While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in northern Mali, there is a real danger violence could become organised along ethnic lines.
Bamako, Mali: Northern Mali has seen conflict before, but the ascendancy of Islamist militants and the salience of organised crime – particularly the drug trade – suggest that this iteration is qualitatively different from its predecessors. Accordingly, the current diplomatic discourse emphasises a regionally-coordinated approach to defeating Al-Qaeda-linked militants and restoring the territorial integrity of Mali.
Even the best-planned, adroitly executed military campaign, however, is likely to yield adverse humanitarian consequences in the short term, providing ample opportunity for local actors motivated by a mix of ideological affiliations, economic interests, pre-existing grievances, ethnic identities, tribal networks and even personal animosities to pursue their own agendas.
Right now, the presence of ethnic and local militias might seem like a peripheral concern, but the international community may soon find that failing to marginalise or demobilise these groups could make it difficult to translate tactical military gains against Islamist militants into more strategic goals, such as regional stability. One of the key challenges for the international community therefore will be to ensure that a protracted, internecine conflict does not emerge from the fog of war. While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in Mali, there is a real danger that violence could become organised along ethnic lines.
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