excerpted from

Today's Costliest Civil War (Sudan)

by Dan Connell

The Progressive magazine, June 2000


... Sudan is the largest country in Africa, with borders that touch Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Libya. It straddles the Nile and abuts the Red Sea, a location that made it the target of revolving-door superpower intervention throughout much of the Cold War. The United States alone provided more than $2 billion in arms-ostensibly to counter Soviet influence in neighboring Ethiopia, though most of the weaponry ended up being used in the civil war.

As corrupt civilian regimes alternated with both Soviet- and U.S.-supported military coups, the country slid into economic and social crisis. Then, in June 1989, days before a truce was to be signed that would have suspended the controversial application of Islamic law, General Omar al-Bashir seized power on behalf of the extremist National Islamic Front. The new regime quickly banned all political parties, trade unions, and other "non-religious institutions." It imposed tight controls on the press and strict dress and behavior codes on women as it moved to restructure the entire society in its image.

More than 78,000 people were purged from the army, police, and civil administration, thoroughly reshaping the state apparatus, while dissidents were routinely detained in torture centers. Conscription of child soldiers became widespread, and forms of slavery reappeared when the government allowed its allied militias to raid rebel-held areas for booty, taking captured civilians with them. The National Islamic Front merged religious indoctrination and conversion with education, social services, economic development, and political mobilization. It used the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces to enforce Arabization and Islamization along narrowly sectarian lines. This provoked many Muslims to join the opposition, which gelled in the mid-1990s into a multi-ethnic and explicitly secular coalition, the National Democratic Alliance.

But it was not the regime's internal policies that triggered the break with the United States. Only after Sudan supported Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991 and after it began to harbor international Islamist guerrillas did Washington respond. The Clinton Administration prohibited U.S. economic investment, increased anti-Sudan moves in the United Nations and other international forums, and isolated Sudan as a "rogue" state.

In November 1996, the Clinton Administration pledged $20 million in non-lethal military aid to Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda to counter Sudan's border intrusions. But the eruption of a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998 wrecked the front-line alliance, and half-hearted U.S. mediation has so far failed to achieve a lasting truce there. Meanwhile, the United States has opted for punitive actions aimed directly at the regime-such as the August 1998 bombing of the Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum-because the United States suspected the Sudanese government of harboring terrorists associated with the renegade Saudi financier Osama Bin Laden.

At a highly publicized meeting with rebel leaders in Kampala, Uganda, last year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the opposition privately that military help would be forthcoming, but opposition members say they have heard (and seen) nothing since. A recent U.S. offer to provide food aid directly to the rebels has so far gone unfilled.

These gestures do little to weaken the Islamist government, but they lend credibility to its claims that it is battling not just indigenous opposition but also imperial American power...

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