Nobody seems to know what to do about Mali. In late September, the world's biggest tradeshow in global governance - the UN General Assembly - wound down having made no real decisions on a course of action there.
After forceful speeches by Malian Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, Senegalese President Macky Sall and his French counterpart Francois Hollande, the Security Council determined to play kick-the-can with the powderkeg in the Malian Sahara until all the key diplomatic players were lined up. On Friday, however, the Council finally made a tentative move when (in a unanimous vote) it took a step towards authorizing an ECOWAS intervention.
What was on the table? After months of dispute, interim President Dioncounda Traore asked ECOWAS for military assistance in northern Mali, where a coalition of violent Salafists, drug-runners and al Qaeda-allied hostage-takers have taken hold of some two-thirds of the national territory.
ECOWAS has been chewing on this problem for months now, but needs a green light from the UN before taking any action. Still, the Council sent them back to the woodshed to come up with a precise and viable plan for coordination with the Malian army. All signs are that at least two other major pieces remain to be worked out: financing and the potential role of non-African powers like France and the United States, who already have advisors consulting with ECOWAS general staff. Both reject 'boots on the ground,' but also know that their help will be needed, at least behind the scenes.
Leaving the military and logistical complexities aside, some of the diplomatic problems are devilish. For better or worse, France has been most aggressive in tackling those. For instance, Algeria and Mauritania are not in ECOWAS, but there can be no solution without them. France has already worked closely with Nouakchott, a key regional ally, and as it happens, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz made an emergency trip to France this weekend after taking a bullet in obscure circumstances.
At the same time, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited Algiers, meeting with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who apparently held firm to the line that any intervention must be African, and that dialogue must be privileged first. Meanwhile, Hollande tried to keep attention on the Sahelian drama both in his heavily publicized speech in Dakar- a rebuttal to Nicolas Sarkozy's infamous discourse of 2007- and during the Francophonie conference in Kinshasa.
All this earned Paris a threat from Timbuktu, in the form of a video statement from a middle-aged French jihadi with a strong provincial accent who proclaimed his loyalty to AQMI. His statement only raised the stakes, since nothing gets the attention of anti-terrorism experts like jihadis with European passports. All in all, it was a busy week for French Africa policy, one that saw a full court press on the Malian crisis.
It has been clear for weeks - if not months - that outside military intervention in Mali was necessary, inevitable and impossible.
Necessary: the current situation is an extremely dangerous one for the hundreds of thousands of civilians chased from the territory since the beginning of the year and many who remain there, but also for Mali's neighbours.
Inevitable: those neighbours - especially Niger, Nigeria, and Mauritania - are directly threatened by the jihadists. No one in the neighborhood - except possibly Algeria - can tolerate the current situation for long. Time is not on their side.
Impossible: Malians could not agree on it, and no one part of the unstable governing coalition has been strong enough to impose its views on the others. Over the last few weeks, however, the impossible has become possible.
Although Prime Minister Diarra argued in New York that delay is deadly, the junta to whom he was once thought to be beholden has steadfastly opposed the idea of West African troops being deployed in the country, notably in Bamako. Along with the junta (which still controls the army), many in 'the intelligentsia', the political class, and a lot of the general populace vehemently reject the idea of outside intervention. Despite all evidence being to the contrary, the army insists that it can fix the problem itself.
ECOWAS's long blockade of Malian arms shipments in neighboring ports allowed the junta to blame its neighbors for the army's inaction and further poisoned perceptions of the regional body in Mali. Yet the army's plan to go it alone is alarming, since part of its solution is to arm ethnic militias along the Niger River.
Over the past few weeks, the political logjam between those in Mali who wanted outside help and those who refused it had begun to break under mounting pressure from foreign powers, displaced citizens of the North and their leaders in Bamako, organized as COREN. Even as the Security Council was meeting, thousands marched in the Malian capital to demand intervention. However, as Bamako took a step forward, American figures - from Africom commander General Carter Ham to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and point man for Africa, Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson - publicly urged it to take two steps back, insisting that the US wanted to see elections before action in the North.
In an open letter published in Bamako's Infomatin, US ambassador Mary Beth Leonard presented a more nuanced view of American policy, but she fell back on the most comfortable of clichés about African solidarity when arguing that elections had to be held before the Northern problem could be tackled. Recent statements from the embassy have doubled down on that idea, calling for an elected government to be installed by April 2013. If this position is taken in earnest, it is either dangerously naïve or ill informed. The 'hair of the dog' approach - that the solution to political instability is more instability - might sound good in Foggy Bottom, but it rings hollow in Timbuktu.
Listen to Alhaji Baba Haïdara - a deputy from the Saharan city - interviewed by French radio, or the COREN representatives gathered in Bamako, as they plead for some kind of salvation. They know very well that with the country split in two and hundreds of thousands of people displaced, elections might do as much to dis-enfranchise the North as Tuareg separatists did when they destroyed electoral roles on taking Gao. For people from Northern Mali, the question is not abstract: how would elections help them get back home? We in turn might ask why anyone would want to reduce the thin possibility of cooperation to the zero-sum game of electoral competition.
Here's one reason: U.S. law sharply restricts aid to non-"democratic" governments. In other words, State's interest is institutional, and American diplomats feel their margin for maneuver reduced along with their budgets.
All this leaves the key question unanswered: is military intervention the right way to go? That's a question for another essay, but it's hard to imagine a solution to this conflict that does not involve at least the real and credible threat of military force. Whether that threat will materialize should be much clearer after October 19th, when the major players will meet again - this time in Bamako. At that point they will have less than six weeks left to respond to the Security Council's request.
Will they kick the can again, or kick-start a campaign?
Gregory Mann lectures African history at Columbia University.