Territorial Triumph and Geopolitical Pitfalls in South Sudan

01/11/2011 07:40 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

Though it gets only a very brief mention on page 869 of Bill Clinton's autobiographical tome My Life, I recall Clinton telling talk show host Charlie Rose in 2004 that he was quite proud of the UN's accomplishment, and America's role, in the independence of East Timor from its military occupier, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), the Indonesian National Armed Forces, during the waning years of his presidency. (Though the sovereignty of República Democrática de Timor-Leste [in Portuguese] was actually realized in May of 2002 during the George Walker Bush administration).

East Timor was invaded by Suharto's Indonesia in late 1975 following the collapse of Europe's last maritime empire, that of Portugal's quasi-fascist Estado Novo regime. The Carnation Revolution coup in Lisbon which returned democracy to Portugal in 1974 precipitated the end of hundreds of years of Portugal's pre-enlightment colonial regimes. In the mid-1970s, during the administration of President Gerald Ford, the United States welcomed the dissolution of Europe's last remaining overseas empire and looked upon the events as an opportunity to expand American influence and counter the spread of Marxism-Leninism in the Third World. Unfortunately for the East Timorese, Suharto had the same idea and wanted to allow no breathing room in the Indonesian archipelago for the spread of communist ideology that could challenge his own authoritarianism. The American failure to halt the spread of communism in Indochina only emboldened Suharto's Indonesia and provided moral leeway from President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Most in the West, and John Howard's Australia in particular, welcomed the restoration of East Timor's independence after the fall of Suharto but there was one problem many failed to understand. In an era of rapid globalization, the source-hungry rhetoric of global Islamism took much notice and viewed the West's aid to Dili through the lens of a narrowly defined victimist jihadi dogma.

Democratically-led majority Christian nations were helping to yank little Roman Catholic East Timor from under the jackboot of Indonesia, the world's largest majority Muslim nation-state. Though East Timorese independence may seem a small event to many outside the Australasian realm, it was magnified by transnational jihadis as proof of Western-Christian hypocrisy in international relations, Bosnia and Kosovo not withstanding. This aspect was not forgotten by al-Qaeda's chief spokesman Ayman al-Zawahiri in a 2008 diatribe where he dubbed the UN a "Crusader" institution evidenced to him in simplest terms that the UN was willing to help a Catholic nation secede from a Sunni-led one but would not return the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco which jihadis label "occupied territory" nor aid the Republic of Chechnya in its age old desire for separation from the Russian Federation.

Now, as George Clooney and Senator John Kerry marvel at the separation of Protestant and animist South Sudan from the Islamist-led Republic of Sudan, I can instantly envision a fresh as-Sahab video (al-Qaeda's media organ) hitting the al-Arabiya television network any minute now. And the difference is that bin Laden actually lived (and worked and built roads in) in Sudan unlike the more peripheral Indonesia where he is never known to have visited.

While the international community, which author and noted Africa scholar Mahmood Mamdani's describes as a euphemism for the post-Cold War Western powers, may be ready to accept a redrawing of the map and cleave Africa's largest country, for the radicals America and some of it's allies are fighting in Central Asia and the Arab world, the creation of a new Western sanctioned nation-state in a religiously and politically contested area at the edge of the Arab-Muslim world as proof that the jihadis are indeed engaged in a long term religious battle with an international system bent on stemming the spread of Islam, the one true monotheism.

Almost as if playing into a scripted jihadi propaganda narrative, Senator Kerry spoke at a cathedral in Juba, South Sudan's de facto and future capital telling the audience: "...as a Catholic and person of faith, and person in public life, I can't help but feel the relevance of what brings us here to this place of worship and what brings us to the challenge of building a nation."

For the peoples of South Sudan who have suffered so much since the end of the Anglo-Egyptian administration in 1956 and the decades of on-again, off-again civil war and proxy war in the Sahel and Equatoria, this week will mark the beginning of a new era that will likely stumble through a high degree of uncertainty. Sudan's current borders are not a purely a legacy of European colonialism as perceived in many other parts of the Sahara and Sahel super regions of Africa. Many of Sudan's modern borders were in fact created during the Ottoman era in a period known as the Turkiyya by Turkish-Egyptian colonizers and were later inherited by European administrators.

The future of the disputed Abyei region straddling a soon to be formally demarcated North-South border, the nomadism of the Messiriya Arabs in that area who may see their identity in the context of a united Sudan, and the current South-North flow of oil deemed an essential cornerstone of this new state-building experiment, remain as huge question marks even after the week long voting process this week has ended.

If South Sudan becomes an internationally-recognized state, will this agitate other long-standing African (and potentially Asian and Eurasian) post-colonial territorial disputes? Will this lead the Paris-based leadership of the "Republic of Cabinda" who seek to create an independent state in the Angolan exclave of Cabinda (once known as the Portuguese Congo) wedged in between Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa? Or what of the Cassamance rebellion in southern Senegal or the Ogaden rebellion in eastern Ethiopia?

While an independent South Sudan may seem like a long awaited solution to a problem that has plagued a huge swath of Africa for ages, it may yield the further destabilization of other frozen and hot conflicts throughout the continent in the way the recognition of Kosovar independence led Moscow and a couple of its acolytes to do the same for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in northern and western Georgia in retaliation. Governments tend to become extremely pragmatic in such situations and tailor responses particular to their own nationalist and geopolitical outlook which is why the Kingdom of Spain did not recognize the government in Pristina as being distinct from that of Belgrade because of the mostly baseless fear of encouraging Basque separatism and Catalan nationalism within its borders.

South Sudan, as a landlocked state with almost no modern infrastructure, will have to overcome massive obstacles to survive as an independent polity (not to mention existing internal power struggles with renegade rebels and underrepresented ethnic leaders). China, long lambasted by Western activists and human rights groups for its role in Darfur and relations with an isolated Khartoum, may somewhat ironically become South Sudanese President Salva Kiir's economic lifeline.

Beijing, facing its long held territorial dilemmas over Taiwan and Tibet, is in no position to encourage South Sudanese separatism but China's resource needs will likely outweigh those of its one-China ideology/policy in this case. China is considering developing the Kenyan island of Lamu, on the far western edge of the Indian Ocean, into a port facility that could then possibly be the terminus for an oil pipeline emanating from Juba turning a newly independent South Sudan into a potentially partial Chinese economic client-state and American-backed democracy emancipated from decades of northern Sudanese oppression and. Only time will tell whether "North" Sudan will accept a Republic of South Sudan at all and following that question, whether or not the two states will work in concert diplomatically and economically or begin an African Cold War with oil as the bargaining chip. We can count on one thing: the entire world is watching -- fishing for both opportunity and enmity in Sudan, including al-Qaeda.