France said today that it hopes to withdraw its troops from Mali next month, but it's unclear what will fill the resulting power vacuum and continue the fight against jihadist forces.
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France has indicated that the end of its military campaign to oust Islamic militants in Mali is in sight, and that it hopes to pull its troops next month. But despite French troops' success, it remains unclear what lies ahead for the West African nation, where a jihadist threat still lurks and a replacement peacekeeping force remains largely speculative.
"We will continue to act in the north where some terrorist havens remain," he told the newspaper. "I think that from March, if everything goes according to plan, the number of French troops should fall."
Should the French follow their schedule, it would mark a sweeping success in Mali. Not even four weeks into the operation, French troops, working in unison with Malian soldiers, have swept through northern Mali, driving Islamist forces out of long-occupied cities and towns.
According to Agence France-Presse, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday that "several hundred" Islamists have been killed during the campaign, mostly in French airstrikes and combat around Konna and Gao. Meanwhile, the French have only suffered a single fatality – a helicopter pilot killed at the start of operations – although at least 11 Malian soldiers have also been killed during the fighting. Bloomberg notes that so far, the operation has cost "several tens of millions of euros," according to Mr. Fabius.
Voice of America adds that Mr. Le Drian said on Wednesday that fighting continues between French and jihadist forces near Gao.
As the unscarred French consider their next step, analysts warn that Mali is still unsettled. The BBC's Hugh Schofield writes that the campaign so far "is a moment of satisfaction, but the French would be well advised not to let it go to their heads."
What follows may be more testing. Already it is clear there is what the defense minister calls "residual" resistance around towns like Gao. Then there is the task of clearing out the inaccessible Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where the toughest of the Islamists have taken refuge, probably with French hostages. And beyond that, questions are bound to be asked about the capacity of Malian and African troops to take over when the French leave.
The French want to start pulling out troops in March. But if the campaign morphs into a new kind of conflict, they may have to think again.
Nonetheless, a post-French plan for Mali does seem to be coalescing. French Development Minister Pascal Canfin told reporters yesterday that the US, France, and various West African players appear to support the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation to Mali "in the medium term," reports Reuters.
Delegates had discussed "eventually" converting the African mission into a UN force, "but with an appropriate mandate so it can act in an effective way to bring peace and security to that zone," he told a news conference.
Mr. Canfin added, however, that a previously agreed upon African Union force must deploy to Mali first – an effort that is underway, but progressing slowly.