The town of Kidal, about 200 miles north of Gao, the big hub on the Niger River in eastern Mali, is hot and dry, and its police and electricity function erratically. The town, whose population is about 25,000, fell under the control of forces hostile to Mali’s central government in Bamako, which is 950 miles to the south and east, in April 2012. The rebel forces are composed of young men with little experience outside desert warfare and banditry, and their use of government offices appears to have been more a matter of personal convenience than administrative continuity.

The 2012 war was launched by Tuareg tribesmen, who claim a large swath of Mali north of the Niger, which they consider their historic homeland, the Azawad, with Kidal as its capital. Following a lightning campaign in which they drove out the ill-trained and poorly supplied Malian garrisons in the north, they lost control of Kidal and the other population centers they had seized (or, in their view, liberated) in January and February to al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who entered the fray. However, after imposing sharia in such historic cities as Timbuktu and Gao, the jihadists, whose leader is a veteran of Mali’s Tuareg revolts named Iyag Ag Ghali, crossed the Niger in January of this year, proclaiming their intention to seize Bamako and establish a West African caliphate.

French forces airlifted in the nick of time from bases in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso stopped the jihad on the river and in a two-month campaign defeated the rebel forces. The secularist factions among the rebels, organized as the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), reentered Kidal. The French troops advised the Malians marching in their rear to stay out of Kidal until terms could be reached with the MNLA. This was achieved late this June under the auspices of Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore.

The Ouagadougou Accords, as the agreement is called, have two key features aimed at restoring peace and harmony and thwarting the advance of the jihad into black Africa. They depend on the completion of a cycle of elections, beginning on July 28 with a presidential election originally scheduled for last year but postponed because of war and unrest, including a coup d’état. The “international community,” which in this case means Mali’s West African neighbors, France, and the United States, has been unanimous in insisting on restoring democracy, such as it is practiced in Mali.

The first key provision of the accords is that the country’s territorial integrity is not up for grabs, and the second is that negotiations between the government in Bamako and the MNLA should take place as quickly as possible to redesign the governance of the north. This could move Mali toward a federal system that would satisfy many of the northern tribes that have felt neglected or oppressed by the southerners since independence in 1960. Or it could simply buy both sides time that they would use to prepare for still another round of fighting.

The drama of a jihadist invasion of black Africa has been considerable and ominous; the human tragedy in Mali has been enormous, even by African standards. The famous arc of crisis has, in effect, descended several parallels southward: Mali has been the main stage, though by no means the only one, of a vast front in the war of civilizations, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Notwithstanding the success of French and Chadian arms in the first half of 2013 with the discreet support of the United States, the years ahead are fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Is there a lesson in the past two years of Mali mischief for American policymakers? Observers in France and Mali note that U.S. policy has worked toward the restoration of the status quo ante, while advancing its long-term military containment strategy in Africa.

Washington cut off most aid, as U.S. law requires, following the March 2012 coup d’état against President Amadou Tamani Touré by young army officers (American-trained but apparently inattentive to the civics lessons), who accused him of corruption to the point of enabling the northern insurgency. They argued that the once-popular, consensual president had subverted the country through mismanagement and collusion with the Tuareg gangs that had turned the north into a lawless and lucrative zone of drug-smuggling and hostage-taking and finally jihadist insurgency.

President Touré always was a U.S. favorite, but as a practical matter the Americans have stayed out of post-Touré Malian politics, except to periodically state our commitment to democracy. Whether this dogma, with its concomitant enthusiasm for elections, indicates the triumph of hope over experience or a cynical cover for a fundamental contempt for the Malians is probably a fair question, but also a largely irrelevant one in the short term, given the ascendancy of the military side of our policy.

The Ouagadougou Accords, at least until they break down, give France the opportunity to withdraw most of the 4,000 troops engaged in Operation Serval, entrusting security in the north to a multinational force, mainly African but with some contingents from elsewhere (including China, which reportedly is deploying a brigade of 500 or more elite commandos). The French assert, however, that they must maintain forces in Mali to pursue the al Qaeda networks in the region. The United States has supported their position, most significantly by helping them maintain and upgrade the airstrip at Tessalit, some 300 miles north of Kidal.

From the perspective of a military strategist, Tessalit and Kidal, upon which Tessalit depends for economic sustenance, were the real objectives of the 2012 war. Control of Tessalit is needed to command the airspace over the Sahara; other possible airbases, notably in Algeria, are not available. Kidal, in turn, is the historic capital of the Azawad, the Tuareg center. Control of Kidal is needed to assert political and military authority in the Sahel, and certainly to help maintain security from Mauritania to Chad, passing by Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

It is not surprising that the battles for these towns were the most fiercely fought of the 2012 war. American military observers were well aware of the strategic stakes and attempted to resupply the Malian garrison in Tessalit from the air. And therefore it is not surprising, either, that the peace negotiations in Ouagadougou got stuck on the question of who would control Kidal.

In an effort to mediate between avowedly secularist, pro-West Tuareg and the Bambara-led Malians of the south, the French have tried to maintain a standoff between the lighter-skinned MNLA forces in Kidal and the Malian forces who followed French and Chadian troops north. The peace deal requires the MNLA to disarm, but it has cached most of its weapons. The city has been jumpy, with clashes between MNLA men and southern officials and troops. Both sides control certain neighborhoods and nominally agree to let the electoral process, followed by inter-communal negotiations, determine the future status of the area. The unstated axiom, however, is clear to all: Under no circumstances can any faction or tribal group control Kidal and Tessalit that is hostile to French (and American) airpower, for upon it depends the security of the Sahel.

To the extent American policy maintains a low profile in Mali while holding on to a big stick—beginning with the upgrading of airpower in the region—we will arguably have demonstrated that the better part of wisdom in Africa is patience. Assuring the security of Tessalit, in coordination with French forces (to whom we are selling drones, presumably for surveillance over the Sahara), is a necessary preliminary to the political task of finding out with whom we need to work in the region.

It may well be necessary, over time, not only to keep the jihadists out of Mali and environs, but also to keep the Malians from overdoing their internal quarrels. It seems possible Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a popular former Touré prime minister with a following in the south and support among Tuareg notables in the north (who distanced themselves from the rebels during the fighting), will emerge as a consensus candidate in the July 28 presidential election from among the score on the ballot; but it may be useful to ask whether Mali is viable as presently constituted. With the northern and southern factions, and the factions within these, mutually accusing one another of banditry, war crimes, and massive human rights violations, it is quite possible that the jihad, while a complicating factor and an immediate security threat, is not the leading cause of unrest in Mali and other countries in the Sahel.

In a good world, the ancient communal hatreds, the contempt of “whites” for “blacks” and vice versa, would gradually work themselves out through the practice of liberal democracy. But in the world as we know it, other ways may be needed to attain the basic level of security essential for economic and social progress. There is no reason not to include, among these other ways, the possibility that the dogma of territorial integrity prized by African states could be open to a discussion leading toward, not balkanization and tribal war, but supple forms of federal governance.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.

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