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Story Publication logo September 23, 2006

Time for Diplomacy Not Confrontation


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Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center executive director, traveled to Sudan in early 2006 to investigate the...

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Darfur, Sudan

Alex de Waal, program director at the Social Science Research Council; advisor to the African Union mediation on Darfur. He is co-author, with Julie Flint, of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War (Zed Books, 2006).

The war and killing in Darfur have created an unusually horrible and complicated crisis. But the conflict is similar to other African civil wars in at least one major respect. Peace and a return to stability are possible only with a political agreement that commands the support of the key players in Darfur: the armed movements and the government. The search for a political agreement is complicated by the persistent perfidy of the government as well as the fragmentation and incapacity of the armed movements, but must be pursued nonetheless.

Khartoum's preferred option for Darfur—a military solution—is not going to work. The holdout rebel movements are in poor shape, and Khartoum's armed forces, with their proxies—the Janjaweed and now also the irregulars of rebel commander Minni Minawi—might be able temporarily to suppress the remaining resistance movements. But this would not create enough popular confidence to enable displaced people to return home, and the depth of resentment in Darfur today is such that the war would surely resume.

Over the last six months, the African Union, the United Nations, and the United States have painfully relearned an old peacemaking lesson: threats, ultimatums and deadlines don't work. Throughout the Darfur peace negotiations in Abuja, advisers warned that the process of working through the issues and building confidence, especially on security issues, was highly complex and should not be rushed. The consistent rejoinder from Washington and the UN Security Council was "your timetable is too slow—we don't have that amount of time."

Deadlines came and went, but when Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick received an assurance that Khartoum would allow in UN peacekeepers following an agreement, an inflexible deadline was finally imposed: April 30. The AU mediation team scrambled to have a text ready, and a week beforehand put a deal on the table. For the most part it was fair – as good a deal as Darfurians are likely to get. But it was a deal crafted by the mediators, not one owned by the Sudanese. Under protest, Minawi, leader of a well-armed and military proficient faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) on May 5. The combined pressure of the assembled international community, however, was not enough to persuade Abdel Wahid al Nur, chairman of the largest SLA faction, to agree. The political distance to be bridged was small and most of Abdel Wahid's lieutenants were in favor of signing. But international disinterest in continuing negotiations, the hostile response of displaced Darfurians to a deal which they mistakenly saw as a sellout, and Abdel Wahid's own erratic leadership, meant that no deal could be concluded. Abdel Wahid's "no" doomed prospects for an inclusive and workable agreement.

Khartoum knew from the outset that a deal with just Minawi would exacerbate and not end the conflict. Even as it discreetly maintained contacts with Abdel Wahid, and enticed breakaway SLA elements into the fold, the government managed to have the non-signatories expelled from the AU-chaired Ceasefire Commission and branded as outlaws—a measure that only polarized Darfur and escalated the fighting. And President Bashir went back on his commitment to allow in the UN.

As the violence worsened, the pressure was piled on Khartoum to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. The AU mission is under-funded, disorganized and poorly-led. Reliant on hand-to-mouth funding, it groped from crisis to crisis, responding to events and never establishing any confidence that it could contribute to a solution. The UN could fix some of these problems, but peacekeepers alone are never a panacea. The mission needs a strategic vision, and that vision must be political.

From a continent away, it might seem feasible for an international force to fight its way into Darfur without Khartoum's agreement, provide physical protection to all Darfur's civilians, disarm the Janjaweed, and impose a political settlement. Let's be clear: this is fantasy. It wouldn't be possible with 200,000 NATO troops, let alone 20,000 blue helmets.

