The desert dust is settling in Mali. The separatist rebellion that threatened to spill out over adjacent countries in north-west Africa has been quelled and French forces have secured as much of the country as matters.
In the sprawling, pollution-ridden capital, Bamako, the talk is turning to politics. The country's largest party, Adema-PASJ, otherwise known as the Alliance for Democracy, has selected a 46-year-old mining engineer, Dramane Dembele, as its candidate for the July presidential election. If everything goes to plan – and that can be a big 'if' in Mali – he will replace the party's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, who has agreed to step down.
Meanwhile the first troops of the French expeditionary force which crushed the mixture of Tuareg separatists, Islamic militants and opportunists are preparing to leave. The rebellion that had overrun the north of the country and was threatening the capital itself is, for the moment, over. The plan is that the French will be replaced by an 11,000-strong African Union force to keep the peace in the interim, bolstered by a European Union mission training the Malian Army to a level where it can take over the security of its own country.
But what seems to be a workable road map to return Mali to full civilian democracy is papering over what may be insurmountable problems in the long term. One of Australia's leading authorities on terrorism methods, Professor Clive Williams of the Australian National University, doubts Mali can ever be a workable entity in its present form.
"I do not see how the country can continue as it is currently constituted," he says.
"Countering terrorism there will require continuing Western resources. Faced with strong opposition, extremists just melt away and regroup elsewhere. Crossing international boundaries is as simple as driving into the desert and avoiding the border posts.
"There are also many isolated Western targets they can hit – we should remember there are about 5000 Australians working in the African resources sector and some are potential targets.
"All this is happening at a time when most developed countries are trying to wind back their defence budgets and don't want these kinds of international involvements.
"As for the proposed African Union force – I don't think it will get anything like the numbers needed."
Making Mali self-sufficient in security will be a monumental task. The 7000-strong army is little more than a rabble, poorly led and prone to desertions, especially when there is any real fighting to be done. Its performance once it was bolstered by the arrival of the French forces was an embarrassment, with accusations of summary executions of opponents and ill-treatment of civilians in the wake of the advance north.
It is a situation not lost on the man responsible for the training and re-training, French Brigadier General Francoise Lecointre.
"Objectively the army must be entirely rebuilt," General Lecointre said. "The Malian authorities are well aware of the need to reconstruct the army, very aware that Mali almost disappeared due to the failings of the institution."
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.