French Troops in Mali

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The French soldiers seeking out jihadists in central Mali’s Savannahs were prepared for the sandstorms, the thunderstorms, the lack of anything resembling a road and the need to tow vehicles whose wheels kept getting stuck in floodplains. They knew getting information out of terrified villagers would be difficult. But as the multi-week operation wore on in Gourma district, where 400 French troops and 100 allied Malians searched for 50-odd jihadists they estimated were hiding in the shadows, the obstacles kept piling up. First, there were the storms, forcing them to abandon supper, pack up their mosquito nets and sleep contorted in their vehicles. Then up at 3 a.m. for a mission that couldn’t start because the weather had grounded their helicopters at base. Then, flash floods turned sandy ground to sludge and burst the wadis so only their newly deployed tracked fighting vehicles could cross. When they reached the thatch-and-wood villages where they suspected jihadists were hiding. Men tended cows. Women pounded millet. Everyone smiled. And nobody told them anything. “We’re not going to resolve this in a day,” said David, the commander of the French forward base near the town of Gossi. French military rules permit publication only of his first name. “This is going to take some time.” Efforts led by France to stop a region on Europe’s doorstep becoming a launchpad for attacks at home are increasingly trapped in an endless cat-and-mouse game with well-armed jihadists, who know the terrain and hide easily among civilians. On a…

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