Take on Islamist Militants