Published 22 Oct 09
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
The New U.S. Sudan Policy: A Preliminary Review
After a weekend marked by leaks to the Washington Post and counter-leaks to the New York Times, the long-anticipated policy strategy for Sudan was unveiled at a Monday morning press conference by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, flanked by the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, and retired Air Force Major General J. Scott Gration, presidential special envoy to the benighted African country. Since the details were rather scarce in the public strategy document released by the State Department, only time—and deeds—will tell whether or not the result of the new policy actually delivers what President Barack Obama described in a White House statement as "a comprehensive strategy to confront the serious and urgent situation in Sudan."
In her remarks to the press, Secretary Clinton underscored the high stakes involved:
Sudan is the largest country in Africa, one that has been torn by myriad religious, tribal, ethnic, racial, and political divisions for most of its half century of independence. During the past decade, genocide in Darfur and protracted violence and conflict between the North and South have claimed more than two million lives, subjected civilians to unspeakable atrocities, and led to mass human suffering.
While the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South in 2005 was a historic step forward, Sudan today is at a critical juncture—one that can lead to steady improvements in the lives of the Sudanese people or degenerate into more conflict and violence.
An unstable Sudan not only jeopardizes the future of the 40 million people there. It can also be an incubator of violence and instability in an already volatile region, it can provide a safe haven for international terrorists, and trigger another humanitarian catastrophe that Sudan, its neighbors, and the world cannot afford. All too often, efforts to bring peace and stability to Sudan have been undermined by factionalism, broken peace agreements and cease-fires, and the involvement of regional states affected by the crisis.
For these reasons and others, we are realistic about the hurdles to progress. Achieving peace and stability in Sudan will not be easy, nor is success guaranteed. But one thing is certain: The problems in Sudan cannot be ignored or willed away. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. It is up to us, and our partners in the international community, to make a concerted and sustained effort to help bring lasting peace and stability to Sudan and avoid more of the conflict that has produced a vast sea of human misery and squandered the potential and security of a vital region of the world.
The public document itself acknowledged the multiple difficulties faced by both the various peoples and institutions in Sudan and their international partners, including the United States:
Six years after its initiation, the conflict in Darfur remains unresolved. In 2003, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and government-supported militia, sometimes referred to as "Janjaweed," launched a genocidal campaign that targeted ethnic groups affiliated with a brewing Darfur rebellion, leading to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and displacing some 2.7 million people and more than 250,000 refugees. Unfulfilled ceasefire and peace agreements, the proliferation of rebel groups, and the involvement of regional states have prolonged the crisis and complicated international efforts to reach a peace agreement. While the intensity of the violence has lessened since 2005, civilians continue to live in unacceptable insecurity. Without an active peace process, a commitment to addressing accountability for crimes committed against civilians, a fully deployed, equipped, and performing United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force, and serious planning for regional recovery, the situation in Darfur will continue to fester, destabilizing the country and the region.
In a similar vein, delays in implementing key portions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)—the agreement between the NCP and the southern Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) that ended more than two decades of conflict between northern and southern Sudan, which left more than two million people dead—represent a dangerous flashpoint for renewed conflict. Per the CPA, the South, where governing capacity is nascent, will vote in a referendum in 2011 on self-determination—whether to secede or remain part of a unified Sudanese state. The Three Areas are also flashpoints for renewed conflict ... Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile will engage in a referendum and popular consultations respectively on their status over the next fifteen months ... Most recently, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President [Umar Hassan al-] Bashir in early 2009, charging him with having perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The document also spelled out the three principal U.S. strategic priorities in Sudan. It would be worthwhile to examine each in turn, both reviewing the implementation elements outlined by the policy document for each and assessing the likely implications thereof.
