Defense Chief: France to Leave Mali Once Security Restored

France won’t withdraw from Mali until “the liberation of the whole country is complete.”

France won’t hand over its mission in Mali until security is restored, defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his troops during a surprise visit to the north of the African country where they are battling an Islamist insurgency with local and neighboring armed forces.

Le Drian earlier predicted that France’s involvement in Mali’s counterinsurgency would last no more than “a matter of weeks” while foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in late January that French troops would pull out “quickly” after the rebels had been driven out of the cities and major towns. Soldiers from other West African countries are supposed to take over from the French and help the Malian army in preventing the Islamists from resurging.

On Thursday, the French defense chief argued, “We are in the last phase, the most decisive phase” of the operation.

This phase entails some very violent combat. When the liberation of the whole country is complete, then we will hand over responsibility to African forces.

President François Hollande said on Wednesday that he would draw down French troops levels in Mali starting in April, a month later than previously forecast. “There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered,” the president said during his visit to Mali last month. “We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely.”

Some 4,000 French troops are deployed to Mali. Three have died since the country launched airstrikes against insurgents in its former colony in early January when they appeared to advance on the capital city Bamako. It followed up with ground deployments while troops from neighboring countries, including Chad and Nigeria, poured in to assist in the effort.

However, the West Africans have struggled to organize their military operation. They will likely need more support from France and other Western nations to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to mount an effective force for a prolonged period of time.