This is the second in a five-part series.
Khartoum has changed. While it is still hot, without any greenery and covered with the fine dust that permeates one's eyes, teeth and hair, it is now extremely crowded. New buildings financed by Sudan's recently-exploited oil wealth dot the main thoroughfares, where men in traditional dress trudge to work but women are markedly absent. While the Khartoum Hilton has undergone no obvious improvements since I last saw it in the late 1980s, there were more state security personnel evident in the lobby than ever before.
We were there because of the crisis in Darfur, where government-sponsored Arab militias have wreaked havoc on the local inhabitants, displacing close to 1.5 million people. The humanitarian situation is grave and the human rights crisis even worse. In July, the U.N. Security Council gave the Sudanese government 30 days to disarm the militias, or face possible sanctions. But with the deadline now past, sanctions remain an idle threat, despite the U.N.'s findings that the security situation has not improved. And so, while international scrutiny has put the government on its best behavior, senior Sudanese officials rightly assume that the international community talks a good game, but doesn't deliver.
The government's strategy is to defend, deny and deceive. I have never before observed a government so adept at speaking with one voice. It seemed apparent that each of the officials we met with – from Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, to Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, to the minister of humanitarian affairs and local officials in Darfur – was communicating on the basis of carefully scripted talking points.
The current regime in Khartoum may be ruthless, but it is not stupid, for in each of these talking points rests a kernel of truth. The deceit is in what is not said.
The government's first talking point: The humanitarian situation has vastly improved, due largely to the government's imposition of a three-phased strategy aimed at "life saving," "life enhancing," and "rehabilitation" measures. By all accounts, the humanitarian situation has improved. U.N. and relief agency officials told us that more aid is getting through, and the government is more readily providing travel and other permits to the estimated 500 expatriate and 1,500 Sudanese relief personnel operating in Darfur. But, improved access has also made clear that the scope of the crisis is greater than was anticipated. Displaced men, women and children are congregated in 147 camps across Darfur, and camp populations are growing. Relief workers told us that their most immediate constraints are capacity and resources – but added that at the end of the day, the real problem is that the militia is still operating with impunity.
Talking point two is that the real problem is not the militia, but the rebels. It is in fact true that rebels are part of the equation. Two movements—the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)—operate in Darfur, and a spectacular attack on the airport at El Fasher, Darfur's regional capital, surprised the government in Khartoum and was the proximate cause of its decision to unleash the Arab militias. But these are not rebels without a cause. For decades Darfur has been under-served and over-exploited, and the armed opposition is fueled by growing popular rage and strong desires for more power in and resources from the central government. Meanwhile, it's not as though government forces are sitting idle – ground troops have been active, and the Sudanese air force has on several recent occasions provided aerial support to marauding militia units.
The third point is that the janjaweed – the common name for the armed militia – are just simple bandits. And there are bandits in Darfur who have traditionally preyed on settled farmers, looted cattle, and provoked mayhem. But the janjaweed are not bandits – they are organized militia with recognized leaders who have been empowered by the government as "Public Defense Forces" and permitted to run rampant across Darfur. Far from being mere robbers and thieves, satellite imagery confirms that the janjaweed have destroyed more than half of Darfur's villages.
Fourth, goes the script, the fear expressed by displaced Darfuris is psychological. The palpable dread conveyed by the displaced is hardly 'in their heads,' nor is it just an emotional hangover based on recent events. The displaced fear future attacks – and rightly so. New attacks are still being reported on a regular basis, refugees continue to stream into Chad, and some of the displaced have even been assaulted on the outskirts of the camps where they've sought refuge.
Talking point five is that it is impossible to disarm the militia because everyone in Darfur has weapons – after all, the United States hasn't even been able to disarm the insurgents in Iraq. Clearly, it will be difficult to disarm the militia, and it is true that most Darfuris have weapons. But the problem is less the weapons than it is the authority granted to the militia to turn those weapons against the civilian population.
And the final talking point: The solution cannot possibly include an international peacekeeping force, because it would itself come under attack and prove unable to provide security. There is no doubt that a U.N. peacekeeping force would face formidable obstacles in Darfur – but what is on the table is not a U.N. force, but the expansion of the observer mission manned by the African Union.
There was a strange veneer of normalcy about our meetings with government officials. They conveyed a high degree of seriousness, and an intimate knowledge of the politics of the American election, but no real sense of urgency. Darfur, it seems, is a diplomatic problem that is causing problems with the Security Council and Washington, but not a crisis for Sudan. Our interlocutors offered few concessions, and at the conclusion of our meetings – during which we pressed the government, repeatedly and hard, to allow the African Union to expand its observer force – what we got was that the government was "willing" to "consider" the proposal.
Gayle Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.