France is backing Mali in the fight against Islamist rebels. The Malian government has lost control over large parts of the country, and the outcome for the French intervention is uncertain.
The Sahel covers a vast area. From Senegal in West Africa to the Horn of Africa in the East, it extends over 7,500 kilometers (4,600 miles). At its narrowest point it measures 150 kilometers, at the widest over 800. The poorest, drought and famine-stricken region of the world is a lawless vacuum. National legal systems are non-existent. The people have their own laws.
This is now true of northern Mali, which extends far into the Sahel. But the republic was once a model for democracy in West Africa. With a constitution, numerous political parties, and a national assembly, the country has changed over the past decade from a one-party state into a more or less functional democracy. There is not much left from former times.
"The coup against the president certainly triggered this development," says Peter Heine, a professor emeritus of Islamic studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
Signs of a failed state
In March 2012, the Malian Army forced President Amadou Toumani Toure from office, seizing power for themselves. The soldiers argued Toure was unable to control the situation in the country and compete against the rebel Tuareg insurgents in the country's north. Toure's term in office lasted only a few weeks. A new presidential election was imminent.
Initially, the coup played nicely into the hands of the Tuareg. In the power vacuum left by Toure's removal, the Tuaregs - a group that had long felt ignored by the government in Bamako - banded together with the terror network Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). But shortly thereafter, the Islamists broke with the Tuareg militias, who lost their influence.
The AQIM and other Islamist groups like Ansar Dine are powerful in the Sahel because of government weakness. With this knowledge, terror cells are able to earn a lot of money through drug trafficking and kidnapping.
"Governments pay large amounts of money for the return of captured nationals," says Peter Pham, an expert on Africa at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, adding, "The group has made literally millions over the years in ransom. That enables it to have resources."
The downfall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi strengthened the terrorist network. Mercenaries from the Sahel, who worked for many years under Gaddafi, are returning to their homelands heavily armed. Islamic scholar Peter Heine fears the influence of AQIM in neighboring countries is on the rise.
"It may come to a point where we have a completely authoritarian-free structure," he said in an interview with DW, noting, "Hostage-taking and an incredible amount of drugs - this will only increase."
Country without a state
There is nothing in northern Mali, deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told the French newspaper "Le Monde Diplomatique."
There are no roads, hospitals, schools or wells, no infrastructure for daily living.
"A young man in the area has no chance to get married, or have a good life, unless he steals a car and joins the smugglers," the president added.
And if that wasn't already enough of a challenge, the Islamist groups, led by AQIM, have chosen the remote region as their base.
The deployment of peacekeeping troops, which was unanimously approved by the US Security Council at the end of 2012.
"One must define the goal of such an operation very carefully," says Hans-Ulrich Klose, deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament. "Is it about driving Al-Qaeda out of the Maghreb? And if so, where should we move them?"
The prospects for France's involvement in such a large and poverty-stricken country are limited. Experience in Afghanistan has shown how difficult it is to intervene in a region where opponents have numerous possibilities to withdraw and regroup.
Reservations about its own army
Many Malians, says Charlotte Heyl from the GIGA Institute, hope for as much European participation as possible.
"This is because they simply do not see how their own army is able to solve the problem. They 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 for the army," Heyl explained.