The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) are reported to have wrenched control of Kidal back from the Touareg-led Islamist militia Ansar Dine. They also claim to control a number of other strategic towns in northern Mali, including Tessalit and Leré. That's quite a turn-around for the avowedly secular Touareg nationalist movement who were ousted from the region last June by the Islamist coalition after a bloody gun fight in the city of Gao. Most people thought they were a busted flush, outgunned and outmanoeuvered by better funded, better armed and better disciplined Islamist troops. Not so, it seems.
Although they're now firmly entrenched in Kidal, the MNLA still fear reprisals from the remnants of the three Islamist groups - AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine - who have held Northern Mali in their puritanical grasp since last April. Mujahedeen who have been fleeing as the main northern cities - Douentza, Gao and Timbuktu - have fallen like nine-pins to the advance of French and Malian forces, are said to be regrouping in the remote Tegharghar mountains north of Kidal. But I doubt they're planning a counter attack on the town, which has been at the epicentre of all the Touareg uprisings in northern Mali since 1962. The Islamists coalition, or what's left of it, has already switched from occupation to insurgency mode. Holding cities is no longer part of their strategy.
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Somehow, the MNLA has found the finance and backing to take Kidal, from where they will try to negotiate a settlement, even some kind of collaborative partnership with the French in a desperate attempt to avoid their town being handed back to the Malian army and placed under a martial law far worse than the one imposed on it between 1964 and 1990. Either that or Alghabass Ag Intallah, the heir to the chiefdom of the local Ifoghas "nobility" and leader of the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), has decided to let the MNLA back into Kidal because they see a deal with the nationalists as the best way of saving their own skins and avoiding execution/arrest/the ICC as well as the terrible vengeance of the Malian army. Yesterday's demonstration in the town in favour of the MNLA and against Malian army occupation, with all the summary brutality against Touareg and Arabs that the local population fear it will bring, is clear proof that the secular nationalists are on the rise again and the Islamists are on the run.
The MNLA will use their hold on Kidal to strengthen the case that they have been putting to France and the international community since last autumn, namely that they should be accepted as natural partners in the continued struggle to rid northern Mali of violent Salafi extremism and foreign jihadists, a struggle which is likely to last months if not years. An alliance between France and the MNLA will no doubt be entirely unacceptable to the Malian government and most of the Malian people. However, France and the US might decide to make use of their accumulated kudos and leverage to impose such a solution on Mali, whilst forcing the MNLA to accept autonomy rather than independence. After all, in present circumstances, France can pretty much dictate their terms in Bamako.
What's certain is the Malian army is entirely incapable of pursuing the fight against a protracted Islamist guerrilla insurgency in the north on their own, or indeed, with the help of ECOWAS forces. So unless France fancies the prospect of leaving its soldiers, tanks and MIGs up in Northern Mali for years to come - a most unappealing prospect no doubt - they'll need to build coalitions with other local anti-Islamist groups who have at least some chance of ridding northern Mali of Islamist violence. Who could those groups be? The MNLA? The MIA? The Chadian army? Algeria? Local ethnic militias lead by tainted strong men like Alhaji Ag Gamou or Abderrahmane Ould Meydou? From France and Mali's point of the view, the list of candidates is unappetising to say the least.
Conflict resolution in Mali
Whatever the scenario, the Rubik's cube like complexity of Mali's problems, especially in the north, presents one of the greatest conflict resolution challenges in recent African history. Success relies on solving a short list of problems, each of which look like a challenge fit for gods rather than mere mortals.
First, Captain Sanogo and his fellow putchistas in Bamako must be thrown out (preferably straight into jail) and full control of the country must be handed back to an interim government with some kind of legitimacy. All the ethnic communities in the north must be represented in that government of transition and the army must be placed firmly under its control.
Then the north must be stabilised and secured. As I've already said, this cannot be done by the Malian army and ECOWAS forces alone. Other partners will need to be involved.
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A permanent relationship between the south and the north of Mali must then be defined and negotiated. Federalism? Autonomy? Devolution? The status quo ante? This negotiation will have to involve the creation of a legitimate and representative forum of northern tribal and civic leaders, in which all the peoples of the north have both trust and a proper stake. Such an assembly cannot be dominated by one ethnicity, especially not the Touareg. Anybody who knows the history of northern Mali will know that this challenge in itself is truly gargantuan.
Fixing a country
Once the future form of the Malian nation is agreed upon, elections must be held to rebuild the political institutions of the country on legitimate foundations. Meanwhile war criminals on all sides must be identified, arrested and tried. A process of truth and reconciliation must be implemented.
Then the most destructive of the smuggling rackets, the ones that have helped to fund insurgency and destabilise the entire southern Sahara - arms, people, cigarettes, hashish, cocaine and stolen cars - will need to be dealt with. This will involve weeding out all the corrupt politicians, officials and military/security personal in Mali, Algeria and other countries, who have benefited from this system for decades, and continue to do so. In short, it will involve recalibrating the entire Saharan economy away from lucrative but illegal trades and back to more or less benign but legal ones - tourism, mineral wealth, and the important and exporting of legal goods. This will take years and a huge amount of investment.
And meanwhile the social, political and economic fabric of northern Mali must be repaired and rebuilt. Touareg, Arab, Songhoi and Fulani must learn to live together again. Smashed and looted hospitals, banks, schools and shops must be put back in order. Nomadic herds must be restocked. Society must be nurtured back to health and prosperity. Once again, this will take enormous amounts of time and money.
So before François Hollande and the Malian President Dioncounda Traore succumb to the temptation of staging a Bush-on-the-deck-of-the-USS-Abraham-Lincoln-mission-accomplished "We beat 'em boys" moment of triumphalism, which I expect will take place in the next few days, possibly in front of the vandalised Al-Farouk monument in Timbuktu, I'd like to see them give a hint of how they propose to tackle all these challenges. Even a hint that they're thinking about them would be better than nothing.
As it is, all I'm getting is a horrible feeling that the painful history of western intervention in the complex affairs of Africa, southern Asia and the Middle East is about to repeat itself.
Andy Morgan is a freelance author and journalist based in Bristol, England. He worked in music for twenty years, ending up as manager of Touareg rockers Tinariwen, before giving up show business to write full time in 2010. He has contributed articles to The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, Songlines and fRoots amongst others, and is currently writing a book about Tinariwen and the recent history of the Touareg.
Follow him on Twitter: @andymorganwrite
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.