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How’s That Appeasement Working Out?

Barack Obama's Sudan strategy is more sophisticated than his detractors will admit. But that doesn't mean it is working.

The international community has rendered its judgment on the elections just completed in Sudan -- and it's painstakingly mild and conscientiously balanced. The European Union noted "important deficiencies against international standards," but nevertheless deemed them a "crucial" step toward national reconciliation. Major donors Britain, Norway, and the United States, known as the Sudan Troika, likewise took "note" of "initial assessments ... including the judgment that the elections failed to meet international standards." The Carter Center commended the "increased political and civic participation" surrounding the ballot.

The election was, in fact, transparently rigged, if not literally at the ballot box then effectively in the weeks and months beforehand. As the International Crisis Group put it succinctly in a report last month, the ruling National Congress Party "has manipulated the census results and voter registration, drafted the election law in its favor, gerrymandered electoral districts, co-opted traditional leaders and bought tribal loyalties."

Why, then, are these international observers, who after all represent Sudan's chief donors, so exquisitely minding their language? Last October, when the State Department promulgated its new Sudan policy, Obama administration officials told me that if they could not induce Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to hold a reasonably free and fair election, they would at the very least "tell it like it is." So why are they pulling their punches?

The advocacy community sees in the administration's soft line on Sudan an act of consummate cynicism, and perhaps the most vivid proof to date that "engagement" is English for realpolitik. John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, recently accused L. Scott Gration, the administration's envoy on Sudan, of seeking to "whitewash" the outcome of Sudan's recent national elections "for the sake of expediency." Sean Brooks of the Save Darfur Coalition, wrote that the United States and other international actors apparently prefer "stability" to "safeguarding and promoting human rights and democracy in Sudan."

But the Cold War is over, and Scott Gration is no Henry Kissinger. The Obama administration is not "supporting" Bashir, an indicted war criminal, as a counterweight to international communism, or global terrorism. Gration has called for the indictment, issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), to be served, though it's true that he hasn't been very ardent about it. What, then, explains the policy? A White House spokesman told me that relevant officials are too "swamped" to comment, so I'll have to speculate about what's in their heads -- and in the heads of the other internationals tangled in the briar patch that is Sudan.

There's no secret about the end game. In January 2005, the regime in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which between them had waged a monstrous civil war over control of the southern half of the country for two decades, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the fighting. The CPA mandated a referendum in which southerners would decide whether to secede or to join a new unity government. That referendum is to be held next January, and there is no question that voters will choose secession -- at least absent massive electoral fraud. Partition is a process that invites bloodshed on a massive scale even in places without Sudan's scarred history (think India-Pakistan). The international community, including the Obama administration, has thus made a strategic choice to give Bashir an election he was bound to rig in any case in order to increase the likelihood that he will accept a secession vote. That is the "stability" they are seeking.

The goal is worthwhile; the question is whether the concessions are both necessary and likely to be effective. We have a relevant precedent here -- and it's a very dismaying one. One of the chief reasons why the troika, as well as others, refused to acknowledge the gravity of the massacres the regime began perpetrating in the western region of Darfur in 2003 was the fear that doing so would make Bashir walk away from discussions leading to the CPA. Unwilling to threaten any kind of punishment, diplomats resorted to anguished rhetoric, even appeasement. By the time the horror had become too great to ignore, Bashir had reduced Darfur to a smoldering ruin. But the logic continued: When the CPA was signed, George W. Bush's administration kept a discreet silence on Darfur. The violence continued, if at a less torrid pace, and Bashir proceeded to ignore the terms of the agreement he had signed.

The sacrifice is smaller this time around. According to the terms of the CPA, the national election was intended to open up a political process that had been ruthlessly dominated by Bashir's National Congress Party. Opposition political parties were to be permitted to campaign. Votes were to be apportioned based on the first census in half a century. All voters were to be registered. But none of these things happened. The opposition withdrew in the face of harassment; the census was transparently cooked; voters in Darfur couldn't register. Democratic failure is, of course, a long way from genocide. Still, Bashir dearly wanted the legitimacy that he felt the election would bring, and thus might have succumbed had more pressure been applied.

