OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — The town of Bandiagara, population 12,000, sits on a plateau of smooth sandstone bluffs, grass, acacia, and palm trees that ends at an astonishing complex of cliffs so high and abrupt that any of them on a dusty day can surprise a traveler as if a piece of the globe has suddenly broken away. Bandiagara's dirt homes, shellacked with mud stucco, bear the red tinge of this land's iron-rich soil, farmed for centuries by the Dogon people and roamed by Fulani and Tuareg herders. Homes stand along wide dirt streets useful for driving cattle and sheep to market, and at dawn and dusk buildings glow under a dusty sun. A few miles east of town, the cliffs drop 1,600 feet, grooving sharply in and out of the plateau along a 100-mile front, running from the south to the northeast like the edge of a saw. For over a thousand years, the cliffs have been a natural hideaway for one tribe or another, most recently the Dogon, a few hundred of whom came here 700 years ago to flee the Mali Empire's embrace of Islam.
This history means more now that Bandiagara -- once popular with European and American trekkers -- is settling into a new role as border post and garrison town facing al Qaeda-affiliated jihadi groups spread across Mali's vast Saharan north. France and its allies, namely the United States, call northern Mali a jihadi "safe haven" that threatens the West. As a result, a U.N.-supported multinational African attack on northern Mali is moving closer to reality. U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly cited Mali in his October foreign-policy debate with President Barack Obama. But the jihadi takeover in the north, now six months old, carries a touch of bitter irony in Bandiagara as history's tide washes back across this town that 160 years ago was capital of the Toucouleur Empire. Founded by El Hadj Umar Tall and ruled by the code of sharia, a strict interpretation of Islam, he reportedly killed more than 100,000 people across inland West Africa during a reign that lasted more than four decades. French force of arms and tribal uprisings brought it down in 1893.
Yet Mali was not yet a campaign issue on May 8 when I drove into Bandiagara in late afternoon with Isaac Sagara, a Dogon friend who grew up in a Christian family in a village just below the plateau. Isaac was guiding me on a trip along the edge of Mali's northern zone, a strange new borderland that no one has quite figured out how to draw on a map. Some news agency maps show Mali cut in half along a razor-straight line that runs from west to east, while others show a wavier division, with the new border sloping off to the northeast roughly parallel to the Bandiagara cliffs. In any case, Mali, shaped like a top-heavy hourglass, is today divided at the narrow middle. Bandiagara sits square on the border between what remains of Mali's tattered government in the south and jihadi control in the north.
Isaac, at the wheel of our aging Land Cruiser, hummed and smacked his lips through a mouthful of mango. I think the tune was "Amazing Grace," but he lost the melody in the chewing. He liked "Rock of Ages" and French hymns that I didn't know, never breaking into words, just the outlines of song. He carried plastic bags of peanuts and dates in his pockets and put mangoes on the dashboard. He told stories about guiding tourists across the Dogon cliff country and about people he met in the international aid business, like the American Peace Corps volunteers in a Dogon village who obsessed about building a hot tub out of clay. Once, working a rural health project, he was stranded in a village cut off by monsoon rains during a cholera outbreak. "Terrible," he told me. "A dozen people died." Then he'd pluck a mango off the dashboard, bite into it, and peel back the skin with his teeth, all with one hand on the wheel and another hymn spraying from his lips.
I'd been in Bandiagara a dozen times over the past 25 years. Here and across Mali, soldiers have always kept a low profile, in my experience. My tensest encounter in this town had been to fend off a pesky cliff "guide" who kept shouting "hakuna matata," the Swahili words for "no problem" immortalized in Disney's The Lion King. Mali, even under the army dictatorship that endured nearly three decades until 1991, has never embraced military culture like other African countries. Mali's army, in the words of a Western diplomat I met in Bamako, the Malian capital, "was never a military of soldiers. Most are farmers putting in the time for a paycheck."
That army, stressed by the growing Tuareg rebellion in the north, took back control this year in a March coup, ending 21 years of democracy. Since the coup, however, the army, true to the diplomat's words, has ruled without the curfews and endless checkpoints that define other African military governments. In the streets of Bandiagara and Bamako, soldiers generally keep to themselves, though there is evidence that the army command structure is in decay. In October, on a remote road near the border with Mauritania, Malian soldiers shot to death 16 unarmed Muslim clerics traveling from Mauritania to Bamako for a conference. The attack was apparently unprovoked.
But in May, Bandiagara looked like a military camp, expecting an invasion at any moment. Isaac drove slowly across the town square, where an armored vehicle with a cannon and crew of soldiers occupied the concrete center island protected by sandbags. As we turned down another road, Isaac slowed the car and fixed his eyes on a large gun mounted in the back of a parked pickup truck. A soldier was standing behind the gun at the ready. "Now that is very serious," he said, shaking his head with a broad smile and both hands on the wheel. "We aren't used to seeing the army out in the open like this." His mood lightened as if the sight encouraged him. Later he said, "I can tell you that by December, Mali's nightmare will be over. Our soldiers will retake the north."
"Really?" I said, squinting, trying to keep the doubt out of my voice.
"I'm certain of it."
Isaac's hope for action is not baseless, though it likely won't happen in December. On Nov. 11, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States settled on a military plan to retake northern Mali with 3,300 soldiers, mainly from Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The plan awaits U.N. Security Council approval, which means action against the jihadists is a real possibility. The U.N. decision is still months away.
The French have committed aid similar to what they (with help from Britain and the United States) gave the rebels who killed Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi last year: arms and intelligence support, including surveillance drones. France, which once ruled 2 million square miles of West Africa, including Mali, helped end Qaddafi's rule, inadvertently releasing a flood of arms from his looted arsenals into the hands of hundreds of battle-hardened Malian Tuareg mercenaries he trained for his armies. In January, these men launched a war for an independent Saharan state they call Azawad, taking Mali's north and splitting the country in two. In March, riding the Tuareg wave, three jihadi groups -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa -- arrived in force. By June they'd chased the Tuareg nationalist rebellion underground and its leaders into exile. This is the situation Mali, including Bandiagara, face today.
For days I'd been gently pressing Isaac on what the jihadists in the north might mean for him and his parents, who lived in a village a few hours' drive east of Bandiagara, off the plateau. But he kept changing the subject. Now, as we drove through Bandiagara, where everywhere we were reminded of war, I decided to be blunt: "You know, they're talking about sharia law in Timbuktu and across the north," I said. "Doesn't that worry you?"
Isaac never got cross, but he looked at me as if I'd accused him of something. "Of course we're worried," he said.