Leaving Afghanistan

Seven Afghanistan experts review the president's plans for ending the war.

Real reconciliation in Afghanistan

The announcement of the troop drawdown by President Obama last night will not change the military balance on the ground in the short term, because the drawdown will start slowly. More problematic is the signal it sends to Afghans -- and I mean those outside positions of power who are afraid of the consequences when the drawdown ends, when international attention and development assistance to Afghanistan will dwindle. This announcement, they fear, runs parallel to a possible power-sharing deal with the Taliban that may emerge during this period. For them, today was the beginning of the end of the world's support for Afghanistan, for the third time after 1989 (the Soviet withdrawal) and the 1990s factional wars.

Despite all the claims of progress put out by NATO, the U.S. troop surge has not damaged the insurgency beyond repair, and has not shifted the strategic balance away from the Taliban. The Taliban's network structure is elastic; although many mid-ranking Taliban have been killed during the surge, they were quickly replaced -- often, it appears, by younger and more radical newcomers who are likely less inclined to talk. In cases of claimed success in clearing various districts, whether in Kandahar, Helmand or Kunduz, the fighters just went to the next district or laid-low in Pakistan for a while.

And despite claims that there was no Taliban spring offensive, the Taliban have killed four provincial and even region-level police commanders as well as one provincial governor, while two other governors narrowly escaped death. For the first time, the Taliban managed to injure a NATO general. And these are just the prominent victims.

Equally important, if not more so, are the political results of the surge. Instead of forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table, the coalition actually closed the door with the start of the surge, just when there was an internal Taliban debate about the wisdom and morality of suicide bombing as carried out by Mullah Dadullah, and Taliban voices began expressing concern about the bloodletting in the country. The surge shut up those dissenting voices. A chance was squandered. It will be more difficult now to reopen these doors, although some channels seem to be open again. But make no mistake: Channels and contacts are not "talks" and no "negotiations" yet. The mistrust is mutual: The U.S. and many Afghans do not believe that the Taliban want peace, and the Taliban did not perceive the surge as a peace offer.

If the drawdown is coupled with further confidence building measures and the inclusion of important sectors of the Afghan society beyond the Kabul government in shaping an approach to "reconciliation" that is not seen as surrendering rights and freedoms, moral and political high-ground might be recaptured. This would be much more important than clearing a few dusty districts.

Thomas Ruttig is a Co-Director and Senior Analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think-tank. He speaks Pashto and Dari.

Unanswered questions in Obama's Afghanistan policy 

President Obama has set the right strategic direction for U.S. policy in Afghanistan going forward, officially beginning a transfer to Afghan control of security and a realignment in U.S. strategy. While the pace of withdrawal could have been more significant than the declared 10,000 troops this year, with 23,000 to follow by September 2012, it clearly signaled the initial trajectory of a military drawdown. The President also strongly highlighted aspects of the political, diplomatic and economic strategy that American efforts in Afghanistan must be oriented around moving forward. This includes a political settlement to the conflict, a reduction of Afghan dependency on international aid, and reducing extremism in Pakistan. 

Despite these rhetorical acknowledgements, much of the detail available in the president's speech was focused on troop numbers and military schedules, and many questions remain unanswered. For all the administration's claims of progress to date, the groundwork for these other priorities is still only in the early stages, and a shift in strategy is required to make that happen.

For too long, the international military effort in Afghanistan, which has received the overwhelming bulk of the resources and attention from U.S. policymakers, has superseded these key lines of efforts. More worryingly, the degree to which military operations will be aligned with the current stated objective of a political settlement to the conflict remains unclear even after the president's speech -- although some administration officials indicate that a reorientation in operational priorities will now take place. The administration has interpreted the raids and targeted operations that have created a high rate of deaths or captures of mid-level Taliban commanders as a successful tool for pressuring the insurgents to the negotiating table. But if this process is not more clearly linked to the political track to allow those commanders who might want to join a peace process the time and space to show their followers that negotiations offer better prospects and a respite from ISAF attacks, it is not clear that we will have many reliable interlocutors with whom to negotiate. 