That said, was the price worth paying? Put otherwise, will engagement prove more effective this time than it did in the past? Here, it must be said, the balance sheet is much more complicated than most advocates let on. With much prodding from Gration and his team, senior officials in Khartoum and the government of Southern Sudan began talking late last year, and have begun to work on critical questions of border demarcation. All the major issues remain outstanding, and both sides have been all too willing to ignore provisions of the CPA requiring democratic reform; but there is a sense of forward motion, albeit halting and eminently reversible. Nikki Smith, the former Sudan country director for the International Rescue Committee, and now the group's head of government relations and advocacy, says, "There has been meaningful progress, and I do think the Obama administration deserves some credit."

Engagement is a currency that can buy some things and not others. Engagement does not work because dictators want to be treated respectfully, or respond more readily to the carrot than the stick. Petty tyrants like Bashir treat concessions as a sign of weakness. This is why the Obama administration's besetting problem has not been "expediency," but naivete. Engagement only works when it helps bring dictators to do what is in their own interest. That's why all Obama's fine words were wasted on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: nothing the United States was prepared to offer was ever going to equal the value of Iran's nuclear program, at least in his mind. Likewise, Bashir saw the revolt in Darfur as a threat to his very existence. He was going to burn the entire region to the ground unless he was forced to stop -- and the world wasn't prepared to compel him, whether through sanctions of the threat of force.

Things could be different this time around. Just as pushing the "reset button" with Russia might have produced an atmosphere more conducive to arm-control talks that the Russians already saw as in their own interest, so the soft line on Sudan may make it easier for Bashir to accept what he already recognizes is inevitable. Does that mean the international community had to let him manipulate the election as he saw fit? No; I think the world could have, and should have, pushed him harder. And Bashir must always be aware that the ICC indictment is a very real Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. But he needs to feel that he can survive partition in order to accept it. Bashir does not deserve to survive, of course; he deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars. But we will not help Sudan if we insist on treating him and his regime as they deserve.

ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Karzai Dilemma

Afghanistan's president is far from the country's only problem. But he just might be its most intractable one.

Last week I met an official who had arrived recently at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but who was adamant -- almost vehement -- about America's prospects for success in Afghanistan. Sixty-five percent -- or some very high percentage -- of Afghans were under 25, and they were focused on their future, not on the terrible violence of previous decades. They looked for inspiration to the West, he told me, not the Taliban. And whatever the obstacles, it was a war we had to fight and win, because if we allowed a rump Taliban state to develop in the south and east, we would pay the price with suicide attacks in New York and London.

So must the sturdy patriots of Saigon have sounded in 1968. We would win, and we could not afford to lose. But Afghanistan is not Vietnam 1968, or Iraq 2006, where any intellectually honest person had to recognize the fiasco in progress. It's true that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's jeremiads against the NATO coalition, the United States, the New York Times, and so on have reduced even the most optimistic officials to a tight-lipped "no comment," but do Karzai's obvious failings doom the whole enterprise? As 30,000 additional U.S. troops increase the pressure on the Taliban, and as the Afghan National Army continues, if haltingly, to mature, the yet slower process of standing up local governance might begin to take hold in secured districts and provinces. With a shift in momentum, even a thoroughly compromised President Karzai might find some Taliban leaders susceptible to reconciliation.

Well, maybe.

Evidence exists to sustain almost all views of the war in Afghanistan, and the first-time visitor --i.e., me -- finds himself gazing at a kaleidoscope of belief and disbelief. What beliefs should one credit? I constantly found myself wondering why the believers believed and the skeptics disbelieved. Is optimism a priori or ideological, but pessimism grounded in reality -- as any good pessimist would tell you? Does where you stand depend on where you sit -- close to the action or far, in a position of responsibility or not, on the military or the civilian side?

 

After my admittedly scanty experience -- a week in a forward operating base in Arghandab, a district just north of Kandahar, and three days each in Kabul and the Kandahar Airfield, a huge coalition military base -- I am prepared to hazard a few generalizations. One is that Americans are a lot more hopeful than Afghans. Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commanding officer of the 2-508 Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division, which operates out of Arghandab, assured me that the Taliban, a rural insurgency, was a losing proposition in the country's increasingly cosmopolitan urban centers, including Kandahar (which the Taliban now grips in a reign of terror). Kevin Melton, the very thoughtful, young, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official who serves on Arghandab's three-man "district support team," is persuaded that the slow knitting-together of the sinews of governance that he sees there can be, and will be, duplicated across the country.

