The war against armed Islamic extremists in Mali will lose some 2,000 Chadian soldiers, the president of Chad said, leaving Malian cities more vulnerable to a resurgence of jihadist attacks.
The news that Chad will pull its troops from Mali could force France to push back its own timeframe for withdrawing its troops from its former West African colony and creates greater urgency for a United Nations force in Mali. The UN is set to consider sending a peacekeeping mission, but diplomats have yet to determine its scope and composition.
Since the French-led mission began in mid-January, soldiers from Chad have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting and are credited with some of the biggest successes to date. Among them was killing Abou Zeid, a notorious al Qaida commander who had kidnapped and terrorized Westerners in the desert for years.
Chad also has suffered heavy troop casualties. Chadian President Idriss Deby announced his forces would not be sticking around for a protracted guerrilla war with the radical Islamic insurgents.
"Chad's army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging in northern Mali. Our soldiers are going to return to Chad. They have accomplished their mission," Deby said in an interview with French journalists.
France took the lead back in January in launching the war to dislodge Islamic militants who had seized control of northern Mali in 2012 amid the chaos after a coup in Mali's capital.
The French, like the Chadians, are hoping to downscale their presence and have said they hope to have only 1,000 troops left in Mali by the end of the year, down from a high of 4,000.
The early departure of Chadian forces raises questions about how feasible the planned French pullout will be if the French want to maintain the inroads made against armed Islamic extremists in northern Mali. The French Defence Ministry had no comment on Chad's decision.
"Ultimately the French may have to revise their own timetable for withdrawal unless they somehow persuade someone else to pick up the slack, which is unlikely," said J Peter Pham, director of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Chadian forces, always known to be good desert fighters, have enhanced their reputation during the Mali conflict, and one of the great concerns is that there are no other African troops with their capabilities.