Further lacking at this point are the details of the political reforms necessary to make such a political settlement possible, and more information on how the U.S. plans to use its levers of influence -- most critically, an eventual strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and our considerable support to the Karzai government -- to push for action. While the administration is right to affirm the need for a lead Afghan role in this process, the current Afghan government remains an exclusive and highly centralized system with few incentives to offer those on the outside short of presidential patronage. In fact, the parliament -- the one body that has served as a potential domestic check on the executive and a means of bringing opposition voices into government -- is under attack as a Karzai-appointed special electoral court announced today that nearly a quarter of the winners of last fall's highly contested election were invalid, raising the prospects of a constitutional crisis as parliament and the executive dispute the court's authority to alter the election results.

President Obama has set a direction for U.S. policy. The departments and agencies of the U.S. government must now work together to back up his remarks with policies and plans that can make political settlement and civilian transition in Afghanistan a reality.

Caroline Wadhams is Senior Fellow and Colin Cookman is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress. 

America still doesn't know what it wants to get done in Afghanistan

It seems that the constituency for sort of starting to kind of end the longest war in America's history is pretty small, based on the initial reactions in America to President Obama's speech on Afghanistan.

Inside the Beltway, the initial responses were all over the map. Republicans are sharply divided -- some warned against mission creep and costly nation building, while others argued that America needs to stay the course and "win" in Afghanistan without defining what a "win" actually is. This confused reaction from Republicans is part of a broader dynamic I have written about before -- today's Republican Party is more divided on national security issues than it has been in decades and does not know what it stands for on foreign policy. 

Democrats mostly expressed concerns about the financial costs of the operation, while others raised concerns about the size of the troop withdrawal not being enough. Despite these misgivings from both sides of the aisle, don't expect some sort of coherent political coalition to come together anytime soon to challenge the Obama administration's approach, for two reasons. First, the center of gravity in America's political debate is on domestic policy issues, not foreign policy. Unless some political movement connects the anxieties about the economy and jobs at home with what's going on with the administration's Afghanistan policy, then the war debate will remain mostly an elite one without the political backing from the public to achieve serious policy changes. Second, in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama has strong credibility and leverage with the American public on dealing with terrorism -- just before the speech, fully 63 percent of Americans approved of how Obama is handling terrorism.

Beyond the political reception, as a matter of policy substance, President Obama's speech took some steps in the right direction by signaling a drawdown of troops and flagging several important issues. But the biggest weakness of the speech was that it did not outline a clear way forward on many of the key policy questions connected with those issues -- including five key questions I raised before the speech in this article. For example, the passages about reconciliation in Afghanistan and the way forward in Pakistan sounded more like placeholders acknowledging their importance -- nor were these core issues woven together and integrated in what could be called a coherent strategy. This perhaps expects too much from a prime time speech aimed at the American public, but it augers continued challenges ahead in making the case for why the continued investment in Afghanistan is worth it.

Nearly ten years into the war, the missing ingredient from last night's speech was a clear definition of success in Afghanistan a longstanding problem for U.S. policy in the country. A decade in, the United States lacks a clear answer to the question: "How do we know when the job is done?" We are still in "we'll know it when we see it" territory.

In addition, the speech did not fundamentally resolve a central confusion at the heart of the Obama administration's policy objective defined previously as "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda." The Obama administration has said that there are few al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, arguing instead that most of the problem is across the border in Pakistan. In briefings and discussions before the speech, a number of administration officials noted that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have not posed a threat from Afghan territory in years. Some also made the case that keeping U.S. boots on the ground in some places only prolongs the cycle of radicalization. In the wake of bin Laden's death -- the only leader al-Qaeda has ever known, as President Obama pointedly noted last night -- the American public may understandably remain puzzled about why our country continues to spend billions of dollars a month in Afghanistan when we have serious economic problems at home, and face challenges scraping assistance packages together for other strategically vital countries like Egypt. 

President Obama went into his speech last night seeking to strike the right balance between challenges at home and abroad, and between competing visions for the future of Afghanistan policy among his advisors. But the unanswered questions that remain about his strategy, and the lack of a clear definition of the end state America is working towards in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, remain fundamental policy problems. Without that clarity of goals, the policy debate in Washington will remain impressionistic, and clashes of favorite policy hobby horses falling under general labels like "counterinsurgency," "nation building," or "counterterrorism," or catch phrases like "let's go lighter but longer," which only serve to distract from actually defining what America needs to achieve to say it is done.  Ten years into the Afghanistan war, the Lewis Carroll quote -- "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there," still applies. And that remains the biggest danger for U.S. policy in Afghanistan today.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Afghanistan still needs a long-term commitment

The President has taken a safe approach in his speech last night on Afghanistan, in terms of domestic politics. He cannot easily be accused of playing fast and loose with national security, given that he will likely have more troops in Afghanistan at the end of his first term as there were at the beginning (though analyzing troop numbers can be misleading, based on the number of contractors deployed and the nature of troops that are withdrawn). At the same time the numbers -- 10,000 leaving this year and 23,000 next -- sound sizeable enough to placate at least some of those who are tired of the expense and unpleasantness of the Afghan war.

