Sudan’s Next War and the Failure of U.S. Leadership

Sudan’s Next War and the Failure of U.S. Leadership

Reeves: Sudan’s Next War

It is no overstatement to declare that the fate of the nation-state of Sudan hangs precariously in the balance. If the National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum refuses to allow free, fair, and timely conduct of a self-determination referendum for the people of southern Sudan—scheduled for January 9, 2011—then war will follow. And it will not be confined to the south of the country, as previous civil wars have largely been. Peoples of the peripheral regions of Sudan have endured decades of marginalization and discrimination by the riverain Arab elite in Khartoum, and they have grown increasingly frustrated and angry in recent years. We have already seen one consequence of this frustration and anger in Darfur; if war begins again in the south, it will quickly spread across much of Sudan, geographically Africa’s largest country. We will witness a truly national civil war, with unfathomable human suffering and destruction.

There are, of course, various possible outcomes for the self-determination referendum—now only seven months away—but prospects for a successful and peaceful process look increasingly grim. If the election is allowed, southerners will vote overwhelmingly for secession. This would produce at a stroke one of the world’s most impoverished and underdeveloped countries, requiring enormous international support—far more than is presently planned or contemplated. There is, however, little reason to believe that the NCP regime will allow such a decision to stand, despite public protestations of its support for any outcome. This is mainly because Sudan’s large oil reserves, presently generating some 500,000 barrels of crude per day, lie largely in southern Sudan and the border regions with northern Sudan (by some estimates, more than 80 percent of Sudanese oil reserves lie in the south). Khartoum could abort the referendum in dismayingly numerous ways; as a consequence, the diplomatic imperative for the international community could not be clearer. The regime must be convinced that the costs of compromising the integrity of the referendum will be intolerable. At the same time, the international community must take responsibility for providing what will be required to make the new nation of South Sudan viable. This will be costly, but not nearly as costly as renewed war.

The Failure of U.S. Leadership

It is precisely this diplomatic imperative that the Obama administration fails to see. And like the Bush administration, the Obama administration fails to see that Khartoum will continue to play the crises in Darfur and southern Sudan against one another as long as advantages accrue.

After offering only muted criticism of Khartoum’s genocidal counter-insurgency war during the years of greatest human destruction (2003-2004), the Bush administration began to pay more attention to Darfur. But it became clear that it had no clear policy in responding to the crisis, was excessively concerned about preserving the relationship the U.S. intelligence community had cultivated with Khartoum’s security services, and often worked clumsily with potential partners, regional and international. Revealingly, on the issue of a possible military response to what the administration had explicitly called genocide, Bush and his officials were erratic and finally destructive. (Bush at one point called for “NATO stewardship” for a peacekeeping mission in Darfur; the next day surprised European NATO officials dismissed the idea with contempt.)

Such inept diplomacy must stop, and clear terms of engagement with the regime must be established. But herein lies the rub: President Obama’s current U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force General Scott Gration, has proved disastrously incapable of recognizing the Khartoum regime for what it is or understanding what will be required to change its behavior. This behavior includes a range of actions clearly designed to compromise the self-determination referendum (for example, delaying formation of the commission that will oversee the overall referendum process and obstructing final demarcation of the north-south border).

Gration has much to answer for in his tenure of over a year. He outraged humanitarians by prematurely encouraging the return of Darfur’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) from camps that provide their only security. He has, in deference to Khartoum, significantly understated the consequences of the regime’s expulsion of thirteen major international humanitarian organizations in March 2009, organizations that had provided approximately half the aid capacity in the region. He has failed to understand the thinking of the rebel groups—their divisions and competing objectives—and as a consequence has been absurdly optimistic about the peace process in Doha (Qatar), held under the muddled auspices of the UN, the AU, the United States, and the diplomatically ambitious Qataris. He has failed to see the spoiler role that Libya has played in negotiations, and that Egypt is likely to play a similar role in the lead-up to the southern self-determination referendum (Cairo opposes the idea of a newly independent African country along the Nile River).

Gration promised in May 2009 that there would be a Darfur peace agreement by the end of the year. There was nowas no such agreement; instead, Gration has crowed about the importance of a vague and feeble document signed in Doha this past February between Khartoum and the militarily most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The document did provide for yet another cease-fire in Darfur, but Khartoum violated this almost immediately—as it has all previous cease-fires, even those it has unilaterally declared. In March JEM suspended participation in further talks, both because of cease-fire violations and because Gration had cobbled together another rebel interlocutor, the previously unknown Liberation and Justice Movement. JEM demanded that it be the sole negotiating representative of the Darfur rebel movement, was rebuffed, and has now withdrawn from the talks completely. With most other rebel groups and leaders, Gration has had even less success; all distrust him at this point and see him as much too close to Khartoum.

