The Western world sees Timbuktu as the archetypal fantasy land--somewhere mysterious and exotic. Recent events in this very real city in Mali, though, demand the close attention of the outside world. Jihadism, separatism, ethnic strife, and loose weapons have come together in the Azawad region of ethnically-Tuareg northern Mali to create a volatile security situation and a growing humanitarian crisis. Given these circumstances, European powers have begun to move toward a military solution: France plans to send surveillance drones into Mali, while the United Kingdom and Germany have both hinted at armed intervention.
This approach involving foreign military intervention is misguided. Rather, the government of south Mali, with diplomatic and financial aid from the international community, must win over the Tuareg rebels through social programs and an invitation to participate in government. This approach of reconciliation may not end the conflict, but it will throw a wrench into the plans of the separatists.
The resistance groups that now control northern Mali are not monolithic and have within their ranks both extremists and moderates, the latter of which are more open to a peaceful resolution, There are at least five distinct and apparent factions present: Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Hamm, and the Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Ansar Dine is a Malian and predominantly Tuareg Islamist group which may or may not have ties to AQIM. The MOJWA is an offshoot of AQIM whose ideology is similar to Al Qaeda's, but whose focus is on a black African brand of jihad. There has also been speculation that the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram and Al Qaeda itself have entered Mali. The MNLA was once the driving force behind the separatist movement, but has since violently broken with its Islamist partners. Journalist and author Andy Morgan estimates that each group has two to three thousand members among its ranks.
These groups fall into two categories. Ansar Dine, the MOJWA, Boko Haram., and AQPVI are ideologically and religiously driven and generally not receptive to diplomatic talks or cooperation. On the other hand, the MNLA is not hard-line. Much like the "accidental guerrillas" David Kilcullen described in his 2009 book on the insurgency in Afghanistan, the members of the secular Tuareg separatist movement likely feel forced into violent resistance by an indifferent government and unlivable conditions. This makes bargaining with members of the MNLA much easier than with members of the other groups. The Tuareg goal is not violent insurrection for its own sake, but for improved political and economic status for their region.
The government of Mali should be ready to offer the Tuareg population of northern Mali the essential services that they have requested in the past. Specifically, the government should provide famine and drought relief to a hungry and thirsty region, grant some degree of provincial self-governance to northern Mali, and encourage Tuareg participation in the government and the military. …