U.S. policy in Sudan a tactic of Cold War

Rebels: Supporting the opposition to the Khartoum regime compromises the United States' role in the peace process.

January 02, 2000|By Adam Choppin

THE CLINTON administration has taken a page out of the Cold War foreign policy handbook and is about to apply it to the Sudan. There is a great temptation to apply the dictum that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" to the Sudan. Moreover, in comparison to many of the previous recipients of U.S. aid under this doctrine (e.g. the Contras in Nicaragua, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, UNITA in Angola), the enemies of the regime in Khartoum are most deserving of external support. However, the question is whether the Clinton administration wants to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

The administration perceives the 10-year-old regime in Khartoum as among the most heinous in the world. It accuses it of sponsoring terrorist groups in at least a dozen countries, housing would-be assassins, human rights violations, denial of food aid to starving people, and complicity toward an active slave trade within its borders. Moreover, Khartoum has imposed strict Islamic laws over the people in the non-Muslim south.

The complex factors that divide the people of the Sudan (north and south) have given rise to two prolonged wars during most of the second half of this century. The first war (1955-1972) ended in a negotiated settlement. The current phase of the civil war, which started in 1983, is primarily between the radical Arab-Islamic northern government in Khartoum and southern rebels (SPLA -- Sudan People's Liberation Army) who are primarily Christian and animist Africans. Many, including some American officials, had hoped that the United States could be part of a new negotiated agreement to bring the war to a less divisive end.

The State Department proposes to provide direct food aid to the SPLA soldiers who, it should be noted, have been accused by the State Department in the past as being guilty of some of the same human rights violations as the regime in Khartoum. According to John Pendergast, a foreign policy adviser in the State Department, the provision is intended to allow the rebels "to stay in position or expand positions in places where it is difficult to maintain a logistical line." In other words, to support their military positions on the battlefield.

Such intentions indicate an open hostility toward Khartoum and a warm embrace for the rebels at a time when U.S. leverage is extremely weak in the Arab world, to say the least in the Sudan. The Arab League has condemned the United States for its actions and pledged open support for the Khartoum regime against "any threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The administration's open antipathy for the Khartoum government, not to mention last year's missile strikes on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, has already made it difficult for Washington to help mediate a solution to the civil war. The current move would destroy any ability for American officials, including recently appointed special envoy to the Sudan, Harry Johnston, to take a lead role in the already moribund peace process.

Many humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (nonprofit, voluntary citizens' groups) and food aid groups have condemned the proposal on the grounds that it would jeopardize their programs already operating on shaky ground with Khartoum. These programs include a multibillion-dollar effort by the United Nations to distribute food throughout war-torn areas in the south.

However, even if one were to determine that these are the costs of undermining the regime in Khartoum, the program is unlikely to make a significant difference in the rebels' efficacy. The Sudan has the largest area of any country in Africa, roughly the size of Europe. Distributing food to the rebels who are dispersed across half of this large swath of land is a logistical nightmare. Infrastructure such as roads, airstrips and railways are sparse in this massive country.

This limited effectiveness means the program will largely be symbolic in nature, a symbolism that could cost millions of lives if other neutral humanitarian agencies are ejected from the Sudan and if Khartoum chooses to retaliate. This symbolism would also isolate the United States from key allies as numerous heads of state across Europe and Africa are seeking a rapprochement with Khartoum. No doubt that these recent friendly approaches toward Khartoum are largely attributable to the fact that the Sudan is the newest oil exporter in the world.

What the State Department should be debating is how to reopen an effective dialogue with Khartoum on the war, and stepping up its activity to revive and reinforce the IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) peace process sponsored by the seven East African states, and led by Kenya. In October, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright pledged $300,000 to the IGAD peace process after her visit with Kenyan officials in Nairobi, a sum that will surely be wasted if Khartoum cuts off talks over this new policy.

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