Author’s note: “They’re Still At War” will be a multi-part series dealing with underreported or fully ignored low- to medium-intensity conflicts around the world. Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover countries such as Central African Republic, Congo, Yemen, and others. The first part deals with Mali.

France’s military intervention in Mali has been mostly over for more than a year now, and an elected government now sits in parliament—remnants of the April 2012 coup tossed under the rug. However, since French combat forces gave way to the current 9000-strong United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), war has continued raging in the desert north of the country with no signs of peace on the horizon.

Territorial Dispute

The current conflict originates from the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, the fourth one since Mali’s independence in 1960. Territorial sovereignty of northern Mali has been a persistent claim made by Tuaregs over the past few decades—a surprising wish for a predominantly nomadic people. Azawad—the name Tuareg separatists gave to the 800,000-square kilometer, mostly desert-covered territory—inspired northern Mali’s main Tuareg insurgent group’s name—the MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad).

The MNLA spearheaded the 2012 uprising, crushing an under-equipped, under-trained, low-morale Malian military. The military was also hampered by a coup staged by an army officer, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, in response to then-President Amadou Toumani Touré’s perceived powerlessness and unwillingness to solve the issue. The ensuing political and military chaos in Mali allowed the MNLA to conquer and occupy all of northern Mali’s main cities—Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal. They seemed unstoppable. They outgunned the Malian military with heavy weaponry and vehicles stolen from the fallen Gaddafi regime’s arsenal.