The war in Mali has produced a great deal of opinion, most of it rather ill-informed. Here are several very different readings (two from the modern policy world and two more historical) that may help clarify matters:
Laura Seay, Mali is Not a Stan, at Foreign Policy, argues that comparisons to Afghanistan (in addition to some fairly obvious topographical differences) misreads the situation; the French were invited in, know the country well, and are not plunging into a quagmire.
Marc Lynch, at Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel, asked his readers, Is Mali Part of the Middle East? The conclusion is no, but certainly the events in Mali have resonances in the Maghreb, as the Algerian gas plant attack showed. My on approach on this blog is to be as inclusive as possible; when Mali affects events in North Africa, we can look at it, though that doesn't make it part of the Middle East. But historically, it is part of the greater trading area for North Africa (as the Indian Ocean is for the Gulf), and will occasionally demand attention.
On more cultural issues, the African and Berber linguistics blogger Lameen Souag, at his Jabal al-Lughat blog, knows the territory well (one of his specialties is Songhay, the language group which includes the dominant language in Timbuktu). has two useful posts: "On Book-Burning in Timbuktu", and "Languages of Timbuktu," the latter of which seeks to clear up some confusion about the ethnicities and languages in the city.