Can Washington `save Darfur’?

By Kevin Funk and Steven Fake

Few humanitarian crises have occasioned as much media and activist attention in the US as the conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

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Click HERE for an exclusive free excerpt from Kevin Funk and Steven Fake's latest book, Scramble for Africa.

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Major politicians routinely pay homage to suffering Darfurians in their speeches, well-heeled Darfur advocacy groups take out full-page ads in the New York Times, and commentators regularly fill op-ed ledgers around the country with righteous, indignant calls for the West to act to end the suffering. Yet for all the rhetorical attention and concern afforded to Darfur in the US, what is actually understood about the US role in addressing the conflict? Further, what do we know about the historical and current nature of Washington’s relations with Sudan, and how does this relate to our understanding of the Darfur crisis, and what we can do to address it?

Indeed, much Darfur commentary portrays the conflict as something of a fairy tale, in which the West are benevolent entities seeking to rescue the region from conflict. According to this logic, in contrast to the violent government in Khartoum, and its shadowy and amoral allies in Beijing, we are of pure motives — and well positioned to “save” Darfur.

The corporate media never raise the obvious questions: does the history of US involvement in Sudan merit such a sanguine conclusion about its intentions now? Is Washington really the potential saviour of Darfur that it is often portrayed to be?

Washington and Khartoum

The US first became heavily involved in Sudan in the 1970s, forging an alliance with the rightward-turning dictatorship of Jafaar Nimeiri, who Washington came to see as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, Libya and the region’s moves towards pan-Arabism.

George H. W. Bush, then the US ambassador to the UN, shared satellite imagery with the Nimeiri regime indicating possible oil reserves in the country’s south, and obtained approval for the US-based energy giant Chevron to do the exploratory work.

The Sudanese government’s desire for the oil money to flow into the central government’s coffers, instead of to the country’s south, reignited a north-south civil war, which would last 22 years and take some 2 million lives, mostly civilians in the south.

Such was the level of US backing for Khartoum that a senior Sudanese official noted that there was a Washington-Khartoum “air bridge” of weapons shipments, used by the government to wage war.

With Khartoum having demonstrated its acquiescence towards Washington’s dictates by being the only Arab country to support the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978, Sudan by the early 1980s was receiving more economic and military aid from the US than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa.

As a series of famines beset Sudan in the ’80s, Washington demonstrated the depth of its purported humanitarian concern by using its influence to ensure, with few exceptions, that Western aid organisations did not operate in rebel-controlled zones — keeping food provisions from starving people who lived in the “wrong place”.

For those who have called for US participation in or leadership of an invading force in Sudan (such as vice-presidential elect Joseph Biden), under the guise of a “humanitarian intervention” to help Darfurians, how to explain the past nature of US policies of towards Sudan?

In fact, though the US alliance with Sudan cooled after Nimeiri’s overthrow in 1985, and broke down entirely subsequent to Khartoum’s verbal backing of Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War, Washington’s disregard for Sudanese lives has continued unimpeded to the present.

US terrorist atrocity

At the nadir of US-Sudanese relations in 1998, with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright having declared support for “regime change” in Khartoum the previous year, the US launched a missile attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant near the Sudanese capital.

Though officially justified on the grounds of the plant’s supposed links to the Osama bin Laden network, the US later claimed to have had faulty intelligence on the plant.

In reality, al-Shifa produced a significant portion of Sudan’s basic medicines and had no terrorist links. Washington evinced no concern for the resulting deaths — estimated in the tens of thousands — from having destroyed one of the main pharmaceutical suppliers in a poor, sanctioned country, nor did the US send replacement medicines or even apologise.

Such blatant disregard for Sudanese lives contrasts sharply with Washington’s current fevered declarations of unswerving support for Darfurians.

The US has consistently been the Sudanese government’s most vocal critic, rarely missing an opportunity to make political hay out of its harsh condemnations of Khartoum — standing alone among major governments in declaring that Sudan has committed “genocide” in Darfur.

Yet Washington has largely failed to take even rudimentary steps to address the crisis, and in several ways, has made it worse.

Soaring rhetoric aside, the US cannot even be bothered to fully fund humanitarian operations in Darfur. In June, the World Food Program had to cut its aid flights to the region due to a lack of funding from wealthy donor nations.

