The break-up of Sudan, aided and abetted by the United States, can be seen as another example of ill-conceived outside interference in an internal conflict in the name of democracy and human rights. The record for holding together the multi-ethnic states left behind by Western colonialism and former empires, without autocratic and often brutal centralized rule, is slim. This is a hard truth. And once such states are broken, they do not heal themselves.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
Since July 2014, I’ve been posting State Department cables and private journal entries from the time I served as chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan (August 2003 – September 2004). During this period the US was focused primarily on support for the southern Sudanese rebels. Led by John Garang, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) had been fighting the Sudanese government for years. During this period, the southern Sudanese – being predominantly Christian as opposed to the Moslem north – had become the darling of American evangelical Christians. These supported the independence of southern Sudan and waged their own version of “jihad” against the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum. The evangelicals had become a powerful constituency during the George W. Bush administration and by my time in Sudan had successfully captured the leadership of the US aid agency (USAID) and US policy toward Sudan.
The US Embassy in Khartoum had reopened in May 2002 (having been “suspended” since 1996) primarily to work with the government on counter-terrorism (CT). Bin Laden had lived in Sudan (1991-96) and fundamentalists in the regime maintained links to Al-Qaeda (ALQ). In the aftermath of 9-11, the Sudanese government had decided that it was perhaps prudent to offer the US cooperation. Washington saw opportunities in exploiting Sudan’s past – and in some cases, continued – links to ALQ. But USAID’s focus on the SPLM effort to gain autonomy or independence increasingly complicated the pragmatic objective of working quietly with the government to target ALQ. The Embassy in Khartoum got caught between working with the government on CT and USAID’s effort to use the southern Sudan issue to weaken it. Some within the USG even aimed at regime change rather than a peaceful end to the conflict.
Into this mix entered the issue of Darfur. By late 2003, it had become clear that the government’s response to initial rebel successes there – the Darfur rebels saw the SPLM as a model for gaining foreign support – had become wholesale ethnic cleansing. However, it proved difficult to get Washington to focus on the plight of the Darfurians as it was seen as a diversion from the “real show” with the south. Some even wondered aloud why the US should care about Darfur as it was just a case of Muslims killing other Muslims. (USAID became interested in sending aid to Darfur only when it became a further issue to use against the government.) In the end, the US did very little to stop the Darfur conflict other than modest diplomatic efforts to encourage dialogue between government and rebels and verbal encouragement to the African Union to take on peacekeeping. Even these had to struggle against the tide of USAID free-lancers – who saw Darfur as another way to weaken the government – who were encouraging the rebels to hang tough. None of this proved effective. There are now over one million IDPs in Darfur and attacks on the camps that have become their seemingly permanent homes continue.
For those supporting the SPLM, success came with a peace agreement with the government in 2005 that led eventually to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. But South Sudan entered statehood without being an actual country. Poor, undeveloped, ethnically diverse and with hardly any infrastructure or resources aside from oil (in the north and dependent on Sudan for export), South Sudan has gone through years of civil war as SPLM factions fell out along tribal lines. John Garang might have been able to hold things together. In my meetings with him, I observed Garang dealing with his lieutenants like a patient high school teacher with a class full of rambunctious adolescents. But he died in a helicopter crash in 2005.
The break-up of Sudan, aided and abetted by the United States, can be seen as another example of ill-conceived outside interference in an internal conflict in the name of democracy and human rights. The record for holding together the multi-ethnic states left behind by Western colonialism and former empires, without autocratic and often brutal centralized rule, is slim. This is a hard truth. And once such states are broken, they do not heal themselves. Sudan broken has left the north under the rule of a fundamentalist yet pragmatic regime while the south remains poor, undeveloped and fragmented. The recent return of Riek Machar to Juba to take up his place as vice president to President Salva Kiir is unlikely to lead to any permanent peace. The only way to stabilize the situation and allow longterm reconciliation and development would be for an international peacekeeping presence to remain perhaps for decades. In the same way, any pauses to the Syrian war brought about by the dogged diplomacy of Secretary of State Kerry will not prevent further conflict unless there is some political arrangement between the various parties enforced and supported by a longterm UN effort. The same may prove necessary for Iraq, where an ethnic/religious balance of forces is unlikely to hold if left only to those directly involved.
The essential lesson has yet to be learned. All multi-ethnic states are fragile – even in Western Europe, witness Belgium, Spain and even the UK. They are prone to break-up if destabilized. The best course of action remains to first do no harm. And when an internal situation seems to require outside intervention, it should be done through the international mechanism contained within the UN Charter and with a commitment to then stay as long as it takes to get things right. This seems the lesson of Sudan.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.