Should we stay or should we go now?

France’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, today restated the French military’s intention to declare victory in Mali, pack up their kit, and leave in "a matter of weeks," though ongoing counterterrorism operations in northern Mali would continue for "a while." "We have no reason to stay," he told France 2 television. But France does have ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, today restated the French military's intention to declare victory in Mali, pack up their kit, and leave in "a matter of weeks," though ongoing counterterrorism operations in northern Mali would continue for "a while."

"We have no reason to stay," he told France 2 television.

But France does have reason to stay, actually a few.

France’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, today restated the French military’s intention to declare victory in Mali, pack up their kit, and leave in "a matter of weeks," though ongoing counterterrorism operations in northern Mali would continue for "a while."

"We have no reason to stay," he told France 2 television.

But France does have reason to stay, actually a few.

For one, the Malian army is unfit to secure its own towns and borders from foreign and domestic insurgents.

Second, African forces assembled on the quick lack the capacity to hold territory recently captured by French troops.

And third, international efforts at the United Nations to oversee an international peacekeeping force comprised of some 6,000 to 10,000 blue helmets remain stalled in New York.

"The French know that they need to leave something behind, but they haven’t defined what that is yet," said a senior U.N.-based diplomat. "We obviously have a keen interest in knowing what that is."

Earlier this week, Mali’s president sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requesting a peacekeeping mission. But the letter was drafted in "ambiguous terms" that raised questions about its commitment to a U.N. mission. For instance, Mali imposed some reservations that precluded the transfer from an African-led to a U.N.-led mission until Mali has established complete sovereign control over its territory.

The Malian gambit left many in the Security Council in the dark.

"Now, we don’t have any further information on the way forward," said one council diplomat.

"I have no clear picture of what the options for the immediate future might be," added another council diplomat, noting that France has yet to introduce a detailed plan outlining what sort of international military presence would remain in Mali after it leaves.

The only thing that is clear, the official said, is that France is keen to go.

"President [Francois] Hollande did not want to intervene in the first place, and his [Socialist] party did not like it," the official said. But the "French are a little bit scared about the ability" of African forces to fill the security vacuum when they go.

U.N. officials and Security Council diplomats say they are confident France will leave behind some sort of heavily-armed rapid reaction force in support of an African-led U.N. peacekeeping mission. One diplomat said that France’s announcement of its intent to leave is in part calculated to force the Malian government — which cannot survive without foreign military backing — to accept a U.N. mission.

Herve Ladsous, the U.N. peacekeeping chief, met in Ireland last week with the French defense minister. The French minister assured the U.N. that it would leave some troops in Mali, but did not say whether they would serve under U.N. or French command.

Mali’s trepidation reflects the misgivings the government has about what a U.N. peacekeeping force might mean: a process of national reconciliation that would require the government strike a compromise with its bitter foes, the restive Tuareg insurgents who triggered the armed uprising in northern Mali early last year before it was overtaken by Islamists. It would also set the stage for a political transition, including elections that would require many of the country’s military leaders — who came to power through a military coup — to make way for new leaders. And it would ratchet up pressure on Malians to hold their own troops accountable for atrocities carried out in recent weeks.

"Once again, there seems to be a total disconnect between the reality on the ground in Mali and the politics in New York," said Richard Gowan, a specialist on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. "I think that there is a sense that while the Malian authorities are being ambiguous that ultimately they will have to bow to French pressure. And if the French insists on a U.N. force then they will have no alternative but to comply."

As for the U.N. planners, Gowan said, the U.N. "secretariat is still working on the assumption they have to have plans in place to take over responsibility in April."

But the challenge, added a second U.N.-based official, is how the secretariat can prepare a major peacekeeping mission without clear instructions from France, and more widely from the Security Council, on what precisely they will be expected to do. "We can do some table top planning," the official said. "But we really can’t start until the council gives us a clear range of options for a peacekeeping mission."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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