Does France Have an Exit Strategy in Mali?

Striking a Balance Between Occupation and Withdrawal

Malians gather to greet French President François Hollande in Timbuktu, February 2, 2013. (Benoit Tessier / Courtesy Reuters)

In spite of the thorny political issues that lie ahead, the overall success of France’s intervention in Mali cannot be denied. In just a few weeks, French troops repelled Islamist militants from population centers in northern Mali, restoring a degree of government control there. They also managed to dispel the notion that Europeans are necessarily inward-looking, bereft of significant military capabilities, and incapable of using force. But if the American debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, Paris now faces a much more daunting challenge: turning its tactical achievements into a lasting victory or, at the very least, getting out of the country smoothly. 

On the surface, an exit strategy is already in place. A force dispatched by the Economic Community of West African States and Chad is supposed to replace the French, and an EU training mission will try to reconstitute the Malian military. But those efforts are likely to fail in Mali as they have elsewhere, since they are technical answers to what is at heart a political problem. Going forward, France needs to focus on the local political process and strike the right balance between two equally dangerous options: an immediate withdrawal and a drawn-out, large, and highly visible occupation. 

The situation in Mali presents France with a number of challenges. Terrain is the first. Northern Mali, and indeed the whole Sahel region, is a vast and austere desert. The French will find it frustratingly difficult to chase after elusive militant groups, given that there are not enough drones or other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms around. France also does not have the troops to “clear, hold, and build” in the north, as a counterinsurgency campaign done by the book would require, nor does it have enough money to keep a few thousand soldiers in the country indefinitely. The fact that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its

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