French intervention may have disrupted traditional smuggling routes -- depriving these groups of revenues. But the idea that the Islamists will wither away is wishful thinking, according to regional analysts. Hence the recent agreement made by the U.S. to begin stationing surveillance drones in neighboring Niger. France has virtually no drone capability of its own.
The question is, as the French withdraw, whether the African garrison force replacing them has the resources to go after the remnants of these groups. Perhaps implicitly acknowledging its limitations, France has already suggested a U.N. peacekeeping force to be deployed by April.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is apprehensive. "Our worry is that [the jihadists] could reappear, and that could affect the countries of the region," he said Thursday.
Distrust and Revenge
The events of the last year in Mali have introduced an atmosphere of deep distrust -- and episodes of revenge -- into what had been a moderate and tolerant country. Tuareg stranded in the capital Bamako speak of hostility toward them.
The Malian army is accused of atrocities in towns that have been recaptured. In one incident, troops are said to have killed a group of Malian and Mauritanian preachers on a bus in Diabaly in September; it's unclear whether they mistook them for militants.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said last week that Malian soldiers had summarily executed at least 11 people in Sevare. The U.N. refugee agency says reports of revenge attacks against Tuareg and Arabs are dissuading some among the nearly 400,000 internally displaced from returning home.
In turn Malian officials have accused the MNLA -- the largest Tuareg rebel group -- of executing soldiers.
Despite years of training by U.S. Special Forces, discipline in the Malian army fell apart after Tuareg separatists began seizing parts of northern Mali a year ago. Tuareg army units (integrated into the military in the 1990s) defected.
This sense of distrust is complicated by facts on the ground. Rather than the Malian authorities taking control of cities like Kidal in the wake of the French advance, it is Tuareg separatists of the MNLA (who defeated the army last year) that are patrolling the streets. That sets up another possible confrontation between troops and separatists.
Mali's small but influential Arab population may also be targeted for revenge because some of the more ruthless Islamist militants were Arabs (though not all were from Mali) associated with the implementation of Sharia law.
Talking to the Tuareg
The grievances among the ethnic Tuareg that led to the division of Mali in the first place are yet to be addressed. The on-off alliance of Tuareg and Islamist groups appears to have hardened resentment toward the north among southerners.
The press in Bamako has voiced visceral hostility toward the MNLA for its attempts to assist the French in pursuit of militants of Ansar Dine. The MNLA "is and remains the main cause of unhappiness in northern Mali," complained the newspaper MaliJet. "Sooner or later, history will catch up with it."
Another journal noted it was now the turn of the Tuareg, who had "invited the terrorists into the north" along with France to "install another republic or another province of France in the heart of the Sahel."
And it appears that the president of neighboring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, is urging his Malian counterpart to take a hard line against the MNLA, mindful of Niger's own troubles with its Tuareg minority.
But a new deal for the Tuareg -- involving a greater measure of autonomy and long-promised economic aid for the region -- is essential if stability is to be restored in the north.
It won't happen overnight, and the French -- as the former colonial power -- can't be seen to be dictating the process. But there is already a window of opportunity with the split of Ansar Dine, the Islamist group created in 2011 and led by Iyad Ag Ghali. While his whereabouts are unknown, his deputy, Alghabass Ag Intallah, has formed a splinter group -- the Islamic Movement of Azawad -- and says he is ready for negotiations. Similar noises are coming from the MNLA in recent days.
Peeling more moderate Tuareg away from the stew of rebel groups is a first step toward restoring security.
Putting Mali back together again
The second step will be to give Tuareg a stake in the country through greater autonomy. France is aware of the need for a broader political settlement in Mali if the militants are to be kept away.
"Our objective cannot be achieved with arms only," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told CNN affiliate BFM.
The United States is urging a new political dialogue in Mali ahead of critical elections scheduled for July -- elections that can only be successful if the country is pacified. And the schedule looks demanding -- a new constitution, new voters rolls, polling security, all within months.
And there's a humanitarian crisis to tackle too. There are already more than 150,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, and many more internally displaced. International NGOs have moved swiftly to provide food aid to recently liberated parts of northern Mali, but expect their assistance will be needed for the rest of the year.
In parallel with efforts to restore democracy, the European Union will try to train the Malian army. About 200 instructors are likely to arrive by mid-February, with 16 member states pledging training assistance. They will have their hands full: the mutiny Friday in Bamako is the latest illustration of a fractious, ineffective force.