Plausible enough, but try telling that to the villagers who gather outside the district governor's office every morning. Their stories mostly have to do with "night letters" posted by the Taliban threatening those who collaborate with coalition forces, or corrupt contractors, or illiterate teachers. Try District Governor Haji Abdul Jabar himself, who assured me that the district shura -- his parliament -- was useless and security so bad he could barely travel around the area.

So did I come down on the side of the Afghans, who lived the "ground truth," as we say here at ForeignPolicy.com? Not altogether; both points of view felt predetermined. Americans are, of course, inveterate optimists, addicted to their own version of the mission civilisatrice. They approach each new venture with the blithe enthusiasm of a civil engineer mapping out a road through impassable terrain. Sometimes it works; mostly it doesn't. But hope springs eternal. Afghans, of course, are inured to, and conditioned by, failure. The foreigners will help the Afghan people? That's what the Russians said. And progress is an unfamiliar idea to people who have almost never experienced it. I once spent time in a village in northern India, asking people if things had gotten better over the years. Sir, no, nothing has changed. What about the paved road? OK, that's new. And the school? Yes, that too. And so on. Progress was something that happened elsewhere, to others.

Of course, not all Afghans despair of their future: The single most hopeful figure I met was Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister and presidential candidate, who thinks that a combination of domestic entrepreneurs and a wired-up diaspora will fuel an economic boom -- if only the Americans get out of the way. And some Americans, like the USAID official I met at a party at the embassy who assured me that virtually everything her agency did was a grotesque waste of money, seemed almost as complacent in their sense of futility as others did in their optimism. The journalists I talked to generally viewed the civilian side of the effort in Afghanistan -- though not necessarily the military side -- as laughable. Journalists, of course, do see the ground truth. But we have a bias, too: We would much rather be caught out disbelieving than believing. Naiveté is the one unforgivable sin. Whose reputation has suffered for loudly insisting that the surge in Iraq was doomed to fail?

 

So I subtracted for bias in all directions, and I view my conclusions as provisional. I spent my time in Afghanistan looking at, and talking to people about, the civilian side of the effort; beyond that, I'm just another reader. But I do leave Afghanistan with a number of (provisional) observations:

1) Historic experience suggests that we won't make much headway. Our efforts at state-building -- or even "building capacity," as we more modestly say today -- have succeeded in postwar settings with a prior history of governance, like Germany and Japan after World War II. In postwar settings where deep antagonisms remain, like Bosnia and Kosovo, we have made much less progress toward building a legitimate state. Because much of Afghanistan remains a war zone, consumed by civil strife, the inherent probability of success is low.

2) Nevertheless, tender shoots of governance have broken through Afghanistan's ancient crust. In places like Arghandab, where the Taliban presence has been significantly reduced, local government has begun to operate, and people have begun to look to the state for economic opportunity, basic services, and the redress of grievances. That's called the social contract.

3) This is necessarily the work of slow accretion. Stanley McChrystal, commanding general in Afghanistan, has promised to deliver what he calls "government in a box" to newly cleared districts. The military hopes to stand up, or perhaps defrost, as many as 48 of these in coming months. This is a fantasy only a military bureaucracy could entertain.

4) The great struggle on the civilian side will be increasing the number of success stories and connecting them to the provincial and national government -- and doing so over the next year or so. Will this happen? Here I do see a meaningful pattern of belief and disbelief: Non-officials close to the ground are deeply skeptical of Afghanistan's willingness and capacity to establish what is known as "subnational governance." There may be no way of getting around the Karzai problem. "Does Karzai want to see provincial government improve?" asked a Western official involved with the process. "Or would he prefer to keep it weak and feeble?"

So I come back to the first question: Can it work so long as Karzai remains Karzai? The West's Karzai problem is that he spews venom and tolerates warlords like his brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai. Afghanistan's Karzai problem is that while he is obsessed with his personal legitimacy, he seems indifferent to the creation of a legitimate state. That may be an insuperable problem. So mark me down as a skeptic.

DUSAN VRANIC/AFP/Getty Images