Khartoum sees a UN force as a surrender of sovereignty, and believes it would have the mandate to apprehend individuals indicted by the International Criminal Court and fly them to the Hague. President Bashir worries about a Chapter VII peacekeeping operation with authority to use force being present in northern Sudan should conflict break out in the run up to the 2011 referendum on self determination in southern Sudan. He resents the way in which the push for UN troops has been conducted through bluster and threat, and he knows the threats are hollow. Bashir's position is stronger now than in the past because he has friendly neighbors. It was the presence of thousands of Eritrean, Ethiopian and Ugandan troops and armor in Sudan, supporting the Sudan People's Liberation Army, that forced Khartoum into making major concessions in the south. Washington's tough stand just provided diplomatic cover for this regional military pressure.

An international force, whether the African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) or a UN operation, can only protect Darfurians as part of a long-term political strategy for stabilizing Darfur. This means working as a partner with Darfurian leaders, including the commanders of the numerous local militia, and proceeding with disarmament by consent. It means obtaining the consent and cooperation of the Sudan government. Workable peacekeeping in Darfur is nine parts civilian relations and civilian policing to one part force. And it will take five to ten years. If consent and confidence are obtained, then the job could be done by a smaller force than the 7,000 AMIS troops present today. All of the 24,000 UN troops and international police officers currently envisioned would certainly not be required. The Nuba Mountains Joint Military Commission sustained a precarious ceasefire in neighboring Kordofan for three years with a dozen or two unarmed monitors. The Nuba Mountains situation was on a smaller scale than the Darfur crisis, but it had the same combustible mix of a scattered rebel army, displaced camps, numerous militia, and a government with an uncertain commitment to the ceasefire.

There's an immediate rationale for bolstering and rethinking AMIS. If the UN is to come in, it needs to inherit a going concern, not a remnant. The way in which the AU mission has been allowed to wither on the vine is nothing short of scandalous; and if AMIS is forced to leave Sudan, either by pressure from Bashir or by lack of funds, the result could be horrendous.

President Bashir has called the bluff of the United States and the United Nations. He has rejected the UN force, demanded that the AU withdraw unless it is prepared to retract its own demand that its mission be handed over to the UN, and deployed the regular army in Darfur. Is this brinkmanship or a real red line? The signals indicate the latter – but also that Khartoum recognizes that while it can manage Darfur by force, it needs a political settlement if the country is to achieve stability.

The tragedy of the last five months is that the Sudan government and the non-signatory SLA groups have been very close to agreement, and that an inclusive peace deal would transform the prospects for Darfur. Khartoum's perfidy and the SLA's divided and vacillating leadership are the main culprits, but diplomacy conducted by threat and ultimatum have contributed to making the political space too narrow for a real peace agreement to be hammered out. As the fighting escalates and what little confidence was won drains away, that political agreement recedes into the indefinite future. We stand at a precipice: the prospects are for a prolonged and intractable conflict that will take many lives over many years, and which the UN won't solve even if its peacekeepers arrive. That crisis will drag down all of Sudan and unravel the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the war in the South.

The demonstrators and activists have made their point: the world cares about Darfur and the Sudan government cannot proceed in defiance of the world's conscience. But UN troops are at best a stopgap and at worst a spark for even sharper conflict. What's needed now is dialogue, focused on the long-term aim of a political settlement for Darfur. That political process must be patient, inclusive, and framed by the promise of democracy held out in the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Many will condemn such a proposal as supping with the devil with a short spoon. But there is no alternative, now or in the future.

Alex de Waal

Comments by:
Jon Sawyer, executive director, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Dave Peterson, Senior Director for Africa, the National Endowment for Democracy.
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the CSIS Africa Program and executive director of the CSIS HIV/AIDS Task Force.

1. Jon Sawyer | September 23rd, 2006 at 4:11 pm

Alex de Waal has spent more than two decades mastering the intricacies of tribal politics and economic and political marginalization that characterize the modern history of Darfur. The international actors responsible for addressing that region's crisis should have listened to him more—and they should pay attention now, especially to his blunt reminder that it is "fantasy" to talk of an international peacekeeping force fighting its way into Darfur without the support of Sudan's government in Khartoum.

