European foreign ministers have been discussing military intervention against Islamists in northern Mali. But religious extremism is just one of several problems in the country.
The Sahel zone covers a vast area. From Senegal in western Africa to the Horn of Africa in the east, it extends over a length of 7,700 kilometers (4,785 miles). At its narrowest point it measures 150 kms, at its widest over 800 kms. The drought and famine-stricken region is the world's poorest and has the reputation of being a lawless vacuum. National legal systems are non-existent in individual countries. This is also true in northern Mali which extends far into the Sahel.
In the less accessible areas a number of groups have been formed, all with different reasons why they are fighting the government in Bamako. The Tuareg militias of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) are fighting for the independence of their region.
Many of them are involved in drugs and arms smuggling - their only means of survival.
Country without a state
There is nothing in northern Mali, deposed Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré told the newspaper "Le monde diplomatique". There are no streets, hospitals, schools or wells; there is no infrastructure for daily living. "A young man from the area has no chance to get married or to have a good life unless he steals a car and joins the smugglers," Toure said. And as if there weren't already enough challenges, several Islamist groups including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have also chosen the remote region as a base.
The military intervention discussed by European foreign and defense ministers can achieve only limited success given the many problems faced by the country. "One must define the goal of such an operation very carefully" said Hans- Ulrich Klose, vice chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag. "Is it a question of driving AQIM out of the area? If so, where to?"
Room for negotiation
It seems that the mere announcement of military action does encourage some extremists to rethink their strategies, if not their ideologies. The Ansar al-Din group, made up of radical religious Tuaregs, has declared that it will no longer insist on the introduction of sharia law. The law would only be valid in the movement's center, the town of Kidal in the northeast of the country. Charlotte Heyl, a West Africa researcher at the GIGA Institute in Hamburg, believes that the group is now redefining its core focus with this decision
"I have the impression that the group is trying to move away from the Islamist agenda and concentrate instead on the local Tuareg conflict," she told DW, adding that this opens up room for political negotiations.
Do not count on the United States
According to Heyl, the citizens of northern Mali are generally skeptical about the local and foreign Islamists. " Malians have told me time and again that you cannot negotiate with Islamists," she said. Time and again the people she spoke to had emphasised their ideological distance from the religious extremists. "So it is hard to imagine solutions involving negotations with foreign islamists."
But if there were to be a military intervention, the question arises in what form should European countries participate? Hans-Ulrich Klose sees a role for the northern Mediterranean states.
"The Europeans should in future address the problems on Europe's borders themselves. To put it another way, the Americans will no longer do it for us," he said.
The experience in Afghanistan has shown how difficult it is to intervene in a region which offers numerous possibilities for opponents to withdraw and regroup. This is why Klose is notn in favor of European military intervention. "It should rather be a regional African operation, with logistical support from Europe." he says.
However, the nature of such support can also change over time. "We should not delude ourselves by saying this is just a training mission. Whether this really will be limited to training, I do not know," Klose said. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had earlier ruled out European support for a military intervention.
Charlotte Heyl says many Malians want to see the strongest possible participation by the Europeans. "This is because they simply do not see how their own army can solve the problem. They also point out that the Malian army is currently divided and is dealing with many internal conflicts. And they are skeptical about the level of training."
Europe faces an unrewarding task in Mali. The problems in the Sahel, and specifically those in northern Mali, can only be resolved one at a time. The region as a whole is uncontrollable. The problems with religious extremists can, perhaps, be solved. But the economic challenges will remain,
EU defense ministers will decide whether to endorse a military training mission in December.