When radical Islamists launched an offensive against the south of Mali, France had no choice but to intervene militarily. The success of the campaign, however, depends on a sound understanding of the complex dynamics of Mali’s internal conflict and fragility. To view the turmoil through the lens of Islamic radicalization only is a dangerous oversimplification. Equally misguided is the common characterization of the problem as a simple North-South dispute. Such confusion imperils strategic practice and detracts attention from the essential set of tensions that makes the conflict self-reinforcing. The causal factors are as diverse as the motivations of the competing tribal and ethnic actors and organizations that sustain instability.
Thus, the French military gains in northern Mali will be fruitless unless they are included in a comprehensive strategy that addresses the root causes of the conflict: weak and corrupt state institutions, ethnic tensions, and competition over scarce resources. In the short term, the international community’s immediate priority should be to provide urgent humanitarian relief and push for political dialogue and military reform. Promoting extensive consultations with all stakeholders and stabilizing civil-military relations are crucial to reconciliation and recovery.