February 5, 2013 6:06 pm

Africa’s Tora Bora

The toughest part of reuniting Mali is starting only now

If the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains are not to become west Africa’s Tora Bora – a place from which militant Islamists relaunch jihad – Mali will need help fixing its political system as well as hunting down jihadists in their caves. Attention is beginning to focus on both necessities as France wraps up the first phase of its military intervention, having driven Islamist insurgents from significant towns in Mali’s desert north.

That suddenly looks like it was the easy bit. As in Afghanistan just over a decade ago when al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were able to regroup deep in the mountains, so in Mali al-Qaeda-linked insurgents have fled into terrain ideally suited to guerrilla war. France must calibrate its exit strategy such that the militants are kept under pressure until African forces tasked with rooting them out are effectively deployed.


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Getting the politics right is going to be just as vital if there is to be hope of sustainable peace. Mali’s politics are a mess. The interim government will need help and advice in the delicate task of negotiating a settlement for the war-torn north. Tuareg and Arab fighters are demanding concessions on regional autonomy and development. In the bitter aftermath of war, their southern counterparts are reluctant to give much ground. They will have to though, if the extremists are to be isolated, and more moderate Islamist and separatist Tuareg fighters brought behind plans to patch the country back together.

Too often after recent African conflicts, the holding of elections is seen as a panacea. In Mali, as in Ivory Coast and Congo (not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan), the opposite could be true if polls are flawed. Indeed, there is a danger that some of the same politicians complicit in the near collapse of the state will be recycled. Their laisser-faire attitude towards the desert north alienated Tuareg and Arab populations, allowed a potent alliance of smugglers, warlords and terrorists to take control, and prompted last year’s coup.

There is a danger too that in the rush to rewrite the constitution, register voters and revive the democratic system all within a six-month schedule, issues central to future stability will be overlooked. France has taken one step towards restoring Mali’s sovereignty by recapturing parts of the north. To reunite and reconcile the country, and provide the necessary conditions for inclusive polls, a much broader coalition of willing advisers will be needed – as well as time and money.

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