Early Thursday morning, the Islamist rebels of northern Mali lost their grip on Kidal, the last major population center to hold out against French airstrikes and against Malian ground forces.
As the victorious national and international troops set about the work of securing Kidal, the men they had been fighting disappeared into the surrounding countryside, taking cover in smaller villages and in private homes. The reversal was not unexpected — things had been going badly for the rebels since their losses at Gao on January 26 and at Timbuktu on January 28 – but concern is now growing that it may not be permanent either.
The rebels in Mali do not fit neatly into the categories generally used to classify insurrectionist military forces. Their movement was small and decentralized – essentially a collection of militias – yet they succeeded, with help from Tuareg nationalists, in forcing the conventionally armed and equipped Malian Army out of a fairly large swathe of territory, and in establishing, within that territory, the rule of a very cruel kind of law. At times, the rebels seemed to act more like bandits or raiders than like fighters striving to achieve a concrete political vision. They are often compared to the Taliban, but they may be closer cousins to the smugglers’ networks that destabilized northern Sinai after the fall of the Mubarak government in Egypt: opportunistic and tactically flexible, shaped by the circumstances of their emergence as a movement at the edge of one of the world’s great ungoverned spaces.
The territory reclaimed by the Malian state in the past week was lost in the first place because it is inherently difficult to administer and control – the distances are large, the roads poor, the desert itself nearly impossible to police. If the rebels do manage to recover and regroup, it will most likely be in the desert that the reorganization will happen. If they, or their allies, succeed – in the aftermath of last week’s Algerian hostage drama — in planning another attack on foreign nationals or foreign interests, it will most likely be from the desert that the threat will emanate.
The endgame in Mali is, for the moment, somewhat unclear. French forces have said they plan to stay until the country’s “territorial integrity” has been restored; presumably, this means that they plan to assist the Malian government in reestablishing its control over all areas of the country still in rebellion. The task will be delicate, and it will have enormous regional implications. The Tuaregs, erstwhile allies of the Islamists, have fought against them in recent weeks and continue to demand that the Malian government recognize their own homeland in the north. As soon as such engagement is feasible, central government officials should meet with the nationalists, recognize their concerns, and consider the possibility of delegating some local powers to local Tuareg authorities. The military presence in reclaimed areas should be reduced to the lowest levels needed to protect citizens from criminal violence and from reprisal attacks.
The anti-militant coalition has won a decisive victory – but in order to consolidate its gains, it will now need to act with moderation, restraint, and humanity.