France’s President François Hollande has pledged to Malians on his visit to Bamako last week: “We'll stay by your side as you address rebuilding in your nation.” Though France plans to keep troops in Mali until a UN-backed African military force can take over, already, the deployment of this force has been delayed due to supply and funding shortages. And any hiatus between French withdrawal and the establishment of a credible African multinational force will provide plenty of opportunity for Islamists to return and exploit frustrations with the Malian government.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al Dine, and other radical Islamic groups active in the Sahel region are disunited, often rivals, and compete for the control of criminal networks. They have been allied uneasily with much more moderate Tuaregs in northern Mali who seek autonomy or independence. While the uneasy alliance held the northern cities for nine months, it was inherently unstable.
The Islamist coalition included both Tuaregs and Arabs, who regard themselves as “white,” ruling over a population they regarded as “black.” Political maneuverings among those calling the shots amounted to little more than warlordism or competition among criminal syndicates. Even before the French drove the Islamists out of northern Mali’s cities, if there had been a credible government in Bamako, there is a chance the northern coalition would have collapsed under its own weight.
The withdrawal to the desert following the French intervention provides a new opportunity to win over the moderates in northern Mali and isolate the radicals. That requires a credible government in Bamako that addresses northern grievances and keeps its promises, especially with respect to the long-standing demand for genuine autonomy for the north.