What’s Behind the Horror in Darfur?


Nineteen months of scorched-earth assaults–conducted by mounted Arab militias in concert with government planes and helicopters–have forced most of the African population in Sudan’s western Darfur region to flee. According to UN estimates, 50,000 people have been killed, and 1.4 million people have fled their homes–and now live in poorly supplied refugee camps.

At least 3,000 more fled new assaults in the past two weeks. But reports indicate that attacks have slowed down–because the objective of destroying most of the area’s African villages is already accomplished.

To discourage resettlement, the militias–known as "janjaweed"–have poisoned many of the arid region’s wells with animal carcasses and human corpses. Some of the janjaweed now haunt the fringes of the refugee camps and kill–or rape–those who stray outside. Others have been integrated into the Sudanese army or the "police" forces that patrol the camps.

U.S. officials have predicted that as many as 1 million more could die by the end of the year from hunger and disease if foreign assistance does not increase. The UN’s World Food Program reports that donors have so far provided less than half of the $194 million necessary for relief operations in 2004.

Although donors may boost their support for air drops of food to the camps–many of which are now isolated by seasonal rains–direct Western intervention is unlikely. One reason is that the Sudan government has warmed to the idea of an increased presence of African Union (AU) troops in Darfur–something that is favored by both European and U.S. officials.

Darfur, a region the size of Texas, currently has a token force of 300 AU soldiers, but a UN-AU plan calls for 3,000 more by the end of the year, plus 1,200 AU police. The janjaweed were estimated to number 20,000 in July.

The Sudan government launched its campaign of ethnic cleansing in early 2003 in response to a local insurgency by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The rebels, mostly Islamic farmers who identify themselves as African, demanded an end to government neglect of the region, President Umar al-Bashir’s campaign to "Arabize" local administration and his backing of the earliest janjaweed raids.

The janjaweed are drawn from nomadic livestock herders–also Muslims–who consider themselves Arabs. Conflicts between farmers and herders over land and water have sharpened since the late 1960s when prolonged drought caused the Sahara Desert to expand.

The government exploited these conflicts and subcontracted to the janjaweed the work of combating the insurgency–allowing them in return to keep what they can loot. The central government perfected this method–of swallowing up an anti-government insurgency with a local ethnic slaughter–in two decades of war in the country’s south against the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Under pressure from the U.S., the SPLA and Bashir reached an agreement in May to share power and the south’s oil wealth. Washington hoped the arrangement in the south would show that Bush’s "war on terror" had brought peace–and would allow U.S. oil companies back into Sudan. But the Darfur crisis has forced Bush to distance himself again from the Bashir regime.

So the U.S. is looking for ways to convert the indigenous rebel groups into proxies of the West. There’s already a connection. From its inception last year, the SLA has received support from Chad, a U.S. client. This assistance is part of a decades-old practice of the region’s governments to back insurgencies of ethnic or political allies against neighboring states.

And there’s another connection. The SLA’s strikes against government outposts in 2003 are widely seen to have been inspired by the headway made by the rebels of southern Sudan, the SPLA, thanks to U.S. backing. This open support followed quiet, privatized support from U.S. Christian evangelicals who backed the Christian and animist fighters of the SPLA against the Islamists of the central government.

As Darfur’s Africans teeter on the brink of catastrophe, the SLA and JEM have taken a hard line in negotiations with the government–clearly emboldened by the idea that the U.S. stands behind them. But the more deeply the U.S. gets involved, the more the rebels will become pawns in the U.S. game for regional influence.

And to some extent, the SLA and JEM may already be sucked up into the ethnic war. Although they took up arms to press real grievances, reports from Al Jazeera and The Economist in August alleged that the rebels themselves began to engage in ethnic cleansing.

Even military intervention by the African Union is not neutral. Its most prominent backer is the regime of Nigerian military strongman Olusegun Obasanjo, who wants to curry favor with the U.S. and elevate Nigeria as a reliable "sub-imperial" power. Any sizable intervention would depend on the U.S. for equipment and arms, so the AU’s efforts will represent an indirect form of Western intervention–the path that Bush may prefer as the U.S. seeks to develop African proxies for future use.

While U.S. troops–and credibility–are tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush may settle for a long-term siege of Sudan, through UN pressure and AU troops. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke last week of divisions within the Bashir regime between hardliners and moderates–the administration’s way of saying that they hope for a coup by elements friendly to the U.S.

U.S. puts oil profits first

U.S. RELATIONS with Sudan have shifted sharply more than once in the past 20 years, but not out of concern for the welfare of ordinary Sudanese. Whichever party held the White House, the key question was always how the U.S. could gain advantage over its geopolitical rivals–especially in exploiting the region’s oil wealth.

U.S. oil giant Chevron discovered major oil deposits in southern Sudan in 1979-80. Within three years, the Sudanese government unleashed a genocidal war against Christians and animists in the south–clearing villagers out of the oilfields so that Western oil companies could set up shop in "uninhabited" territories.

The U.S. maintained close relations with the government through this period, even as Sudan’s army and its local Islamic proxy militias began enslaving thousands of southern women and children. At the same time, Sudan further cemented its connection to the U.S. by backing Eritrea’s struggle for independence from Ethiopia–a cause that the U.S. suddenly embraced when Ethiopia aligned itself with Washington’s Cold War rival, the former USSR, in the late 1970s.

Under Jimmy Carter, Sudan became the sixth biggest recipient of U.S. military aid by 1980. But as the Cold War came to an end a decade later–and the Sudanese civil war disrupted Western access to the oilfields–the U.S. began to lose interest.

In 1991, George Bush Sr. made a full reversal of support when Sudan opposed his war against Iraq. He withdrew U.S. food aid to Sudan in the middle of a famine.

Under Bill Clinton, two developments drove the U.S. toward an even sharper confrontation with Sudan. One was a campaign of Christian fundamentalists–including in George W. Bush’s hometown of Midlands, Texas–to pressure Clinton to support the southern rebels. The other was Sudan’s harboring of forces hostile to the U.S., including Osama bin Laden, who lived in the country from 1991 to 1996.

Following the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton "retaliated" with a cruise missile attack on targets supposedly associated with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. The assault destroyed Sudan’s al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, which produced half of Sudan’s medicines and all of its chloroquine, a malaria medicine.

Clinton claimed–falsely, as the administration admitted a year later–that the factory was producing chemical weapons for al-Qaeda. But in 2000, Clinton’s last year as president, President Bashir began to cooperate in rooting out the most militant anti-American Islamist groups in the country–setting the stage for Bush Jr. to attempt a re-reversal of policy.

George W. Bush sought "constructive engagement" with Bashir, especially because trade sanctions that date from the Clinton years have cut U.S. companies out of the reviving oil business. Sudan’s reserves could produce oil at half the rate of Kuwait if fully developed.

While the U.S. was disengaged, Malaysia, India and China–the U.S.’s looming new geopolitical rival–made oil connections to Sudan. China has even become Sudan’s top foreign investor and controls the oil concession in southern Darfur.

Bush pressured the Christian-animist rebels in the south to negotiate with the government. As talks progressed toward the May power-sharing deal–after 2 million civilian deaths since 1983–Bush hoped that the new war in Darfur would just go away.

To sweeten the deal, Bush promised to take Sudan off the list of "states that sponsor terror"–just when the atrocities in Darfur grabbed the world’s attention. So no one should believe the latest twists and turns in the U.S. relationship with Sudan have anything to do with concern for the Sudanese people.

DAVID WHITEHOUSE writes for the Socialist Worker.

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