A complex web of historical struggles and ethnic causes, northern Mali is viewed as a worst-case scenario through Western and African eyes alike. On top of a Tuareg independence movement that has ensnared over half a dozen ethnicities, the parallel conflict involving Ansar Dine is generating a vast amount of information and disinformation to process. Concrete predictions are scarce, but a handful of scenarios can guide strategic expectations of Mali's future. All of the appear to contain an unavoidable element of violence.
Three weeks ago - and less than two months before late April's presidential election - a group of Mali soldiers took control of the capital in a coup de tat. The officers offered many grievances to explain their actions, including the corrupt rule of President Amadou Toumani Toure and a mismanagement of affairs in northern Mali. A fraction of the military's anger is rooted in Aguelhok, where a vicious battle ended after the army ran out of ammunition (Ansar Dine later took credit for the ambush). Perceiving the enhanced threat of heavily armed Tuareg insurgents, recruited by Tuareg leaders and former Gaddafi officials following "the Colonel's" downfall, the military announced that it needed to restore a functioning chain of command. Only the insurgency has since claimed all of the territory its leadership sought for decades in a span of weeks. Following the seizure of Kibal and Gao, insurgents emerged victorious in another battle for Timbuktu and seized government buildings, military posts and the airport.
Mayor Ousmane Halle soon announced, "The city is totally under their control."
Days later the Tuareg-led Azawad National Liberation Movement (known by its French acronym MNLA) delivered on pledges made after the capture of Timbuktu. Hama Ag Mahmoud, one of several spokesmen for the group, spoke in peaceful but forceful terms, unequivocally dividing northern Mali (Azawad) from the western half of the country. He said the MNLA doesn't want to "give anyone the impression that we're gung-ho for war, so from the moment we have liberated our territories, our objective is achieved, we stop there. Our objective is not to go further than the Azawad borders."
"We don't want to create problems for the government of Mali, and even less create problems in the sub-region."
The MNLA is speaking truthfully in regards to its territorial and military ambitions. Rearmed with the fallout of Libya's revolutionary war, the Tuareg insurgency has enough manpower and weapons to organize a fierce defense of the land now under its loose authority. With no reason to advance into western Mali, the group is attempting to preempt a counteroffensive and keep its acquisitions without fighting new battles. Mahmoud claims that the MNLA is "open to all... means of negotiations through [the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc]" or other regional powers."
Problematically, the MNLA cannot deliver on its declaration of independence since Mali's next government and international blocs aren't prepared for Mali to follow Sudan's uncertain future. The compromise of autonomy may be inedible to both sides. Many actors, including ECOWAS President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, express interest in a peaceful solution, but the hammer is always quick to follow. Ouedraogo told Al Jazeera that "in case they don't accept the offer of negotiations, then ECOWAS will use any other means to protect the territorial integrity of Mali." ECOWAS hopes to avoid deploying an emergency force, as it did during Ivory Coast's recent conflict, except northern Mali's two visions of "peace" sound like a collision in the making. While ECOWAS would enjoy logistical and intelligence support from Western nations, experienced Tuareg fighters hold the strategic advantage and must be dislodged from a range of environments. Limited roads make helicopters more vulnerable to SAMs, which the insurgency allegedly looted from Libya.
Both ECOWAS and Western capitals prefer to keep their ground forces out of northern Mali's complexities, and acknowledge the possibility of local resentment. Yet Mali's military may be helpless to retake "Azawad," a territory equivalent to a large American state, without the support of foreign armor and air power.
Most of these problems are strategic or tactical in nature, and thus subservient to the political dominance in COIN. In order to retake control of the country, the future government and foreign powers must politically "defeat" the MNLA and its grievances. That task is hindered by an obscured understanding of the situation. Although ECOWAS has reportedly brokered a transition with Toure and the coup's leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, the interim government will be challenged to hold elections in the territory that it still controls. Establishing unification between Burkina Faso, ECOWAS, the African Union (AU) and Western nations is essential to before turning north, because the insurgency is likely to prove difficult to negotiate with. The MNLA claims that all ethnic groups in Azawad will be represented, but no one is sure of their final objectives or how many groups they speak for. Tuaregs aren't the most numerous group in northern Mali, only the most organized and weaponized. This power equation gives their leadership a disproportionate amount of political influence and comes with the potential cost of ethnic strife.
In a conflict full of wild cards, al-Qaeda remains the likeliest source to amplify a transnational conflict: a force multiplier that feeds on the stronger insurgency in a given area. Ansar Dine, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), has already sown discord in the mediating process by raising its black flag over Timbuktu and hassling residents. Females, Christians and foreigners fled a newly-instated Islamic law and Mayor Halle later told the Associated Press, "I do not know who our master is."
On Saturday France's Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, said that Paris considered the MNLA to be a credible political movement. Various officials within ECOWAS have speculated on negotiating with both groups, but Juppe drew the line at Ansar Dine's objective "to establish an Islamist regime in Mali and the Sahel as a whole."
"The advance of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad, associated with terrorist groups like AQIM and Ansar Dine and others, gives sufficient reason to the entire region to be put on notice," added Gen. Soumaila Bakayoko, chief of Ivory Coast's army.
The split between Ansar Dine and the MNLA is unlikely to be solved in the near future. Ansar's Tuareg leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, resents being denied a leadership position within the MNLA but uses the group for his own military purposes. Soon after the MNLA declared independence, the "Defenders of Faith" announced that its global jihad doesn't stop at Azawad. Ag Ghaly is acquiring power by making noise in the name of jihad, but his combination of words and actions have put a scare into Western and African capitals, adding to the Sahel's existing urgency against AQIM. Ansar Dine threatens the MNLA's territorial claims, suggesting that the two groups may be irreconcilable, and the international community must guard against an overreaction that would multiply the conflict as al-Qaeda's ideology envisions. Cooperating with the MNLA is useful in this particular case, but the cost of autonomy or independence may be too high to stomach.
Mali's chaos breaks down into a simple two-step process: restore order to the government, then address the MNLA in as non-lethal methods as possible. "Total war," in the words of interim president Dioncounda Traore, is doomed to stalemate. However weak the Tuaregs are perceived, the foreknowledge of a bloody and protracted conflict offers a realistic deferent to secure their political ambitions.