By Ramzy Baroud
Northern Mali promises to be the graveyard of scores of innocent people if African countries don't collectively challenge Western influence in the region.
Mali is fast becoming the Afghanistan of Africa.
The tragic reality is that Mali - a large but sparsely populated country, with around 15.5 million inhabitants - was until a few months ago paraded as a model of stability and fledgling democracy in west Africa.
What happened to make it a hotbed for terrorism, ethnic cleansing and a civil war which could destabilize the entire region?
On March 22 US-trained army captain Amadou Sanogo led a coup against the now-exiled president Amadou Toumani Toure, accusing him of not doing enough to challenge separatist threats in the country's north.
There was widespread condemnation of Sanogo's coup, though the US was more forgiving than African media, most of which saw the takeover as a violent end to two decades of democratization. US-owned news outlets claimed the coup was "a surprise to Sanogo himself" and even termed it "accidental," an inane assessment that flies in the face of the evidence.
Whatever Sanogo's motives the coup did nothing to halt the separatists - quite the opposite. The Tuaregs' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) used the political vacuum to declare independence in the north just two weeks later.
The declaration followed a succession of quick military victories which included the capture of Gao and other major towns.
These developments emboldened Islamist and other militant groups to seize cities across the country. A power struggle soon erupted, in which the Islamist Ansar Dine ("protectors of the faith") gained the upper hand, ousting the MNLA from a number of areas including the historic city of Timbuktu.
These militants alleged that the Islamic history of the city was not consistent with their interpretation of the religion and immediately set about dismantling buildings, burning Islamic manuscripts and essentially destroying a Unesco world heritage site.
Another group soon moved in, thickening the plot. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) has been used by Washington to rationalize the establishment of the United States Africa Command (Africom), set up in 2008 with a brief covering the whole continent with the exception of Egypt. The US State Department claims that Africom "will play a supportive role as Africans build democratic institutions and establish good governance across the continent."
It doesn't explain how this process will be helped by Africom's own Special Operations Command.
Media leaks and authoritative analysts have been linking Africom to the mess in Mali. The security vacuum in this strategically located country could be the exact opening the US has been seeking to establish a lasting military presence in Africa. This, of course, is part and parcel of the US's recent reassessment of its military priorities across the world.
Not only did Africom have a notable presence in Mali - providing several training tours to Sanogo himself - its head General Carter Ham is now talking the talk we have heard so often in other conflict zones.
"We - the international community, the Malian government - missed an opportunity to deal with Aqim when it was weak. Now the situation is much more difficult and it will take greater effort by the international community and certainly by a new Malian government," he told reporters in Senegal just last week.
The nature of this "great effort" is unknown, but both the US and France - the former colonial power which still has great influence and massive economic interests in Mali - have floated military options.
Knowing that Western interventions often achieve the opposite of their declared purpose some west African countries have been scrambling to prevent potentially grim scenarios.
On July 5 the UN security council endorsed the efforts of west African countries to end the unrest and - despite pressure - didn't back military action.
The African Union, which has had little success in past conflicts, looks likely to cede leadership on the issue to the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). But its members are heavily dependent on foreign aid, and thus very susceptible to outside pressure.
Despite hyped Western media coverage, al-Qaida is not the biggest concern in northern Mali. Even by General Ham's estimate foreign fighters in the north number only in "the dozens and perhaps the low hundreds."
The real crisis is humanitarian and political. According to the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs 420,000 people have been made refugees in a region that is harsh even on those who aren't forced to flee across open deserts.
But the US has already started discussions on the use of unmanned killer drones in the area. US media is fomenting fear over the situation, perhaps in preparation for a military campaign.
"Extremist Islamists have wrested control of a region the size of France in northern Mali and proclaimed an Islamist state," ABC news reported on July 23.
Much less has been said about the causes of all this - not least that it was Western intervention in Libya last year that has saturated a poor region with a massive amount of weapons that are now being intercepted throughout Africa.
Mali is now ripe for another violent episode, the scope and nature of which are yet to be revealed. While Western powers and their regional allies are calculating their next move, hundreds of thousands of impoverished people are roaming the Sahara, seeking water in one of the world's most unforgiving terrains.
The most tragic part of the story is that Mali's real hardships are only just beginning.