Seven months ago the rebel group Ansar Dine, an Islamist-Tuareg outfit, rode its way across northern Mali with the assistance of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
As the initial dust settled, observers began to credit part of the MNLA's military advances to Ansar Dine and the groups' ability to impose order/recruit. The two groups appeared to co-exist out of self-interest rather than mutual interests, telegraphing Ansar Dine's future mobilization and its division with the MNLA. Neither could find a compromise between their ultimate goal of a Taureg state or an Islamic state. After announcing a temporary pact in late May, Ansar Dine's partnership with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) evicted the MNLA from its Gao headquarters in July.
Mimicking the shifting sands of north Africa's dunes, northern Mali's politico-military equation has since swung back in the direction of MNLA-Ansar Dine negotiations. On Friday Burkina Faso's President, Blaise Compaore, welcomed a joint-delegation sent by the two groups.
"All the international instruments have been put in place (to deal with this crisis)," Tieman Coulibaly, Mali's Minister of Foreign Affairs, told reporters earlier this month. "And we are now weighing the options - either negotiations or military intervention in order to liberate northern Mali."
Entering into negotiations with the MNLA has been easy enough for African and Western capitals. Displaced by another Tuareg group and its foreign allies, the MNLA has little to lose by cutting a deal with the international community, which was never prepared to accept an independent Azawad. The group has yet to reverse its push for autonomy, but in most other ways is prepared to assist Mali's government in the overthrow of AQIM and MUJAO. This strategy is designed to recoup lost territory and sidestep any military operation conducted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Fresh information suggest that the MNLA suffered another defeat on Friday night after trying to retake Gao.
The plan to lure Ansar Dine away from AQIM and MUJAO began as early as June, and is proceeding as one would expect of such negotiations. Throughout this period Ansar Dine and its allies have solidified their military positions and carried out strict Islamic punishments, suggesting that Ansar Dine is only toying with foreign mediators. The group has also made contact with Algerian diplomats, whose government seeks to avoid a large-scale intervention that would effect its borders. Thus Ansar Dine's actions could intend to delay a foreign intervention rather than cooperate with foreign powers.
For now spokesman Mohammad Ag Aharib claims that Ansar Dine is prepared to "get rid of terrorism, drug trafficking and foreign groups," telling the AFP that "we don’t agree with taking hostages and drug trafficking." These operations are believed to provide the bulk of AQIM and MUJAO's financing. Problematically, Ag Aharib rejects the possibility of renouncing Shariah law, saying "we insist that it be applied where we live." Ansar Dine's terms indicate that no compromise is available with foreign powers, and that each is feeling the other's capabilities before hostilities begin. How much control Ansar Dine can apply over northern Mali also remains uncertain. Considering its offer to expel "foreigners," meaning AQIM and MUJAO, the group may retain possession over less ground than its initial conquest.
If the group isn't feigning interest with the international community, Ansar Dine must hope to regain any national influence lost to AQIM and MUJAO's international agendas.
The dual track of negotiations and military action accompanies most wars, conventional or unconventional. Speaking to Mali's interim President, Diocounda Traore, on Thursday, French President Francois Hollande told his counterpart (and by extension ECOWAS), "The acceleration of this dialogue must accompany the progress in African military-planning efforts." Negotiating is generally superior to fighting during counterinsurgency, as it addresses non-military sources of friction, and foreign powers seek to fight as limited of an enemy as possible. For months the U.S. and NATO allies have hesitated to commit themselves militarily in northern Mali, realizing that Mali's interim government and a full network of militant groups equates to an unreasonably dangerous mission.
However Western forces are itching for some form of military engagement against AQIM and MUJAO, ruling out a non-violent resolution. Washington in particular doesn't want to miss this opportunity to strike directly at AQIM, and NATO as a whole views Mali as a profitable training ground. U.S. and French Special Forces operated in the country prior to March's coup as part of the Sahel's overall militarization; a large part of Mali's new mission is built around a Western-African training program. The Trench also speculates that a new drone base may find a home somewhere in the Sahel, given the long-term nature of Mali's mission and AQIM's lifespan.
These designs play a motivating role in General Carter Ham's statements from Paris, which linked the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi to AQIM. The outgoing commander of AFRICOM cautioned that the attack was not necessarily "an AQIM-planned or organized or led activity," but the direction of his message is clear enough. Former CIA Director David Petraeus gave a similar account on Friday to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees (not without its own controversy). Problematically, a military victory in northern Mali simply returns North Africa's environment to a pre-coup state, rather than permanently eliminate AQIM's presence.
Left in the militants’ vacuum: loose insurgents of all types, unresolved national grievances with a weak government, and the residue of Western imperialism.