Politicians in Paris are still speaking as though Mali can be won on the cheap and quick—with a drawdown in March from the 4,000 French troops here now, and a pullout after hypothetical elections in July. At that point, a trained-up Malian army and other African forces theoretically will handle the country’s security.

Except now that the insurgency has shown its face—with roadside improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings, and local supporters sheltering jihadists in key towns such as Gao—the French don’t seriously expect the intervention to last less than a year. Capt. Benoit notes that they’re nowhere near actually training the Malian forces.

“At the moment, we’re just fighting the rebels,” he says. Paris is determined to plaster an African face on the war. But on the ground—at the checkpoints, in the towns, on the roads—the Malians always defer to France.

“I’m not worried about it—it will take as long as it takes,” Capt. Benoit says of the hazy timeline. But he’s also quite sure that even after France “leaves” Mali, it won’t, in fact, leave. “We’ll continue to help them, in one way or another.”