The French intervention in Mali began on January 11 this year. By the end of January French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was saying that French troops would be leaving Mali “quickly.”
By the beginning of February French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that French troops would begin their withdrawal from Mali in a matter of weeks. A week ago Reuters reported that the French chief of the defense staff admiral Edouard Guillaud believed that French troops could begin their withdrawal in this month, despite an attack in the northern town of Gao.
Shortly after the French intervention began an American State Department official said that the French should expect the intervention to take years, not weeks as French officials had initially hoped.
Given that French involvement in the war in Mali is taking longer than French officials had originally predicted it looks like the Canadian government was right to be wary of “another Afghanistan” when debating to what extent they would get involved in the intervention.
Soon after the French intervention began it had popular support, with 75 percent of respondents to one poll saying that they supported the intervention. Although President Hollande did enjoy a boost in support after the intervention it looks like the increased support was short-lived, Reuters reported yesterday that Hollande is the least popular French president in 30 years.
French officials are now in the unenviable position of choosing between staying in Mali for longer than expected, and facing a possible public backlash as a result, or leaving Mali before political stability is restored. The French have been in Mali for almost two months, and while Islamic militants have been pushed back fighting continues in the northeast of Mali and many Malian refugees do not want to return home.
As with the war in Afghanistan the conflict in Mali involves an opposition that is defined by ideology, not nationality, making victory difficult to describe and declare. How many more times the French extend their stay in Mali in search of this sort of victory remains to be seen, but it should come as no surprise when French officials realize much of what they hope to achieve in Mali is either unrealistic or will require a mission that will take much longer than they initially expected.