PARIS — Despite intensive airstrikes by French warplanes, Islamist fighters overran a strategic village and military post in central Mali on Monday, offering an indication that the war against extremists who have carved out a jihadist state in the nation’s north could be a long and difficult one.
Just hours after the French foreign minister said confidently that France had blocked “the advance of the terrorists," accomplishing its first mission in the conflict, the French defense minister acknowledged that the facts on the ground were different. A column of militants had pushed to within about 50 miles of one of Mali’s largest cities, forcing France to evacuate its citizens in the area and bringing the Islamists a step closer to the capital — closer, in fact, than they had been before French forces entered the fight.
Having entered the war quickly after an urgent plea from the Malian government, France now finds itself facing a well-equipped force of Islamist fighters — with little immediate help from its allies to overcome them.
The United States has long pledged logistical support but no troops. West African nations have promised 3,300 soldiers to fight alongside the Malian army, but they must be gathered, transported, trained and financed, and there have long been concerns about their readiness for the task ahead. The European Union has promised 250 military trainers to aid the Malian army, but it has yet to deploy them, a decision that may not come before a special foreign ministers’ meeting later this week.
Moreover, the French mission is an ambitious one. Beyond pledging to stop the Islamists from pushing ever deeper into Mali — a more challenging task in itself than French officials initially suggested — France has also vowed to help restore Mali’s territorial integrity, an apparent reference to driving the Islamists out of their vast, northern stronghold, an area twice the size of Germany.