I wish he had gone further. Whatever happens on the field of battle, what will win or lose the fight for stability in Afghanistan is the mass political psychology of the Afghan people. There is evidence that the sheer scale of the Coalition presence in Afghanistan, and the way that it operates, has sapped the Afghan commitment to the struggle against the Taliban. Most obviously, when the Afghan president himself complains that the Americans are occupiers, it is not easy to argue that Coalition forces are there at his request, fighting a fight led by him. There could hardly be a clearer sign that the time has come to trust the Afghans to defend themselves, and reduce the foreign troop presence more significantly.  

On the other hand, the timing of the announcement was unfortunate. It came just a few days after President Karzai revealed that the U.S. was having talks with the Taliban.  Defense Secretary Roberts Gates, and now the President in his speech, have confirmed that fact. The impression that may result from this series of confirmations, especially among Afghans, is that the U.S. wants to cut a deal in order to withdraw.

It would in my view have been better if the announcement of troop withdrawals could have been coupled with a longer-term commitment to the future of Afghanistan. A promise that even just 10,000 troops would stay for thirty years -- unobtrusively, in bases, subject to the agreement of the Afghan government and operating only with its permission, providing air power, training and weaponry for Afghan government forces -- would be worth more than having 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, fighting in its villages and farms.

This is all easy to say, of course. Militarily, Afghan forces almost certainly need more time to be ready for a large-scale U.S. withdrawal -- a lot more time. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) estimates that no single Afghan unit can operate without foreign assistance, although when I was in Kabul last month, some Afghans pointed out that no unit will want to lose its resource-rich foreign mentors by proving that it doesn't need them.

The question here though is political, not military. It is a question of depriving the Taliban of their most powerful weapon, which is the claim that they are defending Afghanistan and their enemies are non-Muslim foreigners. A swift withdrawal of Coalition forces from the front line would be a very painful test for the Afghan military, though they would be free to choose their battles. But ultimately, it would be a very healthy thing for Afghan politics, and Afghan society. 

Gerard Russell is a research fellow on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Harvard Kennedy School and lived in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.

Obama's dangerous message

"We always suspected you would abandon us again. Now your president has said it," the deeply lined leader of a key Mangal subtribe scolded me across a small wooden table set with a bowl of Afghan raisins and nuts. To his left, dozens of other Afghans nodded in agreement. We were sitting in the small office of a women's center on the outskirts of Khost city that was apparently funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and abandoned years ago.

I had been working closely with him for most of the year to garner his support along with his 500 arbakai, or tribal militia, during my most recent tour in Afghanistan. This meeting was supposed to be the final step toward winning over this historically pro-government subtribe.

He and his tribal council were now withdrawing their support completely. It was only week after U.S. President Barack Obama's 2009 speech at West Point, where he announced the surge of U.S. forces but undercut the policy with the simultaneous announcement that he would begin their withdrawal by July 2011.

"We appreciate all that you have done for us -- wells, roads, schools," the elder continued. "But until you are prepared to commit your children to stand side by side with our children, we cannot work with you."

"The Haqqanis and their Arab friends will build their training camps on our graves when you leave us," he concluded before walking away.

The president's speech on Wednesday, June 22, outlining his strategy to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces is evidence that American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more about U.S. domestic pressures than it is about making any sort of long-term commitment to stabilize the region so that terrorist sanctuaries can no longer be used to attack the West.

The debate within the administration and among Washington's pundits over numbers of troops and timelines misses the point. According to former colleagues still at senior levels of the military commands and at the Pentagon, the differences between the most extreme options offered to the president amounted to only a few thousand troops and several months on the timeline.

The larger strategic issue is the broader signal Obama has sent to U.S. allies and the region: America is leaving. This signal, which was received loud and clear by those Afghan elders in 2009 and reinforced Wednesday night, presents four fundamental problems.