The African Union peacekeeping force that was deployed in Darfur until the end of 2007 was so badly underfunded that at times it was unable to pay the salaries of its troops.

The current joint UN-AU force in Darfur (UNAMID) has been searching in vain for a country to supply it with two dozen helicopters since August 2007, while the US reportedly has some 350 transport helicopters deployed nearby in its brutalising occupation of Iraq.

Peace negotiations failure

In a textbook case of how not to pursue peace negotiations, Washington leaned heavily on participants to meet the hurried deadline for the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), even though most Darfurians were generally unaware of its content.

When only one faction of one rebel group signed onto the accord (Minni Minnawi’s contingent of the Sudan Liberation Army), the Bush administration nevertheless pushed forward.

Then-US deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick labeled the non-signatory groups as “outlaws to the process”, and Minnawi’s forces, emboldened, launched violent attacks against rebel and civilian targets in Darfur.

The long-term consequences have been disastrous, as rebel groups have splintered many times over in its wake, thus gravely complicating the possibility of holding serious, participatory peace talks in Darfur.

Most brazenly, Washington has developed close intelligence-sharing relationships with some of the very same figures and apparatuses responsible for the violence in Darfur. Under the guise of the “war on terror”, the CIA has held daily liaison meetings with its Sudanese counterpart the Mukhabarat, collaborating to spy on Iraqi rebel movements.

The Sudanese intelligence chief Salah Abdallah Gosh, who in the words of retired general Wesley Clark and Clinton administration official John Prendergast is “very likely a war criminal whose policies are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Darfurians”, was flown to the White House for meetings in 2005 on a CIA jet. Washington also tried to block the UN from including him on a sanctions list.

Despite its bellowing over Khartoum’s human rights record, the Bush administration’s 2007 budget justification referred to Sudan’s position “on the front lines in the War on Terrorism”, a country for which Washington “will maintain its strong support”.

The US and China

While Washington’s haranguing of Khartoum for its serious crimes in Darfur serves to placate domestic groups such as the Save Darfur Coalition and increase public animosity towards the Arab and Muslim worlds — a key aim in gaining support for US foreign policy adventurism in the Middle East — the broader US interest in the conflict is the Sudan-China alliance.

The prime concerns for the US are impeding Chinese access to non-Western controlled energy reserves, like Sudan’s, which are fundamental to China’s prospects for independent development.

Second, Washington is concerned by the extent to which China is extending its political and economic influence throughout Africa and the global South, its ties with strategically vital countries such as Sudan being a prime example.

Across the African continent, Washington and Beijing are competing for alliances, offering economic and military aid packages to unsavory regimes in exchange for unfettered access to vast natural resource reserves.

Due to Khartoum’s unpliant nature, its flirtations with pan-Arabism and the public relations difficulties brought about by its flattening of Darfur, Sudan

This is a major concern for Washington, as in the words of Foreign Affairs magazine, the country’s “geostrategic location means that changes in Sudanese political orientations have repercussions on the entire African continent and the Red Sea littoral”.

Seeking to counter Beijing’s moves into the region, Washington has been expanding its presence on the continent from which it now gets more oil than the Middle East, opening on October 1 its first ever military command centre (Africom) devoted exclusively to Africa.

Africom will manage, and seek to expand, US cooperation with a litany of human rights abusers from the Washington-allied Obiang dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea, to the US-backed Ethiopian occupation of Somalia.

Genuine assistance

With Washington’s track record of contempt for Sudanese lives, its failure to even keep aid flights going at full capacity in Darfur, and its moves to militarise the African continent, the US is hardly an innocent bystander as conflict rages on in western Sudan, nor the honest, selfless broker that media and activist commentary often portray it to be.

Though US machinations in Darfur are not on par with China’s devastating alliance with Sudan, Washington has also acted against the interests of Darfurians and detrimental to a just solution to the conflict.

Honest activists pursuing the noble cause of seeking to advocate for Darfur must pursue their campaigns with this in mind, and seek to confront, rather than feed into, US foreign policy — not only in Darfur and Sudan, but the region as a whole.

[This article first appeared in the December 3, edition of Green Left Weekly. Steven Fake and Kevin Funk are the co-authors of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA, released in October by Black Rose Books. They maintain a blog with their commentary at]