Intelligence Brief: Sudan

Posted in Africa | 04-Oct-05 | Author: Michael Weinstein

The largest country in Africa in land mass and a rising oil power -- pumping 300,000 barrels of crude per day and working to raise the total to 500,000 by the end of 2005 -- Sudan was at the center of East African politics during the week of September 19, hosting a regional counter-terrorism conference, inaugurating its first "unity" government, resulting from the agreement ending the country's north-south civil war, and reporting a victory in its other civil war -- in the western region of Darfur -- amid warnings from United Nations envoy Jan Pronk that the conflict was escalating to dangerous levels.

Once the haven for al-Qaeda and an Islamic confrontation state, Sudan has more recently -- especially since 9/11 -- changed its strategic aims and its foreign policy, moving towards integration with the broader world community and its loose capitalist order, under pressure from Washington, but also as a result of a domestic decision to focus on the possibilities for economic development opened up by its oil industry.

Khartoum's major foreign policy objective is to have Washington remove Sudan from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism. Although Washington publicly credits Khartoum with cooperation in its effort to suppress revolutionary Islamist groups, it has not acceded to Khartoum's wish because of the persistence of the Darfur conflict and the fact that Sudan serves as a route for Islamist fighters heading north to Iraq. Removal from Washington's list is important to Khartoum, not only because U.S. economic sanctions would be lifted, but because improved relations with Washington would encourage foreign investment in Sudan generally.

Counter-Terrorism Conference

Hosting the September 20-22 counter-terrorism conference, which brought together security chiefs from 16 north-central and east African states, and observers from Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, China, the U.N., the E.U. and the U.S., was a primary goal of Khartoum, which hoped that its selection would enhance its international legitimacy.

Although the states represented at the meetings have genuine domestic interests in suppressing international Islamic revolutionary groups and domestic insurgencies that operate across porous borders, the conference was also an extension of Washington's grand strategy for the region, which is based on the long-term aim of gaining access to the region's states in order to foster military-military relations and undertake civil affairs projects. Washington hopes that its strategy of penetration will provide the basis for friendly regimes in the area that will suppress radical Islamism and work to alleviate endemic poverty, which Washington sees as the root cause of the region's instability.

It is not an accident that the states attending the conference overlap with the countries falling under the "area of responsibility" and "area of interest" of the Combined Task Force Horn of Africa for U.S. Central Command, which is based in Djibouti and is tasked with implementing Washington's regional strategy. While the conference was going on, Major General Timothy Ghormley was in Washington holding a press briefing underscoring Washington's policy in soberly optimistic terms.

Held in secret, except for televised opening remarks, the conference was more a symbolic show of solidarity than an advance over the pledge to cooperate made by the participating states at their first meeting in Kenya in 2004. The Declaration on Counter-Terrorism issued at the end of the conference reaffirmed earlier commitments, mentioned a "plan of action" and included a pledge to combat terrorism "in all its forms." The latter responded to complaints by Khartoum that Washington applies a "double-standard" in its "war on terrorism," targeting radical Islamism to the exclusion of other armed movements.

Conspicuously absent from the conference were Eritrea, which had not been invited, and Somalia, a failed state with an interim government based in Kenya, waiting on promised peacekeeping troops from Uganda and Sudan to secure its relocation to Mogadishu. Khartoum accuses Asmara of providing support to the rebels in Darfur. Somalia is the focal point of al-Qaeda activity in East Africa. In his press briefing, Ghormley admitted that his Task Force had made little progress in gaining access to Eritrea and made it clear that he was barred by administration policy from intervening in Somalia.

The effectiveness of regional cooperation with Washington's policy remains problematic. States in the region -- Sudan in particular -- are more interested in gaining legitimacy for their own domestic counter-insurgencies than in suppressing international Islamic revolution. Eritrea remains in an incipient state of war with Ethiopia. Each interested party in the region will define "terrorism" according to its own priorities, blunting and confusing intra-regional collaboration.

Unity Government and Escalation in Darfur

The selection of Khartoum to host the counter-terrorism conference was, in part, a reward for its 2005 peace agreement with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (S.P.L.M./A.) that ended a twenty-year civil war between the Muslim north, which controlled the state apparatus, and the Christian and animist south. [See: "Sudan's Changing Map"]

During the conference, the unity government prescribed by the agreement was sworn in, with the National Congress Party, representing the north and supporting President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, gaining 52 percent of the cabinet appointments, including the power ministries and the finance and energy ministries. Left with only the foreign ministry among the important posts, the S.P.L.M./A., which had fought hard for the energy ministry, was dealt a blow to its credibility with its constituency. Analysts predict that there is now a high likelihood that in four years the south will vote to separate from Sudan, as allowed by the peace agreement.

As the unity government was experiencing a shaky start, the civil war in the Darfur region heated up when the rebels there seized a town in violation of a 2005 cease-fire agreement. Khartoum responded with military force and succeeded in retaking the town. The African Union (A.U.), which is mediating peace talks between Khartoum and the two rebel groups in Abuja, Nigeria, urged all sides to hold to the cease-fire, and U.N. envoy Pronk issued a gloomy assessment of the situation, calling on countries that had promised aid to Darfur to honor their pledges.

The Bottom Line

As Khartoum seeks to break out of international isolation, it faces the legacy of northern domination of Sudan's south and west. Northern interests remain dominant in the country, but they have been challenged by previously suppressed regional groups.

Unwillingness of the northern political class to share power more generously promises to lead to eventual secession by the south and continued warfare in the west. The latter will constrain Washington to keep Khartoum on its list of terrorism sponsors. Hosting the counter-terrorism conference did nothing to change Khartoum's precarious position and enhance its international legitimacy.

Drained by civil war in the west and persisting tensions with the south, Khartoum will be hard pressed to achieve its development goals.

Having chosen to stay out of Somalia, at odds with Eritrea and equivocal towards Sudan, Washington risks being drawn into regional conflicts on one or another side rather than achieving its aim of regional integration. If Washington takes sides, it risks exacerbating instability; if it refrains from doing so, its effectiveness will be, at best, modest.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].