A standoff over how to restore government control in Mali’s northeast has highlighted discord between the African country and its former colonizer. France, which intervened in Mali earlier this year to help suppress an Islamist insurgency there, seeks a political rather than a military solution to reintegrating the Saharan desert town of Kidal, Tuareg separatists’ last stronghold.
Mali’s army has moved troops toward Kidal but France, which has its own forces camped outside, is seen as blocking their advance. It is urging Mali’s government to address the Tuaregs’ demands for increased autonomy instead and fears ethnic bloodshed if the African soldiers move into Kidal.
Much of Mali’s north fell into the hands of radical Muslim and Tuareg fighters last year, including members of Al Qaeda’s North African wing and the local group Ansar Dine, who declared an independent state in the area and imposed strict Islamic law. They had been able to seize on Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya a year earlier which caused the displacement of Tuareg mercenaries previously employed by the regime in Tripoli as well as Algerian counterterrorism offensives in recent years that pushed Muslim extremists south.
The Atlantic Sentinel‘s Miguel Nunes Silva predicted in October of last year that as a consequence of its intervention in Libya, where it enlisted the help of its NATO allies to topple longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, France would be “confronted with the need to support the Tuareg against Ansar Dine and thus further cement the secession of Azawad,” as the north of Mali is known locally. Only by drawing the majority of Tuaregs, who comprise 10 percent of Mali’s population, to its side can France prevent the Islamists from resurging in an area that is comparable in size to France itself.
France’s intervention in Mali, which started with airstrikes in January, managed to wean the mainstream Tuareg secessionist movement off the hardliners. It joined the French-Malian effort to push the Islamists out and, observed Adam Garfinkle at The American Interest in February, “put itself forward as a useful proxy of France in the hope that, when the war is over, it will become the main political force in the Tuareg areas of Mali.”
Elections due in July will likely boost the Tuareg movement’s legitimacy whereas the central government in Bamako, which continues to refer to the secessionists as “terrorists,” would, it seems, rather finish the job and flush them out of the only town where they hold power: Kidal. France cannot allow this when it would likely radicalize the Tuareg separatist struggle again and give the Islamists an opportunity to return.