Chadian peacekeepers serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) patrol the area around Tessalit, northern Mali, November 3, 2013. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

Chadian peacekeepers serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) patrol the area around Tessalit, northern Mali, November 3, 2013. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

Last week in Mali, northern rebels clashed with each other; rebels attacked peacekeepers; United Nations forces responded with air strikes; and pro-rebel protesters drove UN troops out of an airport in the northern city of Kidal. Two years after a French-led military intervention began, northern Mali has become a battleground between Tuareg and Arab rebels, loyalist militias, regional jihadists, and the Malian government and the UN peacekeepers supporting it.

In early 2013, French and African forces smashed a coalition of jihadists who had controlled northern Mali for much of 2012. The intervention was meant to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and its civilian democracy—both of which collapsed during the complex crisis of 2012-2013. Almost from the moment that French-led forces drove jihadists out of northern Mali, however, a campaign of guerrilla attacks began, starting with a suicide bombing in the city of Gao in February 2013. Meanwhile, and despite a ceasefire agreement and ongoing peace talks, Mali’s government has not found a political settlement with northern rebels.

Mali collapsed in 2012 due to the intersection of three crises with long historical roots. First, there was an uprising by the Tuareg-led rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (French acronym MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the dream of a Tuareg state). The MNLA’s rebellion was the fourth such venture since Mali’s independence in 1960. The recurring uprisings reflect deep Tuareg grievances over state neglect, repression of earlier rebellions, and resentment at being governed by a remote capital. Second, the collapse included a coup by Malian soldiers against the outgoing civilian president—whose regime fell rapidly in part because widespread corruption had weakened support for him and his government. Third, the rebellion in the north and the turmoil in the south created opportunities for jihadists—who had been operating and putting down roots in Mali for years—to push aside the ostensibly secular Tuareg rebels and claim northern Mali for themselves. Read more