U.N. Patrols Timbuktu Deserts In Hopes Of Keeping Al Qaeda At Bay

United Nations (UN) soldiers patrol on July 27, 2013 in the northern Malian city of Kidal. Clashes between Tuaregs and black
United Nations (UN) soldiers patrol on July 27, 2013 in the northern Malian city of Kidal. Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans a week ago left four people dead while five polling officials were kidnapped in Tessalit, 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Kidal, by gunmen thought to be from the MNLA. Millions of Malians are expected to vote Sunday in 'imperfect' elections they hope will usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in a country torn apart by an 18-month political crisis and armed conflict. Voters will have a choice of 27 candidates as they go to the polls for the first time since a separatist uprising led to a coup and then a sweeping Islamist offensive last year which upended one of the region's most stable democracies. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

TIMBUKTU, Mali -- The convoy drifted north along the one paved road in town before making a sharp left, past the unfinished Gaddafi-era hotel and the alleys strewn with plastic refuse, before emerging suddenly into the open, barren desert.

End to end, the caravan stretched nearly a kilometer, 18 vehicles in all, a jarring mishmash of Malian army foot soldiers, infantrymen from Burkina Faso and -- in large armored personnel carriers at the rear -- a coterie of French commandos. A pair of French fighter jets circled noisily overhead.

This was a patrol of the United Nations' peacekeeping force in Timbuktu, part of a countrywide international presence known, in classic U.N. jargon, as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or Munisma. Conducted together with troops from the dwindling French mission, Operation Serval, which nine months ago chased a ragtag gang of militant rebels and jihadists out of the major cities of northern Mali, patrols like this one now take place just about every day across the north.

The goal, officials and soldiers say, is to root out signs of jihadist activity in the desert and offer a reminder of the presence of international forces, with the hope of one day providing enough security for residents, tourists and jobs to return. The reality, as always, is often bumpier.

At this very moment, in fact, the reality was caught in the sand. After passing the Malian army checkpoint at the western entrance to town, the convoy had trucked for a few minutes along a corrugated red clay road, then veered off into the soft sand of Timbuktu's expansive desert, where one of the Malian jeeps quickly got stuck in the ground.

"This happens sometimes," an officer with the international forces, who could not be identified by name or nationality per U.N. rules, said with a shrug as he and his troops got out of their car and took up defensive positions.

The officer didn't seem particularly concerned about security. The jihadists who seized Timbuktu last April, ruling the city with an iron grip, had not gone far -- this much everyone knew. (One week earlier, militants had attacked a Malian army base in central Timbuktu, wounding several soldiers.) But along these particular roads, international and Malian troops have been a regular presence, and security is considered strong. "This is our second time driving out here this week," the officer said. "It's not a really insecure area."

U.N. officials hope the peacekeeping mission in Mali can accomplish what international interventions in other places, like Afghanistan and Somalia, have struggled with: securing peace by fending off whatever militants remain, and winning over the support of the general population, some of whom may resent the international presence.

So far, Mali presents several hopeful differences: The French intervention in the country was roundly welcomed by the vast majority of the population, and it remains popular; the general public in the north largely views the jihadists -- not the peacekeepers -- as occupiers and interlopers; and there are few other international entities running high-stakes counterterrorism operations that risk killing civilians, and alienating the people -- as in Afghanistan.

But there are obstacles, too, some of which became clear as the Malian vehicle was finally pulled free from the desert's grip and the convoy made its way to its ultimate destination, a tiny Tuareg village called Teshak, just seven or eight kilometers from Timbuktu.

Here, perhaps a dozen people remained in mud-and-thatch huts on an endless beach. The sun beat down mercilessly. The one-room schoolhouse was shuttered, and the nearest place to get potable water was nearly a kilometer away; lack of water had driven many of the villagers out. A garden that once was fed by a well had dried up and was overtaken by sand. Many of Teshak's residents were herdsmen by trade, but they recently told reporters that over the past couple of years they had been forced to eat their livestock -- and were now out of both food and business.

The U.N. officer wanted to check on the women and children, and he asked an urbane, English-speaking village elder named Abba Ag Alhassane, who had come out to meet the convoy, to show him the way. But first, Alhassane wanted the troops to see the remnants of a metal lodge that had once made his village a popular stop for Western ecotourists. The skeletal remains of the structure were all that was left of a once-thriving industry.

"We used to have more than 500 tourists a year come out here," Alhassane said, as he glanced at an incoming call on his Nokia mobile phone. "Now there's no one. We're really struggling."

The international officer, a youthful, upbeat soldier with experience in peacekeeping missions in some of the worst trouble spots in the world, remained serene. He'd seen worse. Still, as the troops moved across the village, he briefly pulled Alhassane aside for a private conversation, urging him to keep an eye out for militants, and handing him his phone number on a sheet of lined notebook paper.

The question of whether the villagers would really rush to call the international forces if they saw a jihadist -- or, more likely, a black-market trader in cahoots with the rebels -- hung uncomfortably in the air. So did a foreboding sense that the international troops could do little to immediately help the villagers out of their more pressing state of hunger and basic need. As the group prepared to leave, one of the villagers refused to shake hands with a reporter.

"I think they'll call," one of the international soldiers said. "They're already in touch with the Malian forces."

As for spotting the enemy, there was little chance of doing that, the soldier conceded. "When we come, they go away," he said. "When we leave, they come back."