First, the entire region has begun to maneuver for a post-American Afghanistan and mostly in ways that run counter to U.S. interests. What this administration doesn't fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren't listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday's announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.

Second, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently addressed very bluntly, the United States cannot let the withdrawal of a few thousand U.S. troops be the green light for the Europeans to run for the exits. Unfortunately, despite the attacks on Madrid, London, and Denmark, we know that will likely be the case. At least the planned drawdown of U.S. civilian capacity is something we can control. During my most recent visit to Kandahar, one senior U.S. military commander described USAID as a source of instability rather than stability due to its continued lack of a meaningful presence in the provinces and therefore its inability to fulfill its promises to Afghans.

Declining troop numbers will also affect the ability of U.S. government civilians -- most of whom operate under military protection as they provide aid and guidance on agriculture, governance, and the rule of law -- to go out in the field. From what my former colleagues have told me, the civilian agencies have their own withdrawal schedule, with plans to pull back their already meager presence from forward bases.

Third, every Afghan I've spoken to recently, from ministers to my former interpreters, is increasingly concerned about the prospect of civil war. My Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara friends believe the United States is cutting a deal with Pakistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban at their expense. A multitude of notable Tajik leaders -- the late Deputy Interior Minister Daoud Daoud, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, former Minister for Reconstruction Ehsan Zia, former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, and others -- are increasingly spending time in their home turf reconstituting old alliances and networks. The Northern Alliance is getting the band back together and that includes outreach to its old allies in Iran, Russia, and India -- all of whom are increasingly viewed as more reliable than the United States. The U.S. policy of withdrawal based on timelines rather than conditions -- not to mention excluding minorities from talks with the Taliban -- are only exacerbating the situation.

Finally, Obama's policy is based on the assumption that al Qaeda is defeated and cannot reconstitute itself in the seams of an increasingly unstable Pakistan, a diminished U.S. and coalition presence, ethnic tension, and Afghan army and police forces that are years away from independent operations. This is a very dangerous assumption. Al Qaeda can and will restore itself as the United States invariably loses its hard-fought gains with the Afghan people due to diminished resources and will. A counterterrorism strategy must be nested within a counterinsurgency strategy, as the populace won't risk their necks to work with the coalition unless they feel they will be protected. It takes a network to defeat a network.

Success in Afghanistan and the region is going to be tough and expensive. Most importantly, it will take time. Nearly every commander and civilian who has served there, including me, cites the progress that has been made in the last 10 years, but caveats his or her response with the need for more time. Although the costs are great, they will be far greater if the United States leaves too soon. The people of the region will never trust America again, and the cost of re-engagement if our assumptions are wrong will be nearly insurmountable.

Michael Waltz is a former South Asia advisor to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a Special Forces officer (reserve component) with multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is now vice president of Metis Solutions, a strategic international consulting firm.


Are we making the same mistakes again in Afghanistan?

In announcing a 33,000-troop reduction in U.S. forces from Afghanistan last night, President Obama said "we've inflicted serious losses on the Taliban" and "we are meeting our goals." Although it is true that certain victories have been achieved over the Taliban, according to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. David Petraeus, these gains are reversible. And I wonder if we are indeed meeting our goals in Afghanistan.

First, what are America's goals in Afghanistan? Is it to defeat al Qaeda? To degrade the Taliban and then negotiate with them? Is it to help build an effective Afghan state capable of stabilizing its own territory? Or as President Obama put it "The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al-Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies." Perhaps our goal is all of the above? The true nature of the challenges and threats in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is such that these elements are all interconnected. If they are not addressed together, unlike what President Obama stated last night, we will not meet our goals.

It is not sufficient to take "strongholds" from the Taliban in Afghanistan. To truly remove the Taliban threat, institutional support in Pakistan for the Taliban and its affiliates-which harbor global ambitions-need to be stopped. Therefore, a regional strategy needs to be articulated, one that I did not hear that from the President. As the intent behind U.S. strategy remains obscure and unable to match the true character of the challenges encountered in this region, it will invariably invite geostrategic hedging by the regional power players such as Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, and China. This strategic vagueness may be an error of colossal historic scale, setting all of us back again, and costing even more. 

