It looks like a Taliban war scenario is taking shape in northern Mali. The armed groups that seemed to melt away in the mirages of the Great Sahara as soon as the French aircrafts began to bomb, are now coming back with a vengeance.
Clashes in Timbuktu have been raging for two days. A number of Malian soldiers have been killed or wounded. The armed group that staged the attack has not yet named itself.
In the Kidal medical center injured fighters both from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, and from one if the jihadist groups are lying in empty wards. The center has no doctors and no medicines.
The French and Chadian troops are patrolling the streets of a city where people barely have to eat.
The Tuareg rebels are also sharing control of the city. There's an air of tension, apprehension and total uncertainty.
Kidal is closer to the mountains of Tighargharin from which the foreign armies claim to have just flushed out the jihadists. But if those groups can reach Timbuktu so easily then they can reach Kidal.
The locals have lots of questions about what's really going on. The French not only have started to talk about withdrawal, but they have also already acted it on the ground. They're starting to keep a low profile as more African troops arrive.
From the height of activity just a month ago, when their military aircraft crisscrossed the blue desert skies of Azawad almost every hour, they are now a rare occurrence at least in this part of the region.
The French defense ministry announced that four fighter jets flew over Timbuktu during the peak of the ongoing clashes. But they have not conducted any raids.
Cost of War
Speculations abound on what the French are doing, or not doing.
Is it the cost of war taking its toll? Or is it psychological preparation for an inevitable pullout, especially as summer heat begins to reach intolerable highs?
As this situation develops, the Afrcian partners in the war have much to be concerned about as well. The UN pledged to take over the leadership of the the mission.
The question now is whether this will be a peacekeeping mission or a peace enforcement one. Will the mission have enough equipment and men to do the job? Will there continue to be an air cover to support ground forces to defend cities and bases?
If the French will pull out the bulk of their troops, and if they fail to provide air support, the likeliest probability is a scenario ten times worse that that we have seen in Afganistan during the last ten years.
Armed groups in northern Mali obviously sustained far less loss of men and equipment during the French led invasion than had the Taliban during the US occupation of Afghanistan in 2002.
These groups have seemingly just been reorganising themselves. They have not been simply crushed or dissolved as the official French line tends to depict the situation.
Mali's army is still weak and under-equipped despite months of training. The African armies do not seem to be acting with full coordination.
Meanwhile, the French seem to be unwilling to see the Tuareg rebels completely driven out of the area. The Tuareg rebels and the Malian army are both fighting the jihadist groups, but they are indeed estranged partners ready to shoot at one another upon sight.
The Tuareg rebels share control over Kidal with the French and the Chadians. And they also rule over vast swathes of territory stretching from Kidal to the border with Niger to the south east.
The north is a chessboard of armies and rebels. But it's not an organised game like chess. The rules of the game here vary from one group to another. And the results seem to challenge prediction.