The Islamists in Mali have been forced to retreat, but there are still fears a long-term conflict situation could develop. With the Bundestag set to debate a military mission, DW gives an overview of the main issues.
What is the situation like in Mali?
Some five weeks after the start of the French intervention, the situation in the West African country remains tense. The larger Islamist groups have been driven back out of the towns and cities in northern Mali. However there are now attacks by smaller groups. Soldiers from the Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS), as well as from Chad, are now consolidating their control of cities in the country that is more than three times the size of Germany. Tuaregs and Arabs in the areas that have been retaken fear revenge attacks by the black African majority. Fighting is also taking place in the capital Bamako. However, here it is rival groups within the Malian army that are fighting each other. The Malian military is weak and divided. In March 2012 army units rebelled against the government because, in their eyes, it was not acting decisively enough to put down the rebellion in the north.
Who are the main actors in the conflict?
Numerous rebel and Islamist groups are active in Mali. Tuareg rebels of the non-religious MNLA want more autonomy. As a result of the 2011 civil war in Libya, the conflict in Mali escalated. Tuareg rebels fought for the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi. After his fall they were pushed out into northern Mali. In April 2012 the MNLA declared an independent state. Initially the Tuareg and various Islamist groups joined forces against the central government in Bamako. Radical Islamists then swiftly seized control in the territories that had been won. They forced out the MNLA and imposed their strict interpretation of Islam on the population. Today, the MNLA is badly weakened.
What role do the Islamists play?
The Islamists, many of whom are believed to have come from Algeria and other countries, are divided into several groups. In addition to Ansar Dine, there is also al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The Islamic Movement of Azawad broke away from Ansar Dine and said it was ready to negotiate. The groups all subscribe to a radical view of Islamic law. MUJAO and AQIM are believed to be responsible for kidnappings.
How is the French military operation progressing?
In December 2012 the UN Security Council approved the international aid mission for Mali under African leadership (AFISMA). Several ECOWAS states said they would send troops. Separately, Chad also said it would contribute. However the driving force behind stabilization efforts continues to be the former colonial power France.
On 11 January, 2013 the French government sent soldiers to Mali to halt the Islamists' advance on Bamako. Former German ambassador to Mali, Karl Flittner, describes the French operation as a "huge success." However, he believes France must now prepare for a guerilla war against jihad splinter groups. Also, Flittner said in an interview with DW, Paris and Bamako disagree over how to deal with the Tuareg rebel group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Flittner was German ambassador in Mali from 2008 to 2012.
Is an operation directed only against Islamists in Mali too little?
The various Islamist groups can travel swiftly through the whole Sahel zone with their jeeps. From northern Mali they can easily cross into Algeria or Libya. Alexander Stroh from the GIGA Institute for Africa Studies in Hamburg advocates a regional strategy.
What is Germany's interest in events in Mali?
Germany, like other countries, has no interest in seeing Mali fall apart. "It will become a base for international terrorism if measures are not taken," former ambassador Flittner warns. Acts of terrorism could reach from Mali to Europe. Researcher Alexander Stroh points also to the danger of a flourishing trade in arms and drugs in the uncontrolled areas. Also, he says, Mali is a state with which Germany has good relations and it should not be left to fend for itself.
How is Germany participating in the military operation in Mali?
The German government is providing primarily logistical and financial aid. Three Transall planes are helping transport the African troops. There are also plans for the Bundeswehr to participate in the EU mission with 40 military trainers and as many medical troops, and that it should support the French operation with tanker planes. Germany has also pledged humanitarian aid.
Could Mali become a second Afghanistan?
Following the first guerilla attacks in Gao, comparisons were made with Afghanistan. But former ambassador Flittner thinks this is exaggerated. "The Malian population - not only the black Africans but also the Tuareg - generally has nothing to do with this form of violent Islamism," he told DW. Alexander Stroh also views the two countries differently. In Mali 90 percent of the population live in the generally peaceful south. Most seem to be against the Islamists. "It's a territorial problem, affecting a large area of the country but only a small percentage of the population," he said.
What's next in Mali?
So far Mali lacks a strong army as well as a forceful government capable of stabilizing the country. Interim President Dioncounda Traore has announced elections will be held in July. An EU training mission is meant to improve the efficacy of the Malian soldiers who number just a few thousand. The EU does not intend to participate in any military offensive.
Will the Malian government eventually be able to ensure security on its own?
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. Until the coup in 2012 it was regarded as a model democratic state. Today the political landscape is totally divided. There are more than 150 registered parties, but most are just one man organizations. There is no sign of a strong leadership figure.