However, I commend the President for directly addressing U.S. domestic concerns caused by a weak economy, high unemployment and continuing fiscal challenges. Bringing back the entire amount of the "surged" troops will alleviate political anxiety in his own party, just in time for presidential elections. However, will this be sufficient? What if Mr. Obama's poll ratings decline further? What if the US economy continues to stay anemic or get worse? Will the President announce another major troop withdrawal from Afghanistan? How about another 70,000 to bring the U.S. presence there to zero? The fact is that the solution to the woes of the U.S. economy is not to be found in troop reductions from Afghanistan. Nor will it secure the homeland from extremists emanating from this region.

The hope is that cooler heads might prevail if indeed the economy does not improve. A hasty withdrawal of troops and a loss of focus on Afghanistan will be a fatal mistake, again. The evidence of such colossal errors is not simply based on opinions expressed by political analysts. Recent history is crystal clear about these costly mistakes. Let us review the evidence:

  • Exit Mistake #1: Defeating the Russian Red Army & the Rise of Taliban: In the 1980s, over a ten-year period, the U.S. supported the Afghan resistance to help expel the Soviet Army. In February 1989, the Red Army withdrew in defeat. However, almost overnight, U.S. assistance to Afghans also stopped. The U.S. left the country in shambles. This led to the rise of a new force, the Taliban, which al-Qaeda then dominated, helping it to perpetuate the 9/11 attacks.The costs of 9/11 are incalculable compared to what a meager spending on basic governance and infrastructure might have achieved in Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal.
  • Exit Mistake #2: Defeating the Taliban & Misadventures in Iraq: After 9/11, it became clear that the U.S. needed to return to Afghanistan, which it did. In 2001, US troops, allied with Afghans ousted the Taliban regime and its fighters in less than a month. Once again, a space was created to rebuild the country. The years  2001, 2002 and 2003 were golden years where another opportunity presented itself to help with basic institutional building, rudimentary economic development, building schools, clinics and courts. However, the U.S. lost its focus again. It started a new war in Iraq and pulled resources, intelligence, and focus out of Afghanistan, leaving a fledgling state exposed. This short-sighted measure led to the resurgence of the Taliban, the growing powers of warlords and an insidious circle of fraud and corruption. Realizing the gravity of the situation in 2008, the U.S. had to send more troops and then again in 2009 orchestrating a troop surge, all of which led us to where we are now, spending over $110 billion a year on U.S. military forces.

The costs of inattention, of a lack of sustained focus and a lack of enduring commitment are indeed very high. The problem is not that we are spending $110 billion a year in Afghanistan but the fact that we did not prevent such costs when we had the chance to do so. Sept 11, the Iraq war and the more recent troop surge in Afghanistan all have roots in the rush for the exits from Afghanistan in 1989 and in losing focus after defeating the Taliban in 2001. The term "nation-building" has become a bugaboo because of the mistaken notion that pouring billions in a military approach will create stability in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Instead, the relatively tiny amounts of money needed to build infrastructure and assure the rule of law in 1989 and then again in 2001 could have saved us trillions we are now spending.

In his speech, President Obama was right to state that U.S. credibility around the world depends more on American values than on projecting power via military force. Mr. Obama now has a chance to articulate a significant shift in the Afghanistan strategy. Keep a smaller number of troops in Afghanistan, but commit the U.S. and international community there for the long haul. A fraction of the savings from a smaller military footprint should be sufficient to focus on building governance and the necessary infrastructure to promote the rule of law. The U.S. can also help spur economic growth and jobs by leveraging Afghanistan's huge mineral resources and engaging allies in supporting national programs in education and health. Let us stop repeating the same mistakes again. Loosing focus once more will only provide incentives to the Taliban, its institutional supporters, the warlords, and all of the regional power players pushing them to seek their own interests at the expense of others.

Let us heed the lessons of history and not panic our way out of Afghanistan. If we do so again, the resulting costs will make $110 billion a year look like small potatoes.

Masood Aziz is a former Afghan diplomat in Washington DC.


In Afghanistan, huge challenges remain

"Of course, huge challenges remain. This is the beginning - but not the end - of our effort to wind down this war. We will have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we have made, while we drawdown our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government. And next May, in Chicago, we will host a summit with our NATO allies and partners to shape the next phase of this transition. "

This is a great aspirational goal, and is the end-state of any third-party counterinsurgency campaign; to make the problem simple enough for the host national government (that you have trained in the interim) to handle the remaining security challenge, and pull out the remaining third-party forces. But as numerous field commanders have found, this is often easier said than done. An insurgency exists in most cases precisely because the host nation government has been weak, corrupt, or both.