Gration has fared no better with the southern political leadership. In a disastrous decision last August, he suggested to the president of the semi-autonomous Government of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, that delay of the self-determination referendum might be required. Kiir publicly and peremptorily rejected the proposal, though without naming Gration specifically. But there can be no doubt that only Gration could have authorized such an overture, a suspicion confirmed by sources close to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which Kiir also heads. Yet again, Gration accommodated Khartoum, merely continuing with what he had notoriously suggested as his diplomatic method in dealing with the regime (in language that left Obama administration officials dumbfounded): “We have got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagements…”

The condescension and naïveté might be amusing in their ineptitude if they were not so painfully revealing of Gration’s ideas about how to engage with a regime that is guilty of serial genocide—in the Nuba Mountains, in the southern oil regions, and in Darfur. In October 2009, shortly after Gration’s shocking remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out a new Sudan policy, (“Sudan: A Critical Moment, A Comprehensive Approach”). In place of Gration’s fatuous remarks, there is language about “pressures and incentives” on Khartoum. But no “pressures” or benchmarks were specified for assessing the regime’s behavior in Darfur and in the south—these, we were told at the time, are in a “confidential annex.”

We can hardly assess pressures and benchmarks if they are confidential; nor can we judge how rigorously Khartoum is being scrutinized for compliance. But even without this “annex,” the Sudan policy review reveals fundamental disagreements within the administration that have left Gration de facto in charge of U.S. policy. Moreover, the document does nothing to anticipate with any specificity the difficulties of post-secession Sudan, almost as if the administration had not yet fully registered how much remained to be accomplished in such a short period of time. The document speaks, almost casually, of wishing to see, in the event of a vote for secession, an “orderly path toward two separate and viable states at peace with each other.” This is not policy, but merely stating the obvious. Without specification of the means for ensuring this “orderly path,” we are left to assume that Gration’s puerile and dangerous accommodation of Khartoum represents the extent of U.S. thinking.


If the regime calls off, refuses to accept, delays, or militarily preempts the referendum, the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended twenty-two years of war between Khartoum and the south will collapse precipitously. For in the eyes of southerners, the key achievement of the CPA was precisely the promise of self-determination, long the sine qua non for the SPLM in any negotiations with Khartoum. The Bush administration, which invested heavily in the peace process, rightly saw the CPA as a major diplomatic achievement. But a failure to follow through, to insist that Khartoum abide by its various CPA obligations, has emboldened the regime to think that it may be able to abrogate one last agreement—even at the risk of war. The regime’s calculations are based largely on what it has discerned from international responses to date. Refusing to hold Khartoum accountable—particularly on issues of border demarcation, security issues, and wealth sharing—has made war all too thinkable.

Again, if war between Khartoum and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army resumes, it won’t be waged simply in the south. Major violence in Darfur will almost certainly re-ignite; indeed, the recent uptick in military actions within the ravaged west of the country suggests war and large-scale genocidal counter-insurgency may occur again. Nor is it likely that the war’s effects will only be felt internally. Since Sudan borders nine countries—from Egypt and Libya in the north, to Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east, to Kenya, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo in the south, to Central African Republic and Chad in the west—the potential for regional turmoil, large-scale refugee movements, and spillover violence is high.

Both the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (as well as its militia proxies) are much more heavily armed than when they signed the initial cease-fire in October 2002, requiring military expenditures that neither side can afford. This is particularly true for the deeply impoverished and underdeveloped south. But as a result of these more lethal armories, fighting will be extremely heavy, and much more destructive. Even in 2003, when the shaky ceasefire was being tested, it was clear to all I spoke with in Sudan—including the charismatic leader of the SPLM/A, John Garang—that the “next war” would be the most destructive in Sudan’s history. Since some three million people had died during the wars of 1955 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005, and more than five million displaced, this seemed to me at the time inconceivable. No longer.

Fighting will be concentrated in the oil regions, particularly Unity State, Upper Nile State, and Jonglei State. Khartoum’s strategy, first used during the final years of the “oil war” (1998-2002), will be to create a vast cordon sanitaire around oil infrastructure and field production. The SPLA for its part will seek to destroy that infrastructure and in particular halt transportation of oil through the 1400-kilometer pipeline running northeast to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. In the event of war, Khartoum will expel humanitarian organizations wherever it has control (including Darfur), and many organizations in the south will make the difficult decision to evacuate. The perilous humanitarian indicators presently seen throughout Sudan suggest that such expulsions and evacuations would result in catastrophic mortality.

