The Western world sees Timbuktu as the archetypal fantasy land—somewhere mysterious and exotic. Recent events in this very real city in Mali, though, demand the close attention of the outside world. Jihadism, separatism, ethnic strife, and loose weapons have come together in the Azawad region of ethnically-Tuareg northern Mali to create a volatile security situation and a growing humanitarian crisis. Given these circumstances, European powers have begun to move toward a military solution: France plans to send surveillance drones into Mali, while the United Kingdom and Germany have both hinted at armed intervention.

This approach involving foreign military intervention is misguided. Rather, the government of south Mali, with diplomatic and financial aid from the international community, must win over the Tuareg rebels through social programs and an invitation to participate in government. This approach of reconciliation may not end the conflict, but it will throw a wrench into the plans of the separatists.

The resistance groups that now control northern Mali are not monolithic and have within their ranks both extremists and moderates, the latter of which are more open to a peaceful resolution. There are at least five distinct and apparent factions present: Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and the Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Ansar Dine is a Malian and predominantly Tuareg Islamist group which may or may not have ties to AQIM. The MOJWA is an offshoot of AQIM whose ideology is similar to Al Qaeda’s, but whose focus is on a black African brand of jihad. There has also been speculation that the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram and Al Qaeda itself have entered Mali. The MNLA was once the driving force behind the separatist movement, but has since violently broken with its Islamist partners. Journalist and author Andy Morgan estimates that each group has two to three thousand members among its ranks.

These groups fall into two categories. Ansar Dine, the MOJWA, Boko Haram, and AQIM are ideologically and religiously driven and generally not receptive to diplomatic talks or cooperation. On the other hand, the MNLA is not hard-line. Much like the “accidental guerrillas” David Kilcullen described in his 2009 book on the insurgency in Afghanistan, the members of the secular Tuareg separatist movement likely feel forced into violent resistance by an indifferent government and unlivable conditions. This makes bargaining with members of the MNLA much easier than with members of the other groups. The Tuareg goal is not violent insurrection for its own sake, but for improved political and economic status for their region.

The government of Mali should be ready to offer the Tuareg population of northern Mali the essential services that they have requested in the past. Specifically, the government should provide famine and drought relief to a hungry and thirsty region, grant some degree of provincial self-governance to northern Mali, and encourage Tuareg participation in the government and the military. These straightforward measures will go a long way towards building goodwill between the North and the South.

Given that the government of Mali is still recovering from last spring’s military coup and that its future remains uncertain, it seems unlikely that it has the resources to make good on these promises. Interim President Dioncounda Traore must request assistance from the US and Europe. This should not harm the efficacy of aid to Azawad: the original source of aid to Azawad is far less important than its perceived provenance. As long as the support for the Tuareg people appears to come from the government of Mali, it will foster goodwill and begin to facilitate reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the Malian government is unlikely to succeed in unilateral negotiations with the MNLA. As a result, Mali will also have to look to the outside world for political legiti- macy. This need is largely the fault of the Malian government itself: in the past, leaders in Bamako have promised similar deals to the Tuareg people but have not followed through on their commitments. In 2006, for example, the central government pledged Tuareg integration of the military – but never fully carried out this plan, promising the same thing in an August 2008 ceasefire. This has left members of the MNLA disillusioned and fed-up with their dealings with the government of Mali.

As a result, the World Politics Re- view reported on March 14, 2012 that attempts at high-level negotiations during the early stages of the crisis had fallen through. The Tuareg leadership doubted the integrity of the talks, given the Malian government’s record of disregarding negotiated settlements.

The solution to this lack of trust is third-party facilitation of talks and enforcement of agreements: Mali needs an international body to broker a deal. The UN, the US, or the African Union could offer their services in this role, but perhaps the better choice would be the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional group that defused the political tensions after the military coup last April, thereby returning Mali to civilian rule. ECOWAS, therefore, has both experience working in Mali and a positive reputation among Malian citizens and politicians. The most important condition in choosing among these international arbiters, though, is the approval and trust of both the government of Mali and the MNLA—for without that kind of agreement, negotiations will probably disintegrate once again.

The risk in Mali is clear. The country could become a failed state: a breeding ground for terrorism, a hub of violent jihad, and the Afghanistan of West Africa. Fortunately, though, the international community and the Malian government have yet to exhaust their diplomatic options. While fighting is inevitable, reconciliation with the MNLA holds the potential to halve the number of resistance fighters in Azawad. The government of Mali is now uniquely positioned to shake decades of internal division and move forward towards a partial peace deal – a far better deal than no peace at all.