guest columnBy Gilles Yabi
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has agreed on a revised concept of operations for the deployment of an international military force of 3,300 soldiers to help the Malian state wrest control of the northern part of the country from Islamist fighters.
This step, taken on November 11 following a collective effort by regional and international partners, is welcome. But military intervention alone cannot solve the country's deep crisis.
The situation in Mali is desperately fractious. A military coup toppled the government in March, while separatists and al-Qaeda-linked fundamentalists took over the northern half of the country. Mali is now divided geographically, politically, militarily and religiously.
The need for international intervention, with precisely identified objectives, is clear. The next step will be a resolution at the United Nations Security Council, expected by the end of this month, giving authorisation to the new mission. However, getting boots on the ground will take far longer. The restructuring and training of Malian units by a separate mission conducted by the European Union will also take some time.
In the meantime, a political process is vital.
It is necessary to make sure that the various communities of Mali truly agree on which groups should be targeted by the use of force. Some of the groups controlling the northern part of the country are clearly beyond the pale - they are terrorist groups, and they are not interested in coming to the negotiation table.
However, the situation in Mali should not be looked at solely through the lens of anti-terrorism. It is critical to isolate extremist outfits from other armed and non-armed groups in northern Mali whose grievances could be discussed within a formal framework for national dialogue.
In this regard, Algeria's recent involvement as a facilitator for preliminary talks with one of the groups, Ansar Dine, is quite positive.
Still, these discussions - conducted mainly in Burkina Faso, whose President Blaise Compaoré was appointed some months ago as the Ecowas mediator for Mali - should not end in an agreement tailored to fit the local agenda of a few opportunistic leaders of an armed group. They need to include legitimate demands of the population in the north as well. A previous effort in 2006 failed for exactly that reason, and the international community should be careful not to repeat this mistake.
In addition, efforts should address the political crisis in the south and in Bamako. The growing suspicions about the transitional authorities' personal ambitions constitute an obstacle to the resolution of the crisis. The decision taken by West African heads of state at the recent Ecowas summit that the interim president and prime minister, as well as other members of the transitional government, shall not be candidates in the next election will frustrate them. But they need to confirm their willingness to respect this commitment and focus their minds on the key challenges of the next few months.
Thankfully, the international community has finally come together in recognising the complexity of the crisis, and most acknowledge that the military intervention is just part of the global strategy needed to solve it gradually. There is now more coherence and coordination than in the last few months and the creation of the positions of UN and African Union special envoys on Mali and Sahel should help in keeping consensus on the way forward.
There are no quick fixes and the risk of escalation in the region is huge if Ecowas, the AU, the European Union and key members of the UN Security Council get it wrong.
Gilles Yabi is West Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group.