So what will the President (or his successor) do if, despite herculean efforts on the part of the NATO mission to defeat Taliban forces and train both Afghan security forces and Afghan civil government, the Afghans are simply still not ready to have security transitioned to them? What then? Are our interests in Afghanistan important enough to extend our effort? If so, for how long, at what strength, and at what price? This has always been a tension in the President's policy, or with any policy that imposes an external timeline (one imposed by the host country is a different matter altogether). This policy simultaneously states that we have interests worth shedding American blood for in Afghanistan, while signaling exactly what our price point is for foregoing those interests.

We need to accept that a disengagement from Afghanistan may be ugly, which may tempt us to extend our involvement. We must not kid ourselves that there won't be more rounds of hard choices about Afghanistan. The policy as outlined by the President is a good first step towards a more rational policy that aligns our real but limited interests in Afghanistan with the costs appropriate for those limited interests. But we must prepare ourselves for the cold reality of what our withdrawal from Afghanistan will look like.  When the President says that Afghanistan will not be a "perfect place," he may be understating considerably. But the President is still right.  Fixing Afghanistan is an Afghan responsibility, with the costs not borne by either American taxpayers or American soldiers. We may still decide that a long-term residual training and counterterrorism force in Afghanistan is in our interest-and may fall within the context of a long-term relationship with Afghanistan. But this will be a much lower cost endeavor, both in money and troop presence, than the current operation.

In short, we cannot plan on success. We must make the best plan that gives the best chance of success and work as hard as we can, within our resource constraints, to bring it about. But to plan on success is pollyannaish. Calmer heads should be thinking now about a wide range of contingencies, because it will almost certainly not be as simple as that laid out by the president last night. When it comes to Afghanistan, we still have the wolf by the ears.

Douglas A. Ollivant is the Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. He recently served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images


Twilight of the Nuba

Is the Sudanese regime embarking on another war of extinction?

As Southern Sudan prepares for its final split from Africa's largest country on July 9, the northern soldiers who aided its battle for self-determination are refusing to be left behind. In the state of Southern Kordofan, located in the center of the country on Sudan's contested internal border, fighters from the Nuba Mountains are putting up a tooth-and-nail fight to avoid being crushed by the Islamist government in Khartoum.

At least 73,000 people have fled the current fighting, according to the United Nations. As Sudanese bombs continue to fall and activists issue familiar warnings of genocide, the Nuba people face a lonely fight.

The Nuba, a diverse collection of black African tribes -- Muslim, Christian, and animist -- have long resisted the aggression of Sudan's Arab rulers in Khartoum. The government tried to eradicate them during the 1990s in a campaign of murder, starvation, rape, enslavement, and land seizure that killed as many as 200,000. During the north-south civil war, an estimated 30,000 Nuba joined the Southern-led Sudan People's Liberation Army, which was fighting to transform the whole of Sudan into a multiethnic democratic state.

In 1992, in the midst of the 22-year war, the government went so far as to declare a jihad in the Nuba Mountains. The official fatwa that declared the war made no distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim, stating, "An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a nonbeliever standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them." The campaign included the use of chemical weapons (dropped by pilots from Saddam Hussein's air force) against the civilian population.

The 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war has led only to the imminent secession of the south. Southern Kordofan, a northern state whose residents largely supported the rebel cause, did not receive the right to self-determination. Instead, the state was given the sop of a "popular consultation" in which voters could express a desire for limited autonomy. Even that exercise never took place. For months now, the Nuba have felt Khartoum's noose slowly tightening.

While the government claims it is justifiably squashing an armed rebellion, it has maintained a naked focus on ethnicity and religion, with distinct echoes of the jihad era. Last year, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey obtained and released parts of a January 2009 memo from Sudan's Defense Ministry ordering militia commanders to re-enlist soldiers who had defected to the Southern army. "Get back all those who joined the SPLM [Sudan People's Liberation Movement]," said the memo, "whether in the south, Nuba Mountains or elsewhere ... to defend their religion and their Arabism." After the south secedes, Southern Kordofan will be the sole remaining oil-producing state in northern Sudan.

