Mali faces a deep crisis that demands a political strategy toward a long-term settlement. What’s on offer today, namely sending a multinational force to reoccupy the Malian Sahara and fight terrorists, while negotiating deals with the cannier rebel leaders, promises only temporary respite. The reason: West Africa and the Sahara functions as political marketplace in which loyalties are for rent. Government leaders, rebels, drug traffickers and even terrorists, are all bargaining for profit and power.
Mali was a fragile democracy that imploded when Tuareg fighters, released from service in the Libyan Army after the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, returned home and overran the northern desert half of the country, declaring the independent state of Azawad. They were joined by sundry Islamists from across the continent, including cells of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, making this desert outpost a hub of regional jihadism and illegal trade, notably in drugs.
Meanwhile, humiliated Malian soldiers turned on their inept political masters and staged a coup. In response, the African Union, West African states, the United Nations and major Western countries put together a package under which the coup leaders stepped down, an interim government was installed with elections promised next year, and a multinational force known as the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, or Afisma, is being put together to reconquer the desert, restore Malian sovereignty and law and order, and — with U.S. and European help — fight the terrorists who threaten to create a safe haven for international jihadis.
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