This essay appears on the website of  The New York Times, December 11, 2012 

MALI faces a deep crisis that demands a political strategy toward a long-term settlement. What’s on offer today, namely sending a multinational force to reoccupy the Malian Sahara and fight terrorists, while negotiating deals with the cannier rebel leaders, promises only temporary respite. The reason: West Africa and the Sahara functions as political marketplace in which loyalties are for rent. Government leaders, rebels, drug traffickers and even terrorists, are all bargaining for profit and power.

Mali was a fragile democracy that imploded when Tuareg fighters, released from service in the Libyan Army after the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, returned home and overran the northern desert half of the country, declaring the independent state of Azawad. They were joined by sundry Islamists from across the continent, including cells of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, making this desert outpost a hub of regional jihadism and illegal trade, notably in drugs.

Meanwhile, humiliated Malian soldiers turned on their inept political masters and staged a coup. In response, the African Union, West African states, the United Nations and major Western countries put together a package under which the coup leaders stepped down, an interim government was installed with elections promised next year, and a multinational force known as the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, or Afisma, is being put together to reconquer the desert, restore Malian sovereignty and law and order, and — with U.S. and European help — fight the terrorists who threaten to create a safe haven for international jihadis.

Progress so far is slow but in the right direction. No one relished an attempt to reoccupy northern Mali by force of arms, knowing the hazards of fighting desert nomads on their own terrain and the political fallout of foreign troops occupying Muslim towns. But the threat of force seems to have yielded results, and an important piece fell into place earlier this month when one of the most powerful Tuarag rebel leaders, Iyad ag Ghali, who heads the Islamist group Ansar Dine, attended peace talks with the president of neighboring Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, and indicated he was ready to strike a deal. This holds out the hope that most Tuareg rebels will cooperate with Afisma to isolate and defeat Qaeda forces and return to business as usual in policing illegal desert trade.

At this point the story gets complicated. Mali’s problem won’t be solved by making deals with good guys and sending special forces to hunt the bad guys — because there are no good and bad guys, just buyers and sellers of expedient allegiances.

Iyad ag Ghali’s career could politely be called “checkered.” He has a habit of turning up where there is quick money to be made. He has deftly positioned himself as the most radical Islamist with whom it’s acceptable to deal.

President Compaoré is a master deal-maker: for 25 years his fingerprints have been all over West African rebellions and he has nimbly changed his colors from sponsor of war criminals to Paris’s indispensable gendarme. The Nigerians are also deal makers par excellence: their peacekeeping operations are as much business ventures as exercises in restoring law and order.

No doubt there is a hard core of international jihadis in the Sahara. But many players have an interest in exaggerating their threat. For rebels such as Iyad ag Ghali it gives more leverage at the bargaining table. For regional governments it is an easy way of getting the U.S. to pay attention — and pay dollars to train and equip their soldiers. Better still, the international community may finance their peacekeepers. For Algeria, which considers this stretch of the Sahara as its backyard, it’s a carte blanche for their security services to run their own show.

Powerbrokers across the region also have their interests in illicit international trade. Tasking troops from Burkina Faso and Nigeria to suppress lucrative drug trafficking is, to put it politely, the triumph of hope over experience.

African leaders are making an effort to keep Mali’s own needs — democratization and good governance — on the agenda. The African Union adopted a strategic plan to resolve the crises, which involved the interim government putting together a representative negotiating team. Unfortunately, Mali’s quarrelsome leaders couldn’t agree on the membership, and some of them whipped up popular sentiment against negotiating with rebels accused of extremism and human rights violations. While the Malians prevaricate, the pace is set by military planning and bargaining with enough of the rebels to isolate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb.

The African Union’s plan faces daunting obstacles. The politics of restoring democracy and governance to Mali require international consensus, patience and wide consultation among Malians. The Tuareg rebels have committed abuses, but there is a long and bitter record of marginalization and neglect of the nomads. Mali needs its version of a truth and reconciliation commission.

Successive Malian governments have centralized power — now it’s time to explore the options for devolving power to the provinces, north and south. Leaders on all sides have been deeply corrupt. It’s necessary for Europe and America to cut down the flows of illicit and unaccountable funds to rebels and government officials alike: corruption and crime fuel unscrupulous bazaar politics.

Outrage at the abuses perpetrated by the Islamist rebels should not provoke a moral panic in which we lose sight of what will deliver a solution. Malians need a consensual political formula for governing their diverse country, and for creating a system based on sustainable development and not a scramble for personal riches, licit and illicit. Only when such a political process is under way will military operations to reconquer the desert bring lasting benefit.

Politics first is the lesson from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism around the world: let’s learn it in good time this time.

Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.

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