As northern forces and armor began encircling their villages this year, many Nuba fighters left their bases in the south and returned to defend their homeland. Then, two weeks ago, a series of provocations by the Nuba fighters helped spark a furious bout of shelling, aerial bombardment, looting, and murder by northern Sudanese forces.

An estimated 3,000 Nuba men and boys are missing. Advocates fear they've been executed. One refugee, Abdul Mutalib Suleiman, told the banned news station Radio Dabanga that as he fled Kadugli, the state capital, with his family, they saw "a man wearing military uniform shoot at one civilian who was on a motorbike and he died immediately."

The soldiers, Suleiman said, "were calling out 'Allah Akbar.'" On June 21, Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, issued a statement condemning attacks against civilians and the "targeting of people along ethnic lines."

For now, the Nuba fighters, led by their commander, Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, are holding their own. They've retaken key parts of Kadugli and have seized at least one weapons convoy meant for the Sudanese army, a haul that included anti-tank and possibly even surface-to-air missiles. (Last month, Abdel-Aziz lost the election for governor of Southern Kordofan state to Ahmed Haroun, a trusted lieutenant of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Despite Abel-Aziz's claims that the vote was rigged, observers from the Carter Center certified it as "peaceful and credible." Like Bashir, Haroun is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.)

But without an air force or tank corps to stand up to the well-armed northern forces, recent gains by the Nuba fighters will likely prove to be short term. In the near term, salvation can come from only one of two unlikely sources.

The first is Juba, which next month is slated to become the capital of the independent Republic of South Sudan. While Khartoum holds a strong superiority in air power and armor, the Southern army boasts a much larger infantry. The Nuba battling in Southern Kordofan are a part and parcel of the former rebel army that helped liberate the south, and ties between the two regions are strong.

The Southern Sudanese officer corps is keen to help its colleagues north of the border, sources in Juba say, but there is slim chance that Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir will risk losing his shot at a peaceful separation on their comrades in the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba can't expect to see brigades of Southern soldiers marching to their assistance.

Bashir has begun massing his forces on the north-south border as a warning to his Southern rivals. "We told our brothers in the south, do you want peace? Everything we've done is for peace," he said this week. "But if you want war, you can see what's going on in Abyei and in Southern Kordofan, and these are all lessons." (Northern forces overran Abyei, another disputed region, last month, displacing more than 100,000 members of the Dinka tribe. On June 20 Khartoum agreed to withdraw its soldiers from Abyei, which is to be secured by Ethiopian peacekeepers but is now firmly under Khartoum's control.)

The Nuba's other chance at victory is even more far-fetched. Their representatives are pleading for an internationally enforced no-fly zone to ground Sudan's MiG fighters and Antonov bombers. "The UN Security Council must institute a No Fly Zone in Nuba Mountians [sic]/ South Kordfan to stop the aerial bombardment of civilians," one organization, the Sudan Democracy First Group, said in a written statement last week. On Monday, June 20, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein warned that the Nuba are trying to create "a second Benghazi" -- the rebel capital of Libya -- as a precursor to Western-backed regime change in Khartoum.

Calls for a no-fly zone over Sudan are even more dubious today than they were six years ago, when the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was advocating one to stop ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Back then, the United States was embroiled in two conflicts in Muslim lands. Today, with the ongoing NATO campaign in Libya, it's three. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently expressed what many less powerful taxpayers have felt for years: Americans are tired of wars of choice.

So the Nuba, and other northerners fearful of Khartoum's ethnocentric agenda, are on their own. Even as Southern Sudanese escape to an uncertain future in their own sovereign state, the north can still free itself from the blood-stained ruling clique in Khartoum. The route probably won't be Gandhian. Recent peaceful protests in Khartoum, inspired by successful people-power revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, have all been crushed.

As it was for the people of Southern Sudan, the people of Southern Kordofan may conclusively decide that violence is their only path to freedom. In the face of rigged elections, ethnic cleansing, and torture, armed rebel groups in Darfur could join forces with the Nuba, with partisans in Blue Nile state, and with disaffected Beja tribesmen of eastern Sudan in an armed movement to topple Bashir.

It's a dismal scenario, after more than 2 million dead in the last civil war and hundreds of thousands of others killed in Darfur. Whatever the means, however, northern Sudanese are going to have to free themselves. No one else is riding to the rescue.