Those fixated on Khartoum's many sins should also heed what de Waal has to say about the "scandalous" failure by the United States and other rich nations to deliver on the dollars and logistical support they had pledged to the troops and police already in Darfur—those of the African Union. On this point de Waal's critique could have been sharper still. Those who dismiss as ineffective the 7,000 AU personnel serving in Darfur forget that by now the force was supposed to be three times larger—and that it never received anything like the number of helicopters promised by the United States and its NATO allies, nor the communication equipment and training support it was supposed to receive.

On a reporting tour with African Union forces last winter I found that most soldiers were weeks behind in pay. In a largely roadless region as big as France the AU was dependent for transportation on contract helicopters available just five days a week. Officers trying to maintain communication between remote units resorted, in the absence of anything better, to personal mobile phones. Military "protection" forces had precious little of it themselves: they patrolled with only AK-47s and from the back of open pick-up trucks.

In places where the AU was able to deploy in effective numbers, it clearly made a difference. In the vast Kalma camp for displaced persons, women were once again venturing out to the countryside to collect firewood—their security augmented by AU truck patrols. At the Zam Zam camp outside El Fasher, AU police played a much-valued role mediating between residents and the often distrusted personnel of the Sudan government police. These were exceptions, however, testament to a missed opportunity.

That missed opportunity—the failure to use the African Union as an opening to flood Darfur with personnel and resources—is one of the great puzzles of the past nine months and one of the year's great tragedies.

Part of the answer was lack of political will. Last December the Bush administration was unable to pry even $50 million for the AU mission out of Congress, even though the administration and Congress had both condemned as genocide the attacks on civilians in Darfur. European governments reached the conclusion that the AU force was ineffective, and turned off the spigots of support, at just the moment when the support was most needed and when it would have most affected the situation on the ground in Darfur.

Also at play was, in retrospect, an almost willfully obtuse reading of United Nations reality and especially of the Security Council. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton placed his chips on getting approval for a full-fledged UN peacekeeping force for Darfur with a robust mandate to protect civilians, backed by the threat of targeted sanctions. Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir called the international community's bluff, as de Waal rightly notes, knowing that at the least China and probably Russia too would wield their vetoes to block any attempt to insert U.N. troops over Khartoum's opposition – and that in any case, for all the political posturing, neither Europe nor America had the stomach to mount such a force.

The great irony is that the Bush administration drove Sudan policy into this UN cul-de-sac at a moment when it could have called Khartoum's bluff instead. At the beginning of this year Sudan's position was that a UN force was unnecessary in Darfur because the African Union was already there. Darfur activists rejected that option out of hand, as did many senior administration officials, on the ground that the AU force had proven too weak and too easily manipulated by Khartoum. But if the U.S. and its allies had used the AU force as a wedge instead – as a way to insert the logistics, advisers and cash so urgently needed in Darfur – Khartoum would have been hard pressed to object. China, Russia and Sudan's Arab allies would likely have gone along.

That was the road not taken. The AU forces were left instead badly under-staffed and under-equipped, in a position where the best they could do was protect themselves. Diplomatic efforts, meanwhile, were directed toward securing a political settlement, with repeat trips to the region by then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and finally the last-minute pressure that produced the partial peace agreement signed last May. De Waal is surely right that the insistence on rigid deadlines for a settlement was both unnecessary and self-defeating; and that not nearly enough was done to seize the opportunities presented for a lasting political settlement. A persistent problem in U.S. policy toward Sudan has been a short attention span, a fact underscored yet again by Zoellick's abrupt departure from government to take a Wall Street job. De Waal, kindly, lets this pass.