The upshot could not be clearer: it is in the interests of southern Sudan and Sudan as a whole, as well as the entire region, that war be averted, and that the self-determination referendum, linchpin of the CPA, take place in free and fair fashion. To the extent that the United States has interests in Sudan and regional stability—and we have many—our policy should relentlessly focus on supporting the self-determination referendum and securing as much help as possible from allies, regional partners, and even China, which assesses the political situation in Sudan solely through the lens of its petroleum needs and investment. This has long been clear, but following the historic diplomatic success of the CPA, Bush administration officials lost focus on the south, did not work energetically enough on implementation, and instead only belatedly turned to Darfur.


Either the international community applies credible, unrelenting pressure on the Khartoum regime, or senior officials of the NCP will calculate, as they have so many times in the past, that they won’t be held accountable for abrogating yet another agreement. U.S. leadership is critical, but will almost certainly fail if left to Gration. He should be replaced as quickly as possible by someone who has political throw-weight and who truly understands Sudan, especially Khartoum.

The key benchmark in assessing Khartoum’s behavior must be its facilitating the southern self-determination referendum (which is to be accompanied by a parallel referendum in the critical Abyei region, located along the north-south border and very near the oil concessions). There are many measures of such facilitation, just as there are many measures of obstructionism. A clear and balanced assessment of these various measures should be at the heart not only of U.S. policy, but that of the EU and the UN (which has a large force [UNMIS] deployed in the south with the specific mandate to ensure CPA implementation). They should offer incentives only when the referendum outcome has been secured and should apply “pressures” immediately if Khartoum stalls or reneges on commitments in key areas, particularly the final north-south border demarcation and the establishment of a national commission to oversee the logistics and technicalities of the referendum.

In Darfur the benchmarks are more difficult to establish, but should certainly focus on ending Khartoum’s military assaults on civilian targets, reports of which continue to be all too numerous. The Janjaweed militia must be brought under military control, including those who have in recent years been recycled into various paramilitary forces such as the Border Intelligence Force and the Central Reserve Police. Improvement in humanitarian access (including freedom of movement for aid workers in the region) and the protection of humanitarian operations and personnel should also figure in any assessment. Further, international actors should oblige Khartoum to do more to diminish the opportunistic violence that presently paralyzes so much of the vast aid operation in Darfur. “Incentives” should benefit Khartoum only incrementally as it meets these various benchmarks.

What matters most in U.S. policy is what we are prepared to promise—now—by way of guaranteeing the integrity of the southern referendum. What can we do to coordinate and focus international efforts to ensure that the referendum actually takes place? What consequences will Khartoum face if it undermines the referendum or refuses to accept the outcome? At the same time, we must be clear about what economic, financial, political, diplomatic, and military support we are prepared to guarantee a nascent South Sudan, a country-in-the-making that is presently wracked by ethnic violence, confronts a vast humanitarian crisis, and is plagued by various weaknesses of governance, including gross levels of corruption. So far, Khartoum is not impressed by efforts to stabilize the south and improve its economic prospects.

Finally, if we are truly serious about changing the thinking within the NCP regime and preventing renewed war, then I believe that Khartoum should be warned of the consequences of obstructing the referendum: the robust, non-lethal enforcement of a naval blockade targeting all oil export vessels departing from Port Sudan—a threat that must be fully credible to be at all useful. Such a blockade would produce rapid capitulation, since the regime’s power derives largely from these revenues. Renewed north-south peace negotiations could then resume, though only if the threat of a naval blockade remained in force. A cease-fire and separation of forces agreement would be the immediate first step in negotiations. The UNMIS should redeploy most of its forces from its present CPA monitoring throughout the south to become a buffer force between north and south, with cease-fire monitoring as its primary mandate. A significant component of the force should remain in the south to monitor ethnic and other violence.

Such warning should be accompanied by intense diplomatic engagement by the United States and its Western allies with China, since naval confrontation with a Chinese-flagged oil tanker is the most consequential risk of such an operation. But for once Chinese and Western interests in Sudan coincide: China knows that if war resumes, if the self-determination referendum is aborted, then north-south conflict will escalate quickly, especially in the oil regions along the border, where the Chinese have invested billions in infrastructure, including the pipeline to Port Sudan. Any number of military actions against this infrastructure could bring production to a halt, and so we may be sure that it will be the primary target of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, now a much more potent force than in 2005, with a significant new inventory of modern weaponry. Highly motivated southern forces will almost certainly inflict crippling damage of the sort they attempted, with some success, from 2000 in to 2002. China has every interest in preserving peace in the oil regions and realizes that this depends upon the success of the self-determination referendum (China also has clear interest in oil extraction in southern Sudan and would happily deal with the new government in Juba).

This is not a time for “smiley faces”: it is a time for coordinated, intense, and tough-minded diplomatic engagement with the Chinese. In speaking to the NCP regime, the world must send the clearest possible warning that resumed war is intolerable, and that if Khartoum instigates such a war, it will be met with punishment it cannot withstand.

Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College. He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.

Homepage photo: Refinery at Port Sudan (Wikimedia Commons)