As France prepares to withdraw its forces from Mali, the path may be open for talks between the Malian government and al-Qaida-linked militants, a process that could bring the West African nation closer to peace.
Mali, a landlocked nation of 21 million people, has struggled to contain a brutal insurgency that emerged in 2012, before spreading to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and 2 million people have been displaced by the Sahel-wide conflict, of which Mali remains the epicenter.
Analysts have long argued that there is no military solution to the conflict and many support engaging the militants in dialogue in order to break the cycle of violence.
France, however, having intervened in Mali in 2013 to combat the militants, has long opposed dialogue.
"With terrorists, we don't discuss. We fight," French President Emmanuel Macron told the Jeune Afrique magazine in 2020.
On Thursday, Macron announced that he was withdrawing French troops from Mali due to a conflict with the country's ruling military junta.
The possibility of dialogue with militants has now resurfaced.
Shortly after the announcement of the French pullout, the International Crisis Group said that "political dialogue should be considered with some (militant) leaders" to address insecurity.
Advocates of dialogue for the most part argue that the Daesh-affiliated group should be excluded.
Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the al-Qaida-affiliated GSIM group, has previously said that he is open to talks with the Malian government – but only if French and United Nations troops leave the country.
The prospect of dialogue with militants has long loomed over Malian politics.
In 2020, ex-president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said he had sent emissaries to two of Mali's main militant leaders, including Iyad Ag Ghaly.
The move followed two nationwide consultations in 2017 and 2019 that recommended talks.
Keita was subsequently ousted in a military coup in August 2020, after weeks of protests fueled in part by frustration over a lack of progress against the grinding conflict.
However, Mali's new ruling junta also appears open to talks.
In October 2021, the army-installed prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga likened Mali's situation to Afghanistan's, pointing out that Washington had engaged the Taliban in talks.
"Why not do the same here?" he asked.
Ornella Moderan of the Institute for Security Studies think tank said that the current moment represents an "opportunity."
But she also warned Mali is "much more bellicose" than before.
Mali's junta has recently proclaimed military victories against militants, after years of suffering devastating attacks.
The announcements have coincided with what the U.S., France and others say is the arrival of paramilitaries from the Russian private security firm Wagner in Mali.
However, Mali's junta denies Wagner's presence.
How talks with the armed groups might work, and when they might begin, remains unclear.
Malian researcher Boubacar Haidara suggested that Mali's government would only want to initiate dialogue when it is in a strong negotiating position.
In December, the International Crisis Group said that neither Mali's government nor GSIM had determined how to conduct negotiations – or "which compromises they might be willing to accept."
The challenges facing such talks are daunting, yet the government in Bamako and the militants have long maintained informal contact.
Malian authorities have used religious leaders as go-betweens to negotiate hostage releases, for example. And in the volatile north, some government officials have cooperated with traditional Islamic judges linked to al-Qaida.
A senior member of a militant group, who requested anonymity, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that dialogue was already present at a local level.
"But nobody wants to endorse it politically or publicly," he said.
Influential imam Mahmoud Dicko – who has passed government messages to militant groups – told a press conference this month that he is "ready to reactivate."