While the Islamist rebels and their terrorist allies who currently control much of northern Mali have been making themselves internationally famous -- most recently by flogging other Muslims for straying from their version of the sharia law and destroying tombs in ancient Timbuktu -- diplomatic rumbling about outside intervention in the crippled West African nation has been getting louder by the day.
France's new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, recently predicted that "there will probably be the use of force" to bring northern Mali back under control while African Union (AU) leaders are increasingly suggesting that intervention might be inevitable. ECOWAS -- the West African community made up of most of Mali's neighbors -- has already drawn up a rough plan for military intervention, which the United States supports, at least in principle. By all appearances, they are waiting for a green light from the Malian government in Bamako and from the United Nations, which both are reluctant to give and which won't likely come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is always hard to know what exactly is going on in a region of the world that generates more rumors and conspiracy theories than the Texas school book depository, but now more than ever false analogies and shallow analyses seem to be driving the debate.
Everyone is agreed on one thing: The mess in Mali is stagnating. At the beginning of the year, Tuareg rebels in the Sahara took up arms against the central government, which refused to put up much of a fight. In March, angry soldiers chased President Amadou Toumani Touré from power, but the coup leaders soon faced a wall of opposition from Mali's politicians, neighbors, and foreign partners. They quickly ceded power to civilians, at least officially, but after a near-fatal attack on interim President Dioncounda Traore in March, the new government has been unable to impose its authority.
Meanwhile in the north, a loose alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters chased what remained of the Malian army from two-thirds of the national territory, but soon fell out and turned on each other. All this fighting has produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and has left well-armed Islamists in control of the major cities of the northern and eastern regions of this vast, arid country. Now the country faces a plague of locusts, which will add a biblical undertone to a crushing humanitarian crisis.
The meme of the month in diplomatic circles is that Mali is well on its way to becoming the next Afghanistan. Lately, the president of neighboring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, his Beninois counterpart Boni Yayi (who also chairs the AU), and other West African and foreign diplomats have echoed each other in playing the "Africanistan" card. But how well does that analogy actually hold up?
Drugs, guns, pseudo-Islamic vigilantism: It's true that all those ingredients are present in northern Mali, and that they make for a toxic mix. It's also true that there are direct links between northern Mali and Southwest Asia, albeit thin ones: Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag-Ghali, leader of the Ansar Dine group controlling Timbuktu, contracted his Salafism in the late 1990s, when Pakistani "missionaries" were regular visitors in northern Mali. It made him an exception then, even if his particular brand of Islamism has become more common in the years since. Still, Islam as practiced in northern and southern Mali alike mostly remains a deep-rooted, accommodating and tolerant tradition. And Tuaregs -- a minority in both north and south -- generally maintain more equitable gender relations than other groups in the region.