Perhaps now there is dawning recognition that the African Union is what we have, and for some months to come all we are likely to have. AU leaders have renewed the AMIS mandate for another three months; and U.S. and European officials are pressing to expedite the deliveries of equipment and weaponry that went lagging all year. Khartoum, meanwhile, is stepping up its attacks on rebel holdouts in Darfur – and on the civilian villages in which they operate. It will be tempting to focus our attention on those attacks, and to excoriate Khartoum yet again. But as de Waal bravely notes, the way to long-term peace in Darfur—and to preventing resurgence of Sudan's North-South war or igniting long-simmering tensions in the East—lies through Khartoum. Those who reject out of hand any dialogue, those who say that to engage Khartoum is to reward war crimes, do not understand how much worse this situation yet can get.

Jon Sawyer is director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

2. Dave Peterson | September 27th, 2006 at 4:36 pm

I can't resist commenting on Alex De Waal and Jon Sawyer's contributions to this forum, joining, perhaps, what may be perceived as a politically incorrect analysis of the Darfur crisis. I share both Alex's emphasis on diplomacy (I would also recommend Laurie Nathan's recent article on the Abuja negotiations in this regard –, click on "Darfur") and Jon's concern that the AU was not buttressed as it deserved to be.

As important as international pressure is, as they agree, the solution to the crisis can only be found in Khartoum, and by the Sudanese themselves. Too often, however, conflicts are only negotiated between those with the guns. If neither the rebels nor the government fully owned the DPA, even less so did the people of Darfur or Sudanese in general, and the same goes for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for southern Sudan.

Although the Darfur rebels may have broad sympathy among the population, no one suggests that they represent all the ethnic groups and constituencies of the region. Similarly, the current government essentially came to power in a coup, and its popular support is also doubtful.

The CPA provides for a series of elections in the next five years or so, which are likely to be problematic, but which could serve as the basis for popular mobilization to address the fundamental contradictions of Sudanese politics. Sudan's opposition political parties are in disarray, and the SPLM may still take the south towards self-determination, but there are forces within Sudan that could produce a more democratic dispensation that would allow marginalized communities, including those of Darfur, an opportunity to gain representation and, eventually, satisfaction of some of their grievances.

There are successful models to draw from, including South Africa, Liberia, and even the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like South Africa, sanctions and the armed struggle are apt to be only symbolically important, while the real action will occur in the civil society debate, mass awareness, and battles for hearts and minds in Khartoum and throughout Sudan.

Dave Peterson is Senior Director for Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy.

3. J. Stephen Morrison | September 28th, 2006 at 5:24 pm

Alex de Waal has done us all a considerable service in providing this refreshing if sobering assessment of where things stand in Darfur and options for the future. Less utopianism and high rhetoric — an external invasion force — is essential. Smart realism, centered on the basis for a political settlement, and more humility and introspection, are no less essential. This terse, eloquent argument has been largely missing. It is long overdue.

Darfur has generated hard lessons that we are just beginning to digest and will debate for some time as we struggle to devise a more viable, revised strategy of engagement. After a period of intense high international mobilization, what is left on the table for Darfur is a bitter and embarassing wreckage, for which there is plenty of blame to share around: among governments, non-governmental groups, and international organizations alike.

No UN operation today seems feasible. The AU operation is barely able to function but will be allowed by Khartoum to limp along. The Darfur Peace Agreement lies in disarray and humanitarian operations there are frayed. Darfur places the North-South Accord at acute risk. The government in Khartoum is relatively secure, free of serious international sanctions, and poised to begin a new military offensive. U.S. leverage has declined as a direct hangover effect of Iraq. U.S., UN Security Council and European diplomacy, repeatedly defied by Khartoum, amounts to an historic humiliation and long-term setback. And the sustained use of genocide terminology by NGOs and governments alike has accomplished little in positive, concrete terms but has provided Khartoum with a ready argument to buttress its external friendships — that Sudan is the target of a Western plot aimed at retribution, recolonization and regime change.

J. Stephen Morrison is Director of the CSIS Africa Program and Executive Director of the CSIS HIV/AIDS Task Force.



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