“French troops will stay until the job is finished,” the then-French Ambassador to Mali, Christian Rouyer, told me last month.
But French President Francois Hollande stated Thursday that French troops in Mali would be reduced from 4,000 to 2,000 by the end of July, and to 1,000 by the end of the year. Mr. Hollande previously had stated that French troops would not leave until a U.N. peacekeeping force was in place. Currently, the French are helping train the Malian army and troops from neighboring African countries for a counterinsurgency operation, should the Islamists return. But events can have a way of changing even the best-laid plans. When I was in Timbuktu two weeks ago, an Islamist suicide bomber detonated his belt at a checkpoint near the outskirts of town. In the ensuing gunbattle, seven jihadists were killed and one was captured; seven Malian soldiers were wounded and one was killed.
Security in Timbuktu has since been tightened at all the checkpoints leading to the 13th century town, which once served as the leading Islamic cultural center. Timbuktu’s townspeople had been subjected to brutality by Islamists who controlled the town and surrounding villages for more than 11 months. During that time, the Islamists destroyed several 15th and 16th century Sufi shrines, and burned some 4,000 rare Islamic manuscripts. Several village leaders told me that they were thankful the French troops had liberated their towns.