Northern Mali is a hodgepodge of splintered factions, and any solution there will be fragile.
Win support to fight Mali's insurgency
First came the special forces to identify targets. Then fighter-bombers attacked key installations, paving the way for the mechanised infantry to roll into town after town. Most of the ragtag fighters faded into the countryside. Civilians emerged to greet the liberators. But then the true test of security began.
Afghanistan? Iraq? This time it's Mali, where French forces and Malian auxiliaries have followed the familiar game plan to sweep Islamist militias out of the northern cities. Kidal, population 25,000, was the only town still held by Islamists yesterday.
But only a fool would declare victory. There have been no suicide bombers or improvised explosive devices yet, but they can surely be expected. As insurgents melt away into civilian populations, the tactical superiority of the French forces will mean little. In fact, a foreign force may be more of a liability than an aid in the conflict that is to come.
The French plan is to smash organised resistance, then hand over to Mali's own army, bolstered by African Union contingents. But southern Mali might as well be another country. The politicians and military in Bamako desperately need to get their own house in order to even begin to assure stability in the north.
Fortunately, there are ways to prise support away from the hardline militants. This crisis began as a Tuareg rebellion, armed with the weapons of Libya's fallen regime, only to be overtaken by its extremist elements. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is reportedly led in Mali by Algerians and Mauritanians. Winning Tuaregs and other Malians away from these foreigners should be possible. It is also encouraging that Ansar Dine, a mostly Tuareg Islamist group, has split, with one faction willing to negotiate with the government. Secular Tuareg nationalist groups have already joined in the rout of the Islamists.
Any solution will be fragile in northern Mali, which is today a hodgepodge of splintered armed factions, some Islamist, some Tuareg and some purely criminal. The desert routes through Timbuktu, once renowned for gold and salt, now carry cocaine and refugees. Depriving the extremists of a safe haven means coming to terms with the Tuareg and other indigenous groups - this involves not only political compromise, but crucially restraint in the current offensive. Reported revenge attacks by Malian forces in newly liberated towns are counterproductive.
As Islamists fled Timbuktu this week, they embarked on a final orgy of destruction, burning historical manuscripts. It was a reminder of the threat against this ancient centre of Islamic thought. It is a threat that, ultimately, only the people of Mali can defeat.