Most experts think that the French, even if they drive the Islamists out of major populated areas in the north of Mali, will not move in force throughout the vast desert. The French still mean to prepare the ground for Ecowas and Malian troops, to create the stability that can allow new political negotiations on Mali’s future.

Mali will only succeed, French officials say, if the state is reconfigured, with significantly more autonomy for the Tuaregs in the north, who have long wanted their independence, and rebuilt governmental institutions and legitimacy. That of course will take some time, even if it is done under the auspices of Ecowas or the United Nations.

Camille Grand, a defense expert and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said the French objective is “to return to the status quo ante, where those Islamist groups are cornered in the gray zones on the borders, with limited ability to act and not controlling population centers, where it is difficult for them to make raids or take hostages.”

Those goals, he said, are “definitely something that makes sense from a military standpoint. But “if the ultimate objective is to eradicate the presence of radical Islam in the Sahel,” he warned, “it probably won’t happen; it’s a bridge too far for anyone.”