France’s Next Move: With Mali’s Islamists on the Run, Time to Talk to the Tuaregs

With France preparing to hand its anti-Islamist intervention in Mali to forces from neighboring states, Paris now encourages Malian leaders to negotiate with Tuareg rebels who teamed up with Islamists to dominate the north.

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JOE PENNEY / Reuters

Boys cross the street in the recently liberated town of Douentza, Mali, Jan. 29, 2013.

The surprisingly rapid advance  of France’s military offensive in Mali has freed all the major towns that had been under Islamist control, and driven al-Qaeda-linked militias back into the desert and mountainous regions in the north. Indeed, France’s intervention to halt extremist militias threatening to storm the entire country has been so successful that French President François Hollande announced a Feb. 2 visit to Mali’s capital Bamako—scarcely three weeks after the anti-Islamist operation began Jan. 11.

When Hollande huddles with Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traoré he is expected to discuss French plans to let troops from neighboring African states take over policing operations of the country with a re-constituted and –trained Malian army, as well as related security, development, and humanitarian concerns. But within that conversation, Hollande is also likely to push a particularly prickly issue with Bamako: reaching out to ethnic Tuareg rebels who joined forces with jihadi militias to declare the independence of northern Mali last year. Though long hostile to allied Islamist groups across the Sahel region, Tuareg nationalists have struggled for decades for more freedom and autonomy. Boosted by an influx of weapons from the looted arsenals of slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, they accepted the help of Islamist militias when wresting control of half of Mali last year—only to then see the radicals unilaterally impose their own brand of brutal Sharia rule over stretches of the breakaway region. But with those extremists now scattered and in retreat, calls are now arising for the central government and Tuareg leaders to link up against the common jihadi foe.

(MORE: Mali’s War: After Surging Into the Islamist-Held North, Will France Retreat?)

“We understand the resistance in Bamako to dealing with Tuareg forces that participated in the recent southern offensive, but the long-term stability of Mali relies on the central government and the Tuaregs negotiating and coming to certain agreements,” says a French government official who declines to be quoted by name. “The Tuaregs made a terrible decision in banding with the Islamists, and Malian anger over the consequences is understandable. But our view is all Tuareg leaders who renounce violence and accept the territorial integrity of Mali should be considered legitimate interlocutors in the political rebuilding process.”

That thinking may take some time to sell—particularly among southern Malians resentful of the Tuaregs separatist insurgency that enabled the Islamists’ rise in the power gap that followed a March 2012 military coup in Bamako. Now, there are already accusations of summary executions and rights violations by Malian forces during France’s anti-Islamist counter-offensive. Following the liberation of northern cities like Gao and Timbuktu, meanwhile, reports circulated that armed forces and locals had begun attacking other residents suspected of having supported or prospered under Islamist rule. As a result, once French forces freed the Tuareg-held town of Kidal Wednesday, military officials called in support of 1,400 Chadian troops—not Malian soldiers—to police the areato avert any vengeance killing.

(MORE: The Crisis in Mali: Will French Air Strikes Stop the Islamist Advance?)

That precautionary move is doubly significant in Kidal, given the complex Tuareg situation there. The Islamist group Ansar Dine had claimed to control Kidal—though there were no signs of any Islamist fighters when the French arrived there. The previous week, meantime, an influential Ansar Dine leader, Alghabass Ag Intalla, announced he’d bolted the al Qaeda-allied group to found the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA)—a nationalist Tuareg force renouncing “extremism and terrorism.” Shortly after, the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) offered to assist French troops continue the battle against jihadi militias.

Both the IMA and MNLA also say they’re ready to partake in talks towards a north-south political settlement capable of restoring peace and stability to Mali. Traoré and other central Malian leaders say they may accept negotiating with the MNLA, but have ruled out any cooperation with the IMA and any other Tuareg with past or present ties to extremists. That’s a position Paris is hoping to shift.

“We’re urging that all legitimate representatives from the north—Tuareg, Islamic, or otherwise–who want the peaceful reconciliation of Mali within existing borders to be invited into the process of national reconciliation,” the French official says. “But we are not actors in that process, and we can impose nothing in it. At the same time, we’re reminding everyone that finding durable, solid political accords to rebuild Mali will require support in north and south alike.”

(MORE: Algeria’s Hostage Crisis: What Was Behind a Shadowy Militant Leader’s Plot?)

French officials say those concerns will be addressed during Hollande’s visit—a trip that will also involve him thanking French and Malian troops for their efforts. Hollande will also discuss speeding up plans to hand over France’s anti-Islamist heavy lifting in Mali to the 5,000 to 8,000 African troops expected to protect the country. That force, French authorities now say, may be bolstered by the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers if international agreement can be reached.

There are doubts about how efficient a West African regional force will be on its own. There also fears over how rapidly European military trainers can whip enough new Malian recruits into shape to allow Bamako to safeguard its own borders. Despite the recent counter-offensive, French security officials say the Islamist threat has simply adapted to pressure, and will continue to look for new opportunities.

(PHOTOS: War in Mali: France and African Allies Take on Islamist Militants)

“For years, we worried about what might happen if the Tuaregs one day dropped their aversion to the Islamist groups and accepted all the money and guns offered to formed an allied force,” says a senior French anti-terrorism official whose sensitive work doesn’t allow him to be identified. “Now we know what happened, which explains the current operation to drive jihadists out of Mali and deprive them the same kind of terror planning haven al-Qaeda had in Afghanistan. But as we’ve seen elsewhere, they’ll respond to losing one theater of action by finding other places to keep waging their jihad. This will be a long eradication process, and we’ll be better having the Tuaregs on our side or in a neutral corner within it.”

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