Sudan's 18-year-old civil war--the longest-running internal conflict in the world today--has claimed the lives of more than 2 million people, displaced about 5 million people inside the country, and sent another half-million into exile. The conflict pits the Sudanese government, dominated by Muslim Arabs from northern Sudan, against an opposition coalition composed predominantly of black Christians and animists living in the south.
In recent years, Sudan's radical Islamic regime has escalated the onslaught to genocidal proportions. It has resorted to systematic bombing of civilians, starvation, slavery, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, and other human rights abuses to break the will of the opposition.
Although Sudan has been relegated to the back burner of American foreign policy for many years, the Bush Administration is poised to become more actively engaged in diplomacy to resolve the conflict. Secretary of State Colin Powell proposed that the United States seek an end to Sudan's barbarous civil war during his recent trip to Africa. While this goal is laudable, Powell's call for even-handedness suggests a moral equivalence that ignores the role played by the Khartoum regime in repressing its own people and supporting international terrorism against the United States and many other countries. Moreover, by shortchanging the Sudanese opposition's need for external economic and possibly military aid, an even-handed policy focused on achieving a diplomatic settlement plays into the hands of Sudan's dictator, Omar al-Bashir.
An exclusively diplomatic U.S. approach to Sudan's festering humanitarian crisis would allow Bashir's regime to engage in endless negotiations as a way to buy time to score a military victory. Proximity talks between the Bashir regime and the Sudanese opposition at a June 2, 2001, regional peace summit in Nairobi, Kenya, made little progress. In fact, Khartoum has flirted with negotiations in the past, only to abandon them when its military position improved. The military balance of power now is shifting in favor of the Bashir regime because of Sudan's growing oil exports, which began in 1999.
Approaching Sudan's internal crisis purely as a humanitarian issue is self-defeating. The United States has poured more than $1.2 billion of food aid into Sudan since 1989, yet 3 million people still are at risk of starvation, largely as a result of the regime's scorched-earth tactics. Moreover, the Khartoum regime continues to bite the hand that feeds it by supporting international terrorists like Osama bin Laden who have killed Americans, as well as Islamic revolutionaries who threaten American allies.
The problem is not just ending the civil war but ending the Sudanese government's genocidal policies, and it is not likely that this can be accomplished without a change of regime. Although the recent purge of ultra-radical Islamic ideologue Hassan al-Turabi has led the Khartoum dictatorship to moderate its rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the regime is truly interested in a diplomatic settlement of the war.
Instead of approaching the Sudan issue as purely a humanitarian crisis that calls for evenhandedness, the Bush Administration should oppose any regime in Khartoum that insists on imposing strict Islamic law (Sharia) on non-Muslims in the south, because such rigidity will only prolong the fighting. American military intervention is not necessary, nor has it been requested by the opposition, the National Democratic Alliance. If negotiations break down, the United States should help to arm, train, and support the opposition but should not do its fighting for it.
The long-term U.S. goal should be not just to stop the civil war, but to help transform Sudan into a stable and peaceful state that does not use terrorism and subversion as instruments of foreign policy. To this end, the Bush Administration should:
- Firmly oppose Islamic radicalism in
Sudan, not Sudanese Muslims. The United States should oppose
any regime that continues to support international terrorists or
insists on imposing Sharia on non-Muslims in the south.
- Strongly support the Sudanese
opposition. Washington should increase economic and
humanitarian aid to rebel-controlled areas in the south. U.S.
military aid should be considered if Khartoum continues to drag its
feet on a negotiated settlement.
- Appoint a special envoy to spearhead
and coordinate U.S. policy on Sudan. A high-level official
capable of working closely with the Sudanese opposition, the U.S.
Congress, and human rights activists is needed to coordinate all
aspects of U.S. policy on Sudan, not just the humanitarian
- Launch a high-profile campaign of
public diplomacy to publicize the regime's harsh policies and
enlist international support in pressing Khartoum to halt these
abuses. The special envoy, the Secretary of State, the
President, and other high-level officials should take every
opportunity to publicize Khartoum's bombing of civilians,
encouragement of slavery, forced starvation, ethnic cleansing, and
other human rights abuses.
- Change the way food relief supplies are
distributed inside Sudan to deprive Khartoum of its food
weapon. Washington should seek to remove the veto power that
the Sudanese government has over food deliveries in the United
Nations emergency relief program and instead deliver food supplies
directly to southern areas through organizations operating outside
the U.N. program.
- Strengthen U.S. and multilateral economic pressures against the Khartoum regime. Sudan's economic weakness remains a major area of vulnerability for the regime. Washington should work with its allies and Sudan's creditors to restrict the growth of Sudan's oil revenues and block debt renegotiations until Khartoum has ended its holy war against other countries and its own people.
James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.