Voters and experts alike were surprised by Mitt Romney's 2012 prediction that Mali would become the next Afghanistan, dismissing it as a random and unfounded reference.
Four months later, the situation in Mali grows more complicated almost daily as French and African troops engage hostile Islamic militants on their own ground. This takes places in a region more practically valuable than Afghanistan, near neighboring Algeria's rich natural gas and oil fields, and nearby Nigeria, the fourth largest supplier of U.S. imported petroleum.
Officials agree that those who would hope to restore order to the sprawling country in northwest Africa now face a critical moment to avoid yet another protracted war against an amorphous adversary. Defeating Islamic militants in Africa comes down to isolating the real enemy, and attempting to resurrect a broken and fragile government, they say.
"All of this is dependent on one thing: good government, the restoration of democracy in Bamako," says Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of State for Africa, referring to the coup last March that overthrew the democratically elected government. "You can have short-term military success, but you cannot have it for long unless you have, in fact, the return of democracy."
French forces and African troops from the Economic Community of West African States—largely from Chad—have successfully pushed back Islamic fighters since the operation began in mid-January. Opposition forces are cobbled from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with close ties to other international al Qaeda affiliates, as well as indigenous Tuareg fighters.
These organizations, fighting together, have a different enemy. Al Qaeda has declared its desire to dismantle the West and establish Sharia law, while Tuareg fighters have quarreled with the French and local governments over legitimate disputes since the 1800s.
Unlike the nomadic Tuaregs, "everyone should be very clear that AQIM does not have its origins in Mali," said Carson, while speaking at a breakfast meeting with reporters on Friday. "The important thing is not to allow the jihadist Islamic agenda of AQIM to become effectively linked with the historical and legitimate grievances of the Tuareg."
"There is no question that AQIM has not been totally defeated, but they have been significantly degraded," he says. The militant group will likely continue to conduct "asymmetrical" attacks via suicide bombers and car bombs, he added, and they will continue to fight in the mountainous region that divides Mali from Algeria to the north.
Now, France and its allies face a critical juncture.
"The real issue now is the fact that we're at a tipping point that could metastasize into a full-blown insurgency," says J. Peter Pham, an advisor to U.S. Africa Command and a think-tank director at the Atlantic Council.
Defeating an insurgency cannot be achieved through blunt military force, he says, but rather through a tactic born from the war in Afghanistan of turning locals against militant movements. That starts with propping up the Malian government.
The United States has offered a deadline of July 31 to conduct open and fair elections in Mali, which Carson says is achievable. Helping to establish elections is one of the only areas in which the United States may legally offer non-emergency aid to a junta government.
So far the United States has limited its role to support and logistics. It has delivered 1.4 million pounds of jet fuel between Jan. 27 and Feb. 21 as a part of its efforts to refuel French fighters, according to the Department of Defense. It has also airlifted into Mali 1,200 tons of supplies and equipment, as well as 975 French and ECOWAS troops and support personnel via 47 C-17 flights.
The French have also worked with U.S. intelligence services based in the region, which President Barack Obama has been bolstering in recent weeks, according to a Monday announcement. Forty more U.S. military personnel arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number up to 100, he wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican.
The American forces' presence in the country that connects Mali with Nigeria will provide a critical linchpin in undermining the efforts of an increasingly spreading Islamic militancy. At least seven French citizens were kidnapped in Nigeria last week by Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group with ties to AQIM.
"There are loose linkages between Boko Haram and AQIM," says Carson. "They're not broad, thick highways of linkage, but there are linkages between both of them."
The United States must do everything it can to work with governments in the region to counter these linkages, he says.
This nuanced approach to defeating al Qaeda is important to avoid a repeat of Afghanistan, says Pham.
Images of French troops rolling across the Malian deserts depict not a green and untested force, but battle-hardened veterans who have learned from more than a decade at war.
"The rebels are about the same, and it's just as hot," said a French army captain and Afghanistan veteran to an embedded Wall Street Journal reporter somewhere outside the northern Mali city of Gao. "[Afghanistan] was a great experience – our soldiers have been in combat, and they're more confident."
Pham's concerns lie not with the rank-and-file troops who he says are clearly effective, but with the policy makers at the other end of the equation.
Without a legitimate government in Mali, "you're throwing your soldiers away in vain," he says. Those who helped overthrew the democratically elected government in Mali last year are derived from radicals who helped smuggle drugs to raise money, and in some cases were in business with the Islamist extremists, he says.
"In Mali, we're looking at a cast of characters who make [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai look like a paragon of democratic virtue," Pham adds.
"Right now it could go either way," he says. "The wrong foreign troops or the wrong Malian troops could easily send the population into the arms of the militants. On the other hand, a careful campaign using real lessons learned in Afghanistan, in the awakening in Iraq, you might tip it the other way."