Last June following a short but bloody battle Islamic fighters ousted the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) from the city of Gao. After a hiatus of nearly five months, fighting has again erupted between the MNLA and fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). On Friday, amid conflicting reports, there was fighting near Mali's border with Niger and Burkina Faso and more skirmishes took place on Monday. The MNLA claimed to have launched an offensive aimed at regaining the Gao region whilst the MUJWA have said that they have attacked the MNLA and have taken control of the town of Menaka. Whilst the situation is currently unclear, even if MNLA forces suffered heavier losses than the MUJWA the fact that they have been engaged in fighting with the Islamists adds a new dimension to the complex conflict in northern Mali.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal argues that the fact Islamist extremists in northern Mali do not enjoy the support of the local population, combined with the area's flat desert landscape, "suggest that an aggressive Pakistan-style drone campaign can have results." With the French reported to be moving surveillance drones into the region, an intensive drone campaign supporting a relatively small number of ground troops may seem an attractive option for the intervention forces. But the reality is unlikely to be quite so simple.
Aerial reconnaissance and targeted drone strikes might have been effective a year ago when Islamist fighters were holed up in the desert or camped in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. But now they have moved into the villages, towns and cities across their region. And their number has reportedly been swelled due to the arrival of foreign fighters, recruitment of economically impoverished locals and the forced recruitment of children.
"Every day they are picking up 10- and 11-year-old children," a resident of Timbuktu who wished to remain anonymous told a source over the phone last week. While it is true that the local population has little sympathy for the Islamist militants and are keen to be rid of them, they will not welcome military intervention which could destroy their homes and kill their children.
On November 11, an emergency summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met in Abuja and agreed to send around 3,000 troops to Mali. With ECOWAS, the African Union and other partner countries finalising their plans for military action to be approved by the UN Security Council later this month, one might expect an increasing number of Malians to join the exodus that has seen over 300,000 flee to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. But while some locals are still leaving, reports suggest that others are returning home.
Time magazine recently reported that "buses to the north are now packed, filled with refugees no longer willing to wait out the now quiet conflict far from home." Speaking from Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, one refugee told me through a source that poor conditions had persuaded 30 people to return to his village of Tin-Gnéré near Timbuktu. "Others will follow," he said.
Once approved by the United Nations, military action could begin immediately, although mobilization is unlikely to be ready before early 2013. In the meantime, the militants will have time to strengthen and consolidate their positions both in the desert and in towns where they have been quick to set up semi-functioning forms of administration and service provision.
Aware that they would be vulnerable to drone and aircraft attack in the open desert, the militias are likely to try to stay in the cities, towns and villages, dispersing their fighters, heavy weapons and ammunition stockpiles in anticipation of air strikes and even planting anti-personnel mines.
Such an enemy will present a challenge for the military force tasked with routing them from the region. The force is expected to consist of ECOWAS and Malian soldiers, few of whom have experience of desert fighting. Serious questions have been raised over the capacity and discipline of the Nigerian army, who will form the backbone of the 3,300-strong ECOWAS fighting force. These concerns were heightened this week when Reuters obtained a video which apparently shows a Nigerian solider shooting unarmed captives belonging to the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram. Meanwhile the weaknesses of the Malian army were sorely exposed by the uprising in the north and the coup in Bamako last March. The arms embargo imposed by ECOWAS on Mali since the coup has weakened the demoralized Malian army still further.
Whilst equipment, intelligence, training and support from American, British and French special forces will add steel to the operation, it will nevertheless involve difficult desert fighting conditions against a well-armed enemy capable of defending cities and launching counter attacks from the desert.
Having said this, much remains unknown about the militant groups controlling the north and how they interact with one another. Estimates of the size and commitment of their forces vary greatly. Whilst many of the foot soldiers are opportunists, drug smugglers, gun runners and paid conscripts who might melt into the desert in the face of battle, there are also ideologically committed jihadists who could fight to the death. Some analysts even predict Western military involvement in Mali could inadvertently act as a catalyst for other militant groups in the region.
Despite news last week that one militia group, Ansar Dine, was committed to peace following talks in Burkina Faso, hopes for a negotiated settlement to the current crisis remain slim. Some sources have recently reported that Ansar Dine's leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, declared sharia law in the north to be non-negotiable.
It is unlikely that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) will have any interest in taking part in negotiations. Some form of military intervention therefore seems inevitable, as does an increase in suffering for the people of northern Mali.
Centuries ago when Europe was a place of poverty and pestilence and America was a land of tee-pees, the Malian Empire was a place of unparalleled wealth and culture. Its cities were home to impressive mosques and palaces and Timbuktu's university attracted 25,000 students and boasted one of the world's great libraries.
For the people of northern Mali, facing the brutal imposition of sharia law whilst listening for the sound of drones, this golden age must seem more distant than ever. "The people are like straw on which elephants are fighting," Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, president of the Malian human rights organisation TEMEDT, told me. "They have nothing but their eyes to cry with."
An earlier version of this article was first published by Think Africa Press.