The French troop withdrawal began over the last few weeks, after France claimed success in weakening jihadists' capabilities in northern Mali and in restoring Mali's territorial sovereignty (although this does not mean that Bamako controls all of its territory again). French troops initially pulled out of the northern Tigharghar Mountains and relocated around the Niger River city of Gao. While some light armored units made their way to Ivory Coast, where they could join French peacekeeping forces there or embark on ships to return to France, other units were airlifted out of Mali to Cyprus and back to France. Remaining French forces in Mali conducted an extensive sweep around Gao, a town that has become the most frequent target of militant attacks since the beginning of the French intervention, before officially ending the French offensive campaigns in Mali. French special operations forces are still conducting offensive operations and are expected to continue to do so.
As of April 15, France has begun withdrawing some of its air assets, including Rafale and Mirage fighter jets, Tiger combat helicopters and transport planes. The remaining French air contingent, which will be an essential part of continued support to the African forces, consists of six Rafale and three Mirage 2000D fighter-bombers as well as three C-135 transport aircraft operating out of Bamako and N’Djamena, Chad. France has also embedded forward air controllers from its air force special forces with African units, enabling the coordination of French air support with the operations of the African contingents.
The French government had already announced its plans to withdraw after the end of offensive operations, intending to initially draw down its 4,000 troops in Mali to 2,000 by the end of 2013. After that, the French presence would decline to 1,000 troops, a total that France said could be permanently based in Mali. Chad has responded to the French withdrawal by declaring that it will initiate a progressive withdrawal without a stated deadline. Chadian forces had been operating alongside French forces during the offensive operations in the Tigharghar Mountains, and their part in these offensive operations has come to an end now that little fighting occurs there. Thus, their primary mission has been completed.
Although the unexpected Chadian withdrawal comes at a time when its initial objectives are more or less met and operations are becoming less manpower intensive, it does put a wrinkle in the general plan for the transition of security operations in Mali. The current plan to replace Chadian forces with Malian troops in the northern Kidal region has already generated much friction with the local Tuareg movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which opposes the presence of Malian soldiers in the region. Chad emphasized that it would be willing to take part in the mission when it is transformed into a U.N. operation, in which it would not have to fund its own involvement as it has in the current intervention, but this transformation is not expected to happen before July.
The remaining African-led International Support Mission to Mali would still have approximately 4,300 troops without the Chadian contingent and in the short term would still have the backing of 3,000 French troops. These African troops — most notably those from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, Senegal and Niger — have taken up positions in the population centers along the Niger River and in areas to the east and west. From these locations, as well as others farther south toward the capital, Bamako, the African contingents should be able to prevent militants from reclaiming territory in those areas. The African forces are also supported by a Nigerian air contingent consisting of two reconnaissance planes, four Alpha jets and six Mi-35 attack helicopters. While France will continue to deliver air support to the African forces, the presence of these Nigerian air assets will take some pressure off the French assets even though they are not as integrated and not of the same quality.
Long-Term Security Plans
Preparations are also being made for a longer-term security approach, with the European Union Training Mission rebuilding the Malian military to enable it, at some point, to guarantee security within Mali. Attempts are also being made to extend the time frame for the African-led International Support Mission to Mali forces' presence as draft proposals to transform the mission into a U.N. operation are being made. This transition would involve funding from the United Nations and would pull more countries into the operation. Apart from Chad, which has said it would be willing to redeploy its troops to Mali under the United Nations' flag, Mauritania has declared it will commit 1,800 soldiers to a U.N. operation in Mali. Existing draft mandates for the U.N. operation account for around 12,000 troops to be deployed in Mali starting July 1. The existing mandate of the African forces, however, could allow for reinforcements to be deployed to Mali before July, when they could be placed under the U.N. operation, as is the plan with a battalion from Ivory Coast that is currently being trained by French forces.
While the mission shifts from offensive to stabilization and deployments are being restructured, the damage inflicted by the French and African intervention on jihadist groups in northern Mali is becoming clear. The militants have suffered many casualties and lost much of their heavy equipment and ammunition stockpiles as well as their key strongholds and bases; they no longer command territory. Key leaders of the groups have been killed during the French offensives and airstrikes. Groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa are no longer operating in large units, and attacks by these groups are infrequent.
France has claimed success in degrading the militancy, but it remains possible that some of the jihadists have fled Mali for safer hideouts. There have been reports of Malian militants hiding in Chad, Sudan and even Polisario camps in Algeria, but while they could be in those locations, they have reportedly not conducted any attacks and, for the moment, are not a threat. However, the militants have not been completely defeated. There is also a risk of jihadist militants expanding their operations again as the offensive operations against them are replaced with a stabilization and reconciliation mission.