"A definitive end to conflict, gross human rights abuses, and genocide in Darfur." The document proposes five steps toward the achievement of this goal: "Enhance Civilian Protection ... Promote a Negotiated Solution to the Conflict ... Encourage and Strengthen Initiatives for Ending Violent Conflict ... Support Accountability ... Improve the Humanitarian Situation." Some of the actions proposed in the document are "no-brainers" like "providing direct U.S. funding, and U.S. diplomatic, logistical, and other support toward the provision of critically needed equipment (including helicopters)" to the UNAMID peacekeepers in Darfur (see my report two years ago on challenges faced by the hybrid force, "Too Few Good Men—and Even Fewer Supplies") and urging "Sudan and Chad to cease support to rebel groups under their influence" (see my analysis of the dynamics at play in the cross-border component of the Darfur conflict). Other steps listed amount to little more than the repetition of jejune lines like "the United States will support international efforts to achieve a cessation of hostilities in Darfur" and placing "a premium on core humanitarian principles"—as if anyone was proposing we oppose international peace efforts or disregard ideals of humanity.
What the document fails to do is to recognize—much less resolve—the tensions (if not outright contradictions) inherent in some of its other goals. For example, the new policy commits the Obama administration to "supporting international efforts to bring those responsible for genocide and war crimes in Darfur to justice," in itself a laudable objective that should be pursued. However, considering the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC has issued a decision (and an accompanying arrest warrant) finding that "there are reasonable grounds to believe" that the Sudanese president himself "is criminally responsible as an indirect perpetrator or as an indirect co-perpetrator" of at least five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, how is this to be reconciled with the promise that the special envoy "will establish and maintain a dialogue with armed movements in Darfur"? Won't the man who is at the very origin of the armed violence in that region, Umar al-Bashir, play the spoiler if he thinks he is being snubbed, much less if he faces a credible threat of actually being brought to trial? On the other hand, without enhancing accountability and bringing an end to impunity—that is, offering the survivors of genocide and mass atrocities some hope of justice—what prospect is there of a sustainable peace in Sudan? In fact, on Monday senior administration officials at a State Department background briefing dodged these very questions when they were posed to them by the BBC's Kim Ghattas.
In addition, despite promises about its outreach being ecumenical, the administration itself has been relatively selective in its engagement of the various armed factions in Darfur. At times it seems as the resources devoted to wooing some leaders is inversely proportional to their actual effective capability. In fact, the next round of the talks hosted in Doha by the government of Qatar between Khartoum and various Darfuri factions opposed to the NCP regime were postponed just last week without much progress precisely because the militarily most powerful group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which last year managed to launch an attack on Omdurman at the very gates of the Sudanese capital across more than 1,000 kilometers of hostile territory, did not feel it was getting its due. Perhaps not quite so coincidentally, representatives of JEM who were in Washington last week complained that they were given the cold shoulder by U.S. officials. There are certainly reasons which would counsel prudence in dealing with JEM, including the Islamist orientation of many of its members and their links with Hassan al-Turabi, now estranged from Bashir, but previously the NCP's leading ideologist, as well as the attacks it is alleged to have carried out against African Union peacekeepers (in fact, on the very day the new policy was unveiled in Washington, a former JEM military commander, Bahr Idriss Abu Garda, appeared in The Hague at a preliminary hearing before the ICC to answer for three counts of war crimes in relation to one such incident). Nonetheless, if Washington's approach is indeed to engage all parties, it seems counterproductive, to say the least, to dis the best-armed rebel group.
In addition, at the very moment the new Sudan policy was being announced at Foggy Bottom, half the world away UNAMID was warning about a significant surge in the number of combatants Khartoum and another insurgent group that felt it was being ignored, the Abdul Wahid faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), were massing in North Darfur near Sortony and Kabkabiya. The peacekeepers' statement expressed concern that the build-up "may signal the impending start of a new cycle of armed confrontations in the area."
"Implementation of the North-South CPA that results in a peaceful post-2011 Sudan, or an orderly path toward two separate and viable states at peace with each other." In what is probably the most significant shift in official U.S. policy, the strategy document finally acknowledges the truth which astute observers have long known: with the overwhelming majority of southerners wanting to break with Khartoum, the only possible result from anything close to a free and fair ballot would result in independence for South Sudan. The only real question is whether that general will is manifested through a referendum process—obviously the preferred path for the United States and other guarantors of the 2005 peace accord—or simply occurs unilaterally. As Congressman Donald Payne, chairman of the House Subcommittee on African and Global Health, correctly noted in his statement on the new policy: "We must be prepared for that outcome now and do what we can to help prepare for the existence of two countries in peace."
