As the UN Security Council prepares to pave the way for military intervention against Islamic militants in Mali, the United States is pushing for a broader solution to the nation's political crisis.
Mali's West African allies and former colonial power France are focused on defeating the Islamists, but efforts to resolve the crisis have been hampered by a military coup in the capital and by an ethnic Tuareg rebellion.
"We want to see the territorial integrity of Mali fully restored. We want to see democracy, stability and development fully restored," the top US diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, told AFP in an exclusive interview.
The west African nation, where the democratically-elected government was ousted in a March coup, is facing "four separate, but over-arching, problems," explained Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
"Which makes it one of the most complex and difficult situations in Africa today facing resolution."
He highlighted the lack of a democratic and credible government; the marginalization of the Tuareg people dating back to the early days of French rule; the threat posed by Islamist militants; and a food crisis.
Mali lies in the Sahel region, a vast semi-desert on the southern edge of the Sahara plagued by drought and political instability.
The US supports an initiative for an African-led force to help flush out the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) militants from northern Mali.
The militants have attempted to impose a harsh version of the Islamic sharia law code in the north and east of the country, forcing women to wear headscarves and imposing punishments from amputations to summary executions.
A draft resolution on a military intervention in Mali is set to go before the UN Security Council on Friday, French officials said, adding that they believed it would be adopted.
It seeks a detailed plan for any intervention within 30 days from West Africa's ECOWAS regional body, the African Union and UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
But Carson stressed all the issues facing Mali need to be worked on in parallel to pull the country "out of the difficult situation it is in now."
"They need to be looked at as a set of challenges that must be dealt with" together, he said, suggesting that recent success in finally restoring a government in Somalia after two decades of civil war could prove a model.
"One should take a look at why it's successful and see if it has applicability for what needs to be done," the assistant secretary said. "I think it's important that we take a comprehensive approach.
"It does not mean that one of these issues should derail or slow down movement in the other areas... there are some areas that are going to move much faster and require much more energy, activity, resources."
Washington is pushing the transitional government and interim president Dioncounda Traore to move towards restoring democracy -- which would also mean the resumption of US funded programs slashed in the wake of the coup.
"First and foremost, the political problems in Bamako need solving before you can even think about any kind of security operations directed against the North," said Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The United States has said it will support a well-planned and well-resourced African-led intervention, and while it has not ruled out any direct US military intervention, analysts believe that is unlikely.
"Of course all contingencies are being considered, but I really don't see the very strong likelihood of a US direct intervention," Downie said.
"The emphasis is very much on the traditional AFRICOM approach which is building up capacities of host nations in the region, maybe providing some background support and things like intelligence.
"You might see some drones involved in this area but more likely on sort of surveillance capacity."
UN chief Ban and aid groups have warned a military operation needs careful planning, as pouring arms and weaponry into the region could worsen the plight of millions of people.
"The crisis is multi-dimensional and there are many risks still associated to a possible deployment of a regional force in the north," Gilles Yabi, West Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group, told AFP.
"It is not going to be a peacekeeping operation, but a military operation in a very difficult terrain targeting mobile groups."
He highlighted issues such as the collapse of state institutions, and the co-existence of many different communities.
"An ECOWAS mission will not solve all these problems but could be used as a conduit for a larger international effort to restructure, retrain, re-equip the Malian forces in a dual objective of recapturing the north and protecting the rest of the country against further instability," he said.
"It can't be: 'let's just send in the military to the north and then everything will be OK'," agreed Jon Temin, director of the Sudan and South program at the US Institute of Peace.
"There are a lot of root causes as to why this rebellion happened in the North and why it was successful and until you really start to get at some of these root causes ... you are just treating it superficially."© ANP/AFP