The rapid developments sweeping across northern Mali are currently floating in a tense limbo.
Despite their public defense of Mali's territorial integrity and rejection of an Islamic state, Western and African capitals remain trapped between two impractical courses of action. Efforts to refer the situation to the United Nations Security Council have spiked in reaction to an inconclusive accord between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine, a militant group dedicated to the hardline imposition of Sharia. On Wednesday Thomas Boni Yayi, Benin's president and rotating chairman of the African Union, said the AU and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) "can take the example of Somalia, where an African force is operating with the support of the United Nations."
Yayi would toe a political line dug by Malian and ECOWAS officials, clarifying that a military solution "must come after dialogue, but this dialogue must not last too long." As a result, the AU's response has yet to progress beyond its immediate reaction to the MNLA and Ansar Dine's territorial expansion. The possibility of a diplomatic resolution sits a dead end, closed off by the MNLA's independence drive and Ansar Dine's pursuit of a strict Islamic state. "We do not want a west African Afghanistan," Yayi declared, but the AU and UN must accept the reality that neither group will compromise their ideologies. That leaves a military option to evict both networks, but the collective alliance of AU and ECOWAS lacks the independent capacity to restore lasting stability in Mali.
The blocs are enduring enough troubles as they attempt to restore Mali's government, and waiting months or even years will multiply the MNLA and Ansar Dine's resistance.
Equally complicated is the relationship between the MNLA and Ansar Dine, which foreign powers should untangle and isolate before attacking either group. Negotiations over their final protocol continue to search for a middle ground that may not exist; MNLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher told the Associated Press on Wednesday, "We don't accept Shariah law. That's never what we wanted." The AP was able to contact one Ansar Dine fighter, Oumar Ould Hamaha, who explained that his group agreed "on 80 percent of the subject matter with the NMLA." However Ansar Dine is visibly unwilling to sacrifice its ultimate goal - the formation of an Islamic state - or sever its links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an incompatible position with the MNLA.
Ag Attaher said the MNLA wants Azawad's new government to ratify the United Nations' conventions, but Ansar Dine continues to resist the move. For their part, the MNLA's leadership "can never accept that a movement from outside Azawad comes and controls part of this territory." Yet the MNLA's own independence has obstructed any international drive to support the group over Ansar Dine, pushing them into an alliance of convenience.
Adding to this confusion, both Malian officials and the MNLA have dismissed a report that AQIM members recently unearthed Gao's arms depot. Malian Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara flatly rejected the information of an anonymous security official, while Colonel-Major Camara argued that the MNLA created the story in order to cover up "military aid from some of its allies." Which state or states are funding the MNLA is left unsaid. Separately, the MNLA's Mubarak Ag Mohamed told Magharebia that both groups only discovered "some light weapons" during house-to-house searches. A third party, the administrative and financial manager of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gao, said that AQIM fighters discovered a cache of government weapons following Gao's capture on March 31st.
As the city now functions as Azawad's de facto capital, the MNLA believes that the story was planted to accelerate a foreign intervention. Whatever the case, the difficulty of gauging the MNLA and Ansar Dine's force strength has only increased since their takeover of northern Mali. African and Western capitals must estimate how many weapons were looted from Libya, how many surface-to-air missiles crosses the border, how much munitions were seized from Mali's army and how many foreign fighters are trafficking arms into the country.
And they must eventually decide how long to continue a newly-established status quo in Azawad.