PARIS - Less than a week after a key summit gathering of France and its five regional military partners in the Sahel conflict, fresh casualties in Niger offered a reality check to the high-level discourse on achievements.
Killed in a landmine explosion Sunday were seven election officials — as Nigeriens voted for their next president — adding to a mounting toll that has seen thousands die and more than two million displaced during an eight-year Islamist insurgency in the Sahel.
Today, Paris and its Sahel partners appear at an impasse, with myriad initiatives to eradicate the tenacious and spreading jihadist presence, but no single comprehensive strategy.
Mali and Burkina Faso are exploring options of dialoguing with some jihadi groups, a move France categorically ruled out. Paris is calling for a beefed-up European Union presence to compensate its eventual troop drawdown, but the bigger EU countries have yet to commit.
Meanwhile, both French and Sahel forces face mounting public anger for civilian casualties and a military-heavy approach.
"If nothing is done differently, the situation is going to continue to deteriorate," said Ornella Moderan, Sahel program head for the Institute for Security Studies policy center, who calls for a sea-change in tactics beyond "just chasing the bad guys."
The stakes are particularly high for French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces reelection next year. For the first time since Paris dispatched troops to Mali in 2013, a recent IFOP poll shows a slim majority of French now want the country's 5,100-strong military operation to end.
Many in Paris see little payback from fighting happening thousands of miles away. The optics instead are on the returning flag-wrapped coffins. Some 50 French soldiers have died in a mission that has shifted from initially quelling a Tuareg rebellion in Mali's north, to fighting a broader jihadist insurgency in central Sahel under Operation Barkhane.
Wait and see?
Indeed, many expected Macron would announce a drawdown of French forces during last week's G-5 Sahel summit in N'Djamena. Instead, speaking via video link from France, he announced they would stay put for now, to help "decapitate" al-Qaida-linked insurgents.
"We have succeeded in gaining some real successes in the three-border zone," Macron said, referring to a hotspot region straddling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. He also noted last year's killings of key Islamist figures, including al-Qaida's North African chief Abdelmalek Droukdel.
"I think they're going to have to wait and see what happens in the next six months," said Andrew Lebovich, Africa analyst for the European Council on Foreign Relations policy center, assessing France's near-term strategy. "If the security situation doesn't get any better, it's going to be hard to draw down forces. But if there do seem to be improvements, it's likely they'll at least pull some forces out."
To be sure, the French strategy includes more than "wait and see." Macron has called for greater input from G-5 members — Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Mali. Chad, for one, recently announced an additional 1,200 troops.
Macron also wants a heavier European presence under the nearly year-old Takuba Task Force, which now gathers more than half-a-dozen, mostly smaller EU members. But the initiative has seen a slow start, and Macron's ambitions for a 2,000-person force seem unlikely in the near term. Germany for one, recently announced it would not send more soldiers to the region. The EU is also revising its broader Sahel strategy, now more than a decade old and outdated, analysts say.
"It seems to me the plan is to show they've been able to Europeanize and internationalize this deployment to an extent, so it's not seen anymore as just a French operation," said Lebovich of the European Council.
Another uncertainty is whether the new Biden administration will invest more in the region. In videotaped remarks to the G-5 summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was committed to being a "strong partner," but he offered no details.
A number of analysts and activists are calling for a people-centered shift in Sahel strategy, focusing on good governance, delivering basic services and protecting local communities.
The protracted unrest has left enormous humanitarian scars, deepening poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Rights groups accused African counterinsurgency forces of killing hundreds of civilians, while anti-French sentiment has grown.
A French airstrike in central Mali in January has been particularly controversial. Barkhane and Malian officials said it targeted jihadists; local villagers claimed it killed people attending a wedding party.
Operation Barkhane's presence also has nourished protests in capitals like Bamako and Ouagadougou.
"To have a force that mobilizes so many troops, so much money, so much diplomatic and political energy, and doesn't intervene on protection issues," said analyst Moderan, "it makes people wonder why are they there? Whose priorities are they responding to?"
Paris appears to be responding to such concerns, at least semantically. French officials have been talking with civil society groups in the region. Speaking at the summit, Macron emphasized development projects and good governance, "once military victory is obtained."
But critics say this reaching out should be happening sooner, rather than later. The International Crisis Group has called for greater focus on improving governance and supporting local peacemaking efforts, including with some jihadist groups.
The governments of Mali and Burkina Faso appear to be heading in that direction. Bamako this week announced a new platform to begin talks with Islamist militants. Prime Minister Moctar Ouan is calling dialogue "an additional means" of ending the yearslong turmoil.
Earlier this month, too, the Burkinabe government said it was open to talks with militants. A local effort has been under way in the northern town of Djibo.
Not everyone is sold, though.
"One doesn't discuss with terrorists, one fights," Macron told Jeune Afrique in an interview last year, although some observers suggest the French position may be softening.
Lebovich, of the European Council, is also skeptical about the success of local peace talks — but believes engaging in the process may at least bring clarity.
"I think there's an assumption that people are just going to peel these fighters away and integrate them," he said. "And there isn't a good plan for that."