In January and February 2014, I spent five weeks in Mali working on several magazine assignments and doing research for my upcoming non-fiction book, Taking Timbuktu : A Story of Music, Manuscripts, and Madness at the Edge of the Sahara. The reporting included a 24-hour stay in the embattled city of Kidal and a 14-day road trip to the former jihadist strongholds of Gao and Timbuktu. French troops and a growing number of United Nations peacekeepers (mostly from West Africa) have secured the main roads through northern Mali and the region's biggest towns. But militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continue to carry out hit-and-run attacks on UN and French forces, and lob rockets from time to time at airports and other key government installations. And secular Tuareg separatists continue to demand autonomy, or independence, for the vast desert region they call Azawad. Eighteen months after the French launched Operation Serval, the war has dropped off the global radar screen. But Mali is not much closer to a lasting peace.