Darfur: more complicated than it seems

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

There has been increased interest among Americans in recent months in the ethnic conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. Following a visit by Colin Powell, millions of Americans who had little previous knowledge of Sudan now recognize the words Janjaweed and Khartoum. Yet there continues to be significant misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict, the U.S. role in the conflict so far, and most importantly, what the correct course of action for the U.S. should be.

Firstly, what is occurring is genocide. Over a million people have been forced from their homes, many herded into refugee camps where they face severe malnutrition. Tens of thousands have been killed. Even with this, the Bush Administration will not refer to it as genocide. In June, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., closed its main exhibitions to draw attention to Darfur, claiming, ?The obligation to prevent genocide is a legal one and a moral one. Too often in the past, as this museum starkly illustrates, warnings have been received and ignored, and the result has been death and suffering on a massive scale.?

Secondly, this is a very complicated genocide, more so than the media are portraying it. This is not a one-sided conflict where a rampaging Janjaweed is running rampant over a docile population. Instead, there are at least two forces, the Janjaweed and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), fighting in a situation that is reminiscent of many other conflicts across the world. A state-sponsored militia (the Janjaweed) engages a rebel group (the SLA, as well as the Justice and Equality Movement) with the rural peasant population caught in the crossfire. The people are the true losers in this conflict as is often the case. Yet the media continue to use the term ?ethnic cleansing? to describe the situation. While ethnicity may be one of many focal points that the armies are fighting over, it is hardly the only motivation for the conflict. While genocide is occurring, it is occurring because of the actions of both the militia and the rebels.

Thirdly, the U.S. has played a role in Darfur in the build-up to the genocide. Democratic candidate John Kerry is criticizing the Bush administration for failing to take action, but he is ignoring the fact that the U.S. has been involved for the past few years, even dating back to the Clinton administration. The U.S. had supported rebel groups in Sudan for years, attempting to undermine the Khartoum government with hopes of gaining access to Sudan?s supplies of oil. It is hard to untangle the web of support, but it is known that Madeleine Albright met with John Garang, the head of the Sudanese People?s Liberation Army, who funneled support to the SLA. Regardless, we need to recognize that the U.S. has known for years about this situation, has kept a close eye on it, and has a vested interest in the outcome.

Fourthly, it is a mistake to encourage militia groups to avoid local negotiations. A peace treaty for southern Sudan was signed in April, and the atrocities there are abating. Meanwhile, ongoing talks in Darfur offer the same hope for that conflict. The humanitarian crisis needs immediate attention, and there are skirmishes and banditry on both sides. Yet if the U.S., NATO, or the UN sends troops to aid the rebels now, it will send the worst message possible: that local mediation to conflicts will be ignored if world powers don?t like the terms. Quite simply, it will encourage rebel troops to avoid peace talks in the hope of getting a better deal with outside intervention.

The public doesn?t hear about how the Sudan government tried and convicted six Janjaweed ?bandits? and sentenced them to gruesome punishments. It doesn?t hear of the crimes of the rebel groups fighting the Janjaweed. If the U.S. gets involved and sides with the SLA, it risks losing the support of the people of Darfur, the true victims of these genocides. All of Sudan might oppose Western intervention based on a long history of being oppressed by the West, from General Charles ?Chinese? Gordon to the bombing of the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory. Following the war in Iraq, sending troops to Darfur might seem like an attempt to overthrow another sovereign government with significant oil reserves.

The American people should not allow the rhetoric of altruism to draw them into an unpopular and unnecessary war. Instead of siding with either of the combatants in a conflict without ?good guys,? the U.S. should side with the people of Darfur. It should provide humanitarian aid to people who are starving to death in refugee camps: There is a moral obligation to support those threatened by genocide. Furthermore, the U.S. should support the African Union?s decision to supply troops to maintain the peace between the Janjaweed and the rebel groups. Instead of having Western powers get involved in an African conflict, we should encourage the African Union to mediate the situation. It has already taken steps in this direction. Finally, if the U.S. has been supporting the rebel groups, it should immediately terminate this policy.