Darfur, Sudan (Photo: Jon Sawyer)
Darfur, Sudan (Photo: Jon Sawyer)

From a practical standpoint, it may be difficult to see any strategic value in Sudan.

Sudan is deeply divided along almost every line imaginable. Clashes between North and South, East and West, Christian and Muslim, center and periphery and local tribal rivalries have created a fractured state at best and a broken state at worst. In 2008, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir on war crimes charges. The international community largely agrees that the April 2010 elections were not only inconsistent but rigged. Most observers predict that the upcoming 2011 referendum for Southern secession will lead to renewed violence and social upheaval regardless of outcome if conditions continue as they are now.

All of these factors clearly indicate the need for humanitarian aid that many organizations like the Save Darfur Coalition and the United Nations already strive to provide, with varying levels of success. What is most surprising, however, is the fact that the United States government has taken an interest in Sudanese relief efforts and in engaging with the Sudanese government.

From an international security standpoint it would seem that the United States is wasting its time in Sudan. Why does the United States government care about a messy and fractured country 6,500 miles away? Why does it care that Sudan is peaceful when Sudanese violence does not directly affect American national security?

Here are three reasons Sudan is important to the world of international security:

Oil. Sudan has enormous oil reserves--over 6 billion barrels discovered so far. Most of the oil fields are in South Sudan but the government in the North controls mos t of the refinement facilities. The only port cities are in the North, since the southern border is landlocked. Because the North relies on Southern crude oil and the South relies on Northern transportation and refinement, peace is essential for Sudan's oil production. This symbiotic relationship is tenuous even during peacetime and violence would upset this fragile balance, leading to economic hardship for both North and South Sudan.

The dependence on Middle Eastern oil has led to a number of costly problems for the international community and diversifying the international oil supply keeps one country or region from controlling global energy. Sudan has an enormous potential to provide the world with energy and adding another African oil partner to its list of providers is not only wise but preferable. Maintaining the peace in Sudan before and after the referendum vote will protect the fragile oil relationship between the North and the South and keep Sudan supplying the world with oil.

Geographic Location. Sudan also has a unique and important position on the African continent, since it is the largest country in Africa and comparable in size to Western Europe. It borders nine countries: Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Libya. It contains much of the Nile River (both the Blue Nile and White Nile) and it borders the Red Sea to the east.

Access to these countries and to water ways gives Sudan great strategic worth. Much of the world's oil imports travel through the Red Sea by way of either the Suez Canal to the north or the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the south. The Red Sea has recently seen increased pirate attacks and Eritrea has seen rising terrorist activity, both of which threaten global shipping in the area. A strong partnership with Sudan would allow the world to protect its imports in the Red Sea and increase its ability to fight extremism and terrorism in Eritrea.

Using Sudan as a base of operations, however, is only realistic if the country is relatively peaceful and more internal conflict would prevent this. The international community cannot station troops or organizations in Sudan if the organizations were forced to defend themselves against Sudanese threats as well.

The Threat of a Failed State. This month, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Sudan 3rd in a list of failed states. The Sudanese government is divided according to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, yet even the two governments combined do not control all of Sudan's military strength. Militant groups like the Janjaweed in Darfur enjoy significant influence in many regions in Sudan, threatening the stability of the entire country.

If Sudan descends further into chaos due to a mishandled referendum vote, it is likely that terrorist networks will move into Sudan as a safe haven. The international community has realized since the attacks on September 11th that failed states are often recruiting bases for terrorist networks. Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group in Somalia with strong ties to Al-Qaeda, is a perfect candidate for filling the power vacuum left by the Sudanese government's collapse. Sudan is an enormous and strategically-placed country that could be a base of operations for terrorist organizations.

Thus, the United States and the international community in general have a strategic interest in keeping Sudan's government in control. A peaceful outcome in the 2011 referendum would secure the Sudanese government's control over militant groups, which will keep terrorist networks like Al-Shabaab from using Sudan as a base of operations.

This practical viewpoint may seem cold and calculating, but it is important to see that there are both humanitarian and strategic reasons for working to stabilize Sudan before and after the 2011 referendum. Sudan may be a strategic country to the international community, but it is a very fragile one as well.

This post was featured by South Sudan News Agency.

Correction: This post was updated July 8, 2010.