The policy review notes the not-insignificant tasks which must be completed successfully in the course of the coming months:
The United States will work with international partners to encourage the parties to implement the necessary legislation and planning for the 2010 elections and the 2011 referenda. Among other issues, the United States will work with international partners to: (1) provide assistance for census resolution, voter registration and education, political party assistance, polling place administration, balloting mechanics, and ensuring international and local domestic election and referenda monitoring; and (2) encourage the parties to enact the necessary legal reforms to create an environment more conducive to a credible election process and referendum, including through the enactment of a credible referendum law. The United States will assist the parties in resolving census and referendum disputes in accordance with the CPA. In addition, the United States will support efforts to push for the timely and transparent demarcation of the North-South border through the provision of technical expertise and support international efforts to professionalize and equip the Joint Integrated Units (JIUs) responsible for providing security in key areas.
This would be an ambitious agenda in any time frame, much less the six-month window before the already delayed elections are supposed to be held and the less than fifteen months which remain before the referendum on independence must be held. As I noted earlier this year, the polls, which were supposed to pave the way forward for Sudan, are predicated in a national census that was conducted over the course of two weeks in April and May 2008 (the census results being used to determine the future political representation of the country as well as the sharing of oil revenues between North and South). The census itself was supposed to have been conducted by July 2007, but the NCP-dominated bureaucracy repeatedly delayed preparations. Then the count was finally held at the start of the rainy season, leaving whole regions in South Sudan, where roads are scarce, entirely out of the tabulations. Also uncounted were the several million South Sudanese refugees in neighboring African countries, while Southern Sudanese who were internally displaced were counted as residents of the North (the Khartoum regime conveniently arranged for proxies to initiate clashes with the SPLA in South Kordofan to justify the closing of roads south into Bahr al-Ghazal state which some IDPs were taking to head for the census). Hence, even if elections were to be held on schedule, the legitimacy of the results might well be judged illegitimate, based as they would be on manipulated census data. On the other hand, if there is any further delay in the votes, South Sudanese leaders, irrespective of what they may presently profess at meetings with irenic Western leaders, will be under tremendous popular pressure to not wait for the promised referendum in 2011 to declare independence. As I warned last year, given "repeated violations of the CPA and the failure of the international community to hold President Umar al-Bashir and his regime accountable for them, it is not only certain that South Sudanese would opt for secession in the 2011 referendum promised to them in the peace accord, but it is increasingly likely that they may just precipitate matters and declare independence sooner." Moreover, as I noted at the time, "Why, after more than a century of war, enslavement, and other abuse at the hands of the Arabized elites of the north, would the peoples of South Sudan want to remain in the same country with their oppressors when they can strike out on their own, taking with them at least 90 percent of the country's hydrocarbon wealth and leaving their erstwhile tormentors literally destitute?" (The human answer to this question flies in the face of the policy document's surreal affirmation that "the United States will work with international partners to support the parties in developing a post-2011 wealth-sharing agreement.")
If the result of the vote is not in question, its aftermath most certainly would be. Given what Khartoum stands to lose if the southerners secede, elements of the NCP regime may well be tempted to play the role of spoiler, notwithstanding last week's agreement between South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, representing the SPLM, and Sudanese Second Vice President Ali Osman Taha, representing the NCP, on the requirement that two-thirds of voters participate in any referendum and a simply majority to decide the question on self-determination. Furthermore, while the South Sudanese, after all they have been through, certainly deserve the right to build an independent existence free of Khartoum, it should also be evident to all that independence will not produce an overnight economic miracle. While South Sudan has a largely unexploited wealth of hydrocarbons, minerals, and rich farmlands, it is also desperately in need of legal and physical infrastructure in order to attract the investment capital required to develop this abundance as well as to promote trade and otherwise spur economic growth. However, beyond providing technical advisors to work with key ministries in Juba, the southern capital, the policy document does not spell out in any detail how the United States will actually go about working "to improve economic conditions and outcomes."
