Why is Washington Holding Back on Darfur?

Douglas H. Johnson

In 1984, when the Sudan’s civil war was just beginning, I testified before the House Sub-Committee on African Affairs, urging Congress not to see the Sudanese conflict through a Cold War lens. The fighting in the Southern Sudan was a product of internal political grievances, I argued, and not the meddling of Sudan’s enemies—at that time also the US’s enemies—Qaddafi’s Libya and Mengistu’s Ethiopia. At the same hearing the Defence Department took the opposite line, and while the State Department was reluctant to go as far as the Pentagon in attributing the civil war to external subversion, it still saw Libya and Mengistu as major causes of the war, and the removal of their influence would help to restore peace to the Sudan.

It is important to remember that when the Sudan’s civil war began in 1983 both the United States and Israel were on Khartoum’s side. Under Nimeiri the Sudan was one of the few Middle Eastern states to support the Camp David Agreement. Washington saw him as an important regional ally and gave him the weapons, and the financial credit, he needed ostensibly to protect himself from his external enemies, but which he used to wage war against his own people. Without America’s unconditional support Nimeiri could not have fought his civil war. And denied Israel’s support (previously given to Southern rebels in the first civil war) Nimeiri’s opposition had to look elsewhere for its own sources of funds and military hardware.

The United States held to this line right throughout the 1980s. But both the Pentagon and the State Department were wrong. Qaddafi changed sides and withdrew his support from the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army as soon as Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985. The war continued long after the collapse of Mengistu’s communist regime in Ethiopia in 1991. And while the external actors switched sides (the U.S. abandoning Khartoum in the 1990s to support the Sudanese opposition, the new Ethiopian government at first expelling the SPLA from their bases, but then re-allying with them against Khartoum’s expansionist Islamist policies) the political objectives of the SPLA remained remarkably consistent, aiming for a transformation of political and economic power within the Sudan, with Southern Sudanese secession only as a last option.

Washington’s Sudan policy in the 1980s was guided by its prevailing strategic vision, then dominated by Cold War calculations. The US did not use the economic and political leverage it had over the Sudan at the beginning of the war, and by not doing so it willingly contributed to Khartoum’s war aims, while publicly distancing itself from them. This is one reason why the war did not end with the fall of Nimeiri, and the U.S. continued to support all Khartoum regimes up through the fall of Mengistu. It was during this period that Washington formed a working alliance with the Sudan’s state security agencies and with some of the country’s leading Islamists, then also working for the overthrow of the Mengistu regime.

Washington appears to have changed sides yet again, and is waging war on Islamic terrorism and has denounced genocide in Darfur. But how much is the U.S. inhibited from real action in Darfur by its current strategic vision of the ‘war against terror’? What deals have been struck with its old allies in Khartoum’s security hierarchy?

An opportunity was lost in 2002 when the U.S. re-engaged in the Sudan peace process, a re-engagement that started only a few days before 9/11 with the appointment of former Senator John Danforth as the President’s Special Envoy on the Sudan. Just as it had in the 1980s, the U.S. misread the nature of the civil conflict in the Sudan, and did not realize that the civil war had become larger than the North-South split by which it was usually described. The U.S. also made the mistake of assuming the Islamic state imposed by military coup in 1989 represented the will of the Muslim majority in the country. The Danforth Report was tailored to Khartoum’s outlook, and proposed the restarting of peace negotiations very largely on Khartoum’s terms: the retention of the Islamic state, no self-determination for the South, and no wider engagement with the other, mainly Muslim, opposition forces in the Sudan.

In early 2002 Khartoum was frightened of being bombed by the U.S. It had been bombed once before, and with its past support for Osama bin Laden, world opinion was against it. So why did such concessions have to be made to get Khartoum to the negotiating table? What sort of deal was made over the intelligence Sudanese security could offer about its former political bedfellows? It is reported that Abdallah Saleh Gosh, the chief of Sudan’s state security, handed over to the U.S. the names of Al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia. This would have cost him little, but it brought him and Khartoum some protection. The Sudan peace process became subordinated to the ‘war against terror’ from the start.

Had the U.S. used this opportunity to better effect, they would have been in a position to get negotiations going on a broader basis, bringing more of the political opposition to the negotiating table, trying to achieve a real constitutional change in the country. This might have prevented the escalation of fighting in Darfur. Contrary to what most Western commentators claim, the war in Darfur did not start in 2003. Violence had been growing throughout the 1990s, and increasingly the Khartoum regime was mobilizing it around the twin ideologies of Arabism and Islamism, to the extent that even before 2003 government militias (many drawing on the veterans of Qaddafi’s old Islamic Legion in Chad) were espousing an ideology that equated being Muslim with being Arab (in the Sudan always more a state of mind than a matter of genetics). The war in Darfur escalated to a new level in 2003, in part because the peace talks then taking place in Kenya had excluded the Sudan’s other opposition forces and ‘marginalised’ groups.

The diplomatic consensus at the time was to focus on the North-South peace talks at the expense of the war in Darfur. It was felt that pressing Khartoum on two fronts would jeopardize the talks. Unfortunately the same diplomatic consensus was to not press Khartoum too hard on violations of the cessation to hostilities agreements it had signed with the South. While a Civilian Protection Monitoring Team was set up and reported directly to the State Department it did little more than report. Using the same tactics later deployed in Darfur, of using air power to support militia attacks on the ground, Khartoum devastated the southern oil fields and other areas of the South with no sanctions imposed on them by the same governments facilitating the peace talks. Khartoum learned from this, and from the lack of international action over Darfur, it learned that it could, quite literally, get away with murder.

With the North-South peace agreement signed in January 2005 the international community turned its attention to Darfur. But peace in Darfur as a separate deal, as opposed to being part of a comprehensive peace in the Sudan, was undermined by the precedents of impunity already established. The Darfur rebels were understandably skeptical about the ‘guarantees’ offered them by the U.S. and U.K. governments; for while the international community is now focusing on Darfur, it has taken its eye off the ball in the implementation of the North-South peace. Khartoum has refused outright to implement one protocol of that peace agreement, and is delaying implementing other protocols in full. In the meantime it is exerting military pressure on various parts of the borders of the Southern Sudan, including sending janjaweed to occupy that part of Southern Darfur that is supposed to be re-transferred to the South. No international sanctions have been put in place to ensure Khartoum’s compliance with an agreement it has already signed.

And in all of this the U.S. and the U.K. have continued to consult with Abdallah Saleh Gosh about ‘international terror’, have exerted pressure to remove his name from the original list of those to be sanctioned by the UN for their role in the Darfur, and have similarly protected others complicit in Khartoum’s Darfur strategy. The party line in Washington is that Sudan’s intelligence is valuable. Those within the U.S. intelligence community who doubt this are keeping quiet. So, as in the 1980s, action on the Sudan is subordinated to and inhibited by Washington’s prevailing foreign policy ideology, this time the ‘war on terror’ rather than the Cold War. And, as in the 1980s, such subordination is contributing to the growing violence and repression in the Sudan.

Focusing exclusively on Darfur will not bring peace to the Sudan. War in Darfur could have been avoided if it had been included as part of a comprehensive peace plan in the Sudan from the start. Achieving peace in Darfur has to be connected to implementing the peace agreement in the South. The breakdown of the North-South peace agreement will not only contribute to further violence in Darfur, but it will also spread violence throughout the country. Darfur peace activists must broaden the scope of their activities. And they should ask themselves—and their governments—what price must be paid in Sudanese lives to maintain their own security in the ‘war on terror’?