The third part of Londonstani's look at the Darfur conflict.
Counter insurgency doctrine states that it takes more than brute force to pacify a restive population. This is not a lesson that the Sudanese government learned from the two-decade long civil war it fought with southern rebels that ended just as the Darfur conflict kicked off.
The Sudanese government’s outlook is common amongst the ruling elites of other Arab countries. But Sudan is different from other Arab countries in the same way Afghanistan is different from Pakistan. The ruling elites of Khartoum have rarely wielded effective power far outside of Khartoum and their own tribal homelands without having to enter into alliances with local forces.
And, that's exactly what the government did next. In a move that closely resembles the U.S. effort to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan only two years before,
Khartoum identified that the main support for the rebels came from the Fur and Zaghawa communities. So, it turned to their nomadic Arab neighbours, and competitors for dwindling resources. The government cut deals with the leaders of these groups, offering them money, weapons and whatever land they could appropriate from their neighbours to help put down the rebellion. The government called its new proxy warriors the Popular Defence Forces. Ali Khushayb was their chief. The militia, and gunmen linked to them, are to blame for the brutal attacks on civilians that the U.S. has called a genocide. Often, these attacks were co-ordinated by Sudanese army officers and supported by Sudanese airforce bombing.
As the fighting intensified, so did the rebels’ demands. The ragtag fighters suddenly attracted the attention of disaffected Sudanese on the peripheries of government or in self-imposed exile. One of these men was the leader of JEM, Khalil Ibrahim, a former government commander during the “Jihad” against the southerners. The root cause of the Darfuris’ problems – their new friends explained to them – was that the government wouldn’t agree to power sharing. Sudan was run as a private club, they said. Ibrahim adopted the Darfur cause to further his own personal spat with his former friends in the regime. Other leaders, like Mini Minnawi, the head of one faction of the SLA, saw the war as a means to stop the janjawid attacks and bring Darfur more government attention. Minnawi once told me he was a simple school teacher who wanted equality for his people, which was why he entered an uneasy alliance with the government. The other SLA leader Abdul Wahid al Nur seemed to quickly realise the war presented him the opportunity of gaining independence for Darfur, with him as the leader.
Governments tend to see themselves as the true embodiment of their nation's hopes and destiny. With Muslim governments, this results in a tendency to portray opponents as not only traitors to the nation, but traitors to Islam. Sudan is no different. The Sudanese government does its best to portray the rebels as sell outs. This is helped by an added dose of Arab chauvinism that sees non-Arabs as “not quite as Muslim” as those who speak the language of the Quran.
The government had already portrayed the two-decade war against the southerners as a Jihad for the defence of Islam against “animal worshipping pagans” and “American backed Christians”. This official mentality was swiftly adapted to explain the actions of the Darfuris, who were mainly Muslim. While in Khartoum in 2005 and 2006, I spoke to several Sudanese officials who described Darfur's rebels as Israeli agents. Stealing oil, they assumed, must be the motivation. The pervasive nature of this vilification blurred the lines in their own minds between civilians and combatants. When I returned this year, I could see the government was still blinded by its own faulty definitions.
In Chad, just over the border from Darfur, where refugees live in straw huts under constant threat of Sudanese bombardment, men and women described the latest push by the Sudanese against the rebels. In a campaign lasting two months, the militia gunmen – known by locals as Janjawid – backed by Sudanese army vehicles and jets destroyed villages. Ground attack aircraft were used to drop munitions on women and children who had run into the hills. One woman described seeing her five-year's throat being gauged out by flying shrapnel. Weeks on, her teenage daughter still couldn't speak. She spent most of the days sleeping or crying. One man who had a small radio, tuned into the communications between the pilots and their commanders on the ground. He told me he heard the senior officer tell the pilot; “Finish them off.” This matched the position of the officials I had met in Khartoum, which was basically summed up as; “If they fight us, they are rebels. If they let those who fight us live in their villages, they are rebels. And rebels need to be killed.”
Despite the outlook of the officials, the government in Khartoum hasn’t yet managed to make the Sudanese population adopt its point of view. In a traditional, uncentralised society, people are more likely to demonstrate their independent streak by deciding they will decide who they like and don't like, and not whatever clique presently claims to rule. The government might try to equate itself with “the nation”, but that in itself is a pretty loose notion to most Sudanese.
JEM commanders had pressed the importance of a hearts and minds approach on their fighters before the push to Khartoum. When the fighters arrived at the outskirts of the city, they asked to buy food and water from the locals, treated everyone they came across with respect and explained their fight was with the government alone. The locals, ignoring government propaganda that the men were bandits, killers and Israeli agents, offered them food for free, before asking them about the reasons behind their conflict with the government.
I arrived in Sudan, three days after the failed raid. The JEM fighters had over stretched. Their exhausted fighters had come close to their objectives and key divisions of the army had refused orders to fight them. But the government's bacon had been saved by the security forces, an army-within-an-army formed to protect the regime rather than the country.
The relative of a friend lived in one of the areas JEM fought government troops.
“The JEM guys came to my uncle’s house asking to buy food and water,” he told me. “My uncle could see they were tired and hungry so he asked them to come inside and my aunt brought them food and water. But before they had a chance to leave, the government forces came and arrested them along with my uncle.
“My uncle said to the soldiers, ‘Why are you arresting me?’ They said, ‘because you gave help to the enemies of the state.’ So my uncle says to them, ‘I saw only travelers needing food and water. As a Muslim, it was my duty to provide that. The conflict between you is none of my business.’”
The soldiers let the uncle go.
After the battles on the outskirts of Khartoum, the government adopted the language of counterterrorism to tar its enemies. JEM, it told the world, were Islamist extremists bent on turning Sudan into an Islamic state.
JEM's rank and file soldiers were not Islamists. But the changes brought about by the conflict could persuade some of them that a modern adaptation of Islam could provide all the answers. Others, could come to think, maybe with some outside influence, that the only way forward was to force everyone to live as the prophet had in 7th century Arabia. Others still, might respond to Khartoum's racial superiority complex by rediscovering the glory of their own ancestors.
The traditional bonds that could have helped Darfur return to normal are disappearing, if they haven't already gone. This situation is echoed in Afghanistan. American journalist Nir Rosen writing for Rolling Stone magazine quotes a Taliban commander who disapproves of his fellow fighters' targeting of civilians.
“There used to be rules. Now, for many Taliban, there is only killing. They are not acting like Afghans,” he told Rosen.
The rebels I was with observed all five daily prayers, the spoke about the actions of Khartoum as being “un-Islamic”, and talked about adhering to the Sharia. We began our first meeting sitting cross legged on a mat. We spoke after the commander recited the opening verses of the Quran and started our conversation by praising the prophet and his companions and asking God to guide our actions. This was the usual way of conducting affairs in Darfur.
Many of the fighters complained that bandits had hurt their cause by pretending to be rebels while looting aid convoys or stealing from civilians. They blamed the other main rebel group, the SLA, for having poor command and control over its fighters. Sources in Khartoum confirmed that JEM were the more disciplined force with fighters exhibiting better standards of behaviour.
These were Muslims from Darfur, not radical extremist Islamists. So far, Darfur has escaped the influence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has operated as far south as Nigeria, and the al Qaeda presence in Somalia. But Darfur is just the sort of place AQ can flourish.