The section on building up South Sudan disappointingly said very little about the role that the private sector, both Sudanese and non-Sudanese, can play here. In a post-presidential inauguration column, I argued that the Obama administration "needs to facilitate a concerted effort to mobilize the private sector—especially those small-to-medium-sized enterprises that best empower job growth in all economies—to invest in Africa, creating new possibilities not only for American business, but also for Africans to achieve their own dreams" and to "engage in a serious dialogue with the members of the American business community and other stakeholders to determine how best to leverage what available resources to the greatest effect in order to promote the expansion of enterprise, trade, and wealth." Perhaps nowhere in Africa is this truer than Sudan where a less-than-efficiently-administered (to say nothing of often incoherent) sanctions regime further complicates matters and all but ensures that American business essentially boycotts the entire country out of a superabundance of caution.
Another unfortunate lacuna in both this section of the new policy—and the preceding one as well—was any acknowledgement that perhaps the interests of the "international partners" who are constantly invoked may well not be perfectly aligned with those of the United States and, in some cases, quite possibly opposed to them. There appears to be more than a whiff of the naïve faith that all differences can be worked out, a delusion that ought to have been dispelled by the experience of the past twenty-five years when the African Union (and its predecessor Organization of African Unity), the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and other multilateral bodies have been used by Khartoum to impede action against it. China and Russia, too, have their own agendas in Sudan (see my report last year on "Khartoum's Partners in Beijing"), the pursuit of which has hitherto rendered virtually impossible efforts at robust collective action on Sudan. How this basic dynamic of international relations, competing national interests, factors into the implementation of a policy which Special Envoy Gration conceded operates on a very short timeline is left to the imagination. In any event, this is a reality that won't go away just because one repeats inane slogans like "We must all work together to get tangible results on the ground."
"Ensure that Sudan does not provide a safe haven for international terrorists." Understandably the section of the public document dealing with the third strategic objective, preventing terrorists from developing a foothold in Sudan, was the briefest. It can only be hoped that the brevity had to do more with the necessity of operational security than strategic perspective. America's interest in preventing Sudan, which has been designated as a "state sponsor of terrorism" by the U.S. State Department since the Clinton administration put it on that list in 1993, from relapsing into a full-fledge terrorist haven is self-evident. The most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, published earlier this year, noted that while "Sudan remained a cooperative partner in global counterterrorism efforts" during 2008, nonetheless "al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist elements and elements of both Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas remained in Sudan" and "there have been open source reports that arms were purchased in Sudan's black market and allegedly smuggled northward to Hamas." This, when coupled with the current Sudanese regime's history as both host to Usama bin Laden and sponsor to Hassan al-Turabi's Popular Arab and Islamic Conference (an umbrella organization that tried to bring together the Palestine Liberation Organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups), ought to ensure that any "cooperation" on the part of Khartoum be examined with a hermeneutic of suspicion and that the country remain on the state sponsor of terrorism list until the contrary is beyond doubt—that is, at the very least, until the two other strategic objective are achieved.
In a recent Stanley Foundation policy analysis brief on "Sudan and the Implications for the Responsibility to Protect," Ambassador Richard Williamson, who served most recently as President George W. Bush's special envoy for Sudan, offered some wise counsel on dealing with the country and its complex challenges:
Yes, engage, but negotiate from strength, not feckless weakness. Lean forward with backbone and resolve; don't offer a compliant capitulation that accommodates the architects of the death, destruction, and deep despair. Be prepared to take action if necessary. There are steps to take, short of American boots on the ground as advocated by some Obama advisors during the campaign. Dialogue is a tactic, not a destination.
Be pragmatic, practical, and persistent, but not so patient that the merchants of murder and misery feel no urgency to transform the tragic terrain of terror. Recognize that justice and accountability are vital to mend societies that have been traumatized by atrocities, violence, and ethnic exploitation.
Read in this perspective, the new Sudan policy (and the classified annex which Ambassador Rice described as containing a detailed list of "calibrated incentives" and "significant consequences for parties that backslide or simply stand still") might indeed contribute to improved security for Sudan's peoples and their neighbors as well protecting the legitimate interests of the United States and other countries in the geopolitically important Horn of Africa subregion. In a posting Monday on the White House blog, General Gration observed: "The situation is urgent. Time is short. Failure is not an option." Hackneyed as those lines are, one can hardly disagree with the sentiment behind them.
— J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham
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