Bamako airport (Photo by @glennagordon for

Bamako doesn’t feel like the capital of a country at war. True, people are stressed, and the pace of life might have slowed. The city’s building frenzy has subsided. Ça va pas, but things are calm, even if late in March, far from cool. In the distant North, a fifth French soldier died over the weekend, and my tantie, a venerable hajja, cried for him. While the government here expresses its gratitude for French sacrifices — and its citizens their shame at having others fight for them — it refuses to say how many of its own soldiers have died in the most recent fighting, which is led mostly by French and Chadian troops. The press here gives the impression that the army’s battles remain first and foremost political and inwardly directed. Meanwhile, more than two months after French helicopters attacked jihadi Salafist fighters on the road to Sevare, more than one war is being fought in the distant Malian Sahara. 

Necessary as it was, France’s intervention never offered a real solution to any of Mali’s problems. It did, however, create a preferable set of problems to the ones this country would otherwise have faced. The arrival of French troops both stopped the advance of a coalition of mujahideen on the vital town of Sevare and quashed what looked to be the imminent threat of another coup d’état by Mali’s still powerful junta against the interim civilian government it was forced to accept — however partially — last April. How dire would the situation have been if the army had come back to power, if Sevare had fallen to the Salafists, or both? Or worse? Some say that Bamako was the real aim of the offensive, although this seems unlikely to me and there’s no real evidence for it. Whatever the case may be, for an exceptional moment in January, French and Malian interests converged, and the enduring popular support for the intervention suggests that many people here agree with that assessment.

The two governments had shared enemies and — at least in the short-term — shared interests. They fought an alliance of jihadi Salafist fighters made up of AQMI, MUJAO, Ansar Dine… For reasons internal and external, Mali’s army could not face them alone, in spite of a common and comforting fairytale claiming that it could. But if they shared enemies, the two countries did not share the same objectives, much less the same war. The question in the wake of French advances is how dramatically those objectives will diverge.

They have already begun to do so, in spite of the best efforts of Paris and Bamako to harmonize their discourse, if not their actions. The clearest evidence of this divergence is the ongoing, ambivalent relationship of French forces to the Tuareg separatist movement, the MNLA, which continues to control the important northern town of Kidal and to insist that the Malian army has no place there. Civilians in Kidal — the largest predominantly Tuareg town in Mali — fear reprisals if the army returns, and quite understandably so. It’s not clear that anyone controls the Malian army as a whole — even if different officers clearly have a handle on part of it — and its soldiers have targeted Tuareg and Arab civilians in both the distant and the very recent past. Knowing that history well, many people in the North feel that the French army is their best protection (many in the South feel the same way, albeit for different reasons). Just as France wants to use the MNLA, the MNLA wants to use France. Having failed to persuade France to consider it as a proxy army, for the moment the MNLA has come out rather well from the French intervention, which elevated the movement from defeat to relevance and positioned it to absorb many of the fighters abandoning Ansar Dine. All this jibes badly with the shared commitment to Mali’s ‘territorial integrity’ proclaimed in Paris and Bamako. Put differently, the essential challenge to Malian sovereignty posed by the French intervention might not be the fact that it happened, but the specific form it takes in Kidal and its broader region, where the thorny question of proper governance has to be seized, and if possible resolved.

So if French and Malian interests have begun to diverge, the question is how greatly and for how long they will do so. The answer to those questions depends on another, deceptively simple one: How many wars are being fought in the Sahara?

Mali’s war seeks to restore the power of the central state and its core traits of secularism (laicité) and territorial integrity, both of which remain live and nonconsensual issues. This war is far from over. Not too long ago — but before the fifth French death — Prime Minister Django Cissoko argued that, militarily, “the hardest part is behind us” and that the “essential (most vital part) has been done”. Never mind the desire to put on a brave face, this was a shameful thing for the Prime Minister of a country ‘liberated’ by foreign forces to say. No truce or cease fire has been established, and some 400,000 of his fellow citizens have been chased from their homes. They have only begun to return. Vast swathes of the North, including Kidal, remain outside government control, as do factions within the army. The government itself is long past the expiration of its short-term legitimacy, but elections promised for July threaten to be too much too soon. Clearly “the essential” has not been done, whether in the North or in the South.

Launched in haste but persecuted effectively, the French war is not the Malian war; it merely envelopes one conflict inside another. As West African forces arrive, a European Union training mission finds its feet, and the UN tries to work out how to be legitimate without being responsible, French departure might become possible. Yet the central fact remains that no one wants to own or to pay for what has become France’s problem.

Although French President François Hollande claims that France forces will draw down soon, he is being willfully optimistic. Much remains to be done. If hostages provided one motivation for France to intervene, more have since been taken; if territorial integrity was the aim, it remains undetermined; if it was to ‘end’ terrorism, the jihadi Salafists targeted by that phrase have yet to be caught (reports of recent deaths of leaders remain unconfirmed), and, according to the French Minister of the Interior, more have been recruited; if it was to secure future access to uranium, it was a bad bet, they are in the wrong place, and they ought to know that the peaceful model is likely to be more effective, as Niger’s recent if delicate experiences suggest.

Third, there is the war of the mujahideen. In spite of heavy losses in their ranks, the war itself is not yet lost. AQMI, at least, has claimed to want a long one, and for years has broadcast its to draw France in particular into a Saharan war. It is too soon to tell whether or not, having got what they wanted, the mujahideen — especially their new recruits — have changed their minds. But the current moment might be only the end of the beginning, and too tight a focus on this ‘big’ war only obscures the smaller, more essential conflicts that enable it.

The most important of these is the war launched by the MNLA in January 2012, the one which sparked the others, and which still rattles around within the shells meant to contain it. The Tuareg separatists claimed to have won it in April, lost it to their erstwhile allies amongst the mujahideen in June and July, and must now be hoping that France might win it for them after all. They have more reason to be optimistic than does François Hollande, who commands the troops without controlling the situation. His Minister of Defense Jean-Yves leDrian has lately been arguing that before being deployed to Kidal, Mali’s army must be restructured, retrained, and submitted to civilian authority. Moreover, by his reckoning, disarmement of the MNLA would only be appropriate after a process of national dialogue and reconciliation has taken place. All that would take months, if not years, and would give local diehards every reason to promote instability. Whatever scenario le Drian has in mind, the French Minister of Defense seems to be coming awfully close to laying down the limits of his weaker partner’s sovereignty. It is up to President Traore and Prime Minister Cissoko to set some boundaries of their own, a fact that once again brings the Mali crisis back to the need for the government at Kuluba to establish control over the garrison at Kati.

Finally, both France and Mali both claim to be fighting a war against terrorism. Here again, they speak the same language but mean different things. France means the hostage takers who target their citizens for ransom and threaten worse. For many Malians, the term ‘terrorist’ refers to the MNLA. When national television proclaims that the country is fighting a war against terrorism, they think of the war that began in January 2012, not the conflict with AQIM and its allies, which ex-President ATT once dismissed as “other peoples’ wars.”

None of this is very pretty, but two facts emerge from it. First, the French might be only ones who want France to leave Mali any time soon. Almost every other actor would seem to have a vested interest in having them stick around for a while. That fact in and of itself might provoke future violence. The second, more important, point, is this: France can make war in Mali; it has done so in more ways than one, and (counting Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency) more than once. But France can not make the peace. That will be up to the better angels of people in Kuluba, Kati, Kidal, and beyond. While waiting for those angels to appear, it is looking ever more likely that France will claim to win its war while Mali fails to win its own.