It comes as no surprise that the Obama administration has been hosting secret talks on the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Officials from the CIA, Pentagon and State Department have been considering what direct or indirect intervention might be needed to contain or neutralize Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa.
Yet, the U.S. counts on the unashamedly fundamentalist Sudanese regime as its partner in what used to be called the War on Terror. The State Department website confirms this: "Sudan has provided concrete cooperation against international terrorism." "Concrete" is as specific as it gets.
We are told, via anonymous leaks, that Khartoum has passed on the location of terrorist training camps and operatives. It was recently reported that back when Gaddafi was our great friend, we helped him dispose of his pesky democracy activists by rendering them to Sudan for torture. Locals claim the U.S. launches drones from within Sudan, although this has not been substantiated.
But does it make sense that Khartoum would betray its close ideological brothers in Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran, none of which are on America's Christmas card list?
Sudan's links to the U.S.'s longstanding enemies run deep. Carl Wege in the scholarly Perspectives on Terrorism points out that Iran has mentored the Khartoum regime since the National Islamic Front seized power in 1989. Iran supplies weapons and militia to this day, using Khartoum as a safe house for wanted Hezbollah operatives before they are infiltrated back into "operational areas" in the Middle East, and shipping weapons through Sudan. Iran is considering manufacturing its weapons in Sudan.
Gill Lusk of Africa Confidential admits to being puzzled by the contradiction inherent in accepting Sudan as a valued ally in the War on Terror while continuing to list it as a state sponsor of terror, and admitting that it is part of the international Islamist movement.
"A hand-stitched suit, a smile and a Western PhD go a long way with people who think Islamist fundamentalists dress only like the Taliban and shun 'modernity.' The Sudanese have worked hard to convince Western and Arab interests it is just another corrupt and brutal regime, or in other words, one it can do business with," Lusk told me.
In December 2006 The Economist reported America was building its largest African embassy in Khartoum, with the CIA's biggest listening post outside the USA. "It reflects the [CIA]'s cosy relationship with Sudanese intelligence services," The Economist concluded.
Yet, in October 2009 the State Department declared one of its strategic objectives to, "Ensure that Sudan does not provide a safe haven for international terrorists."
So our strategy seems to be as follows: we ignore the company Sudan keeps, even when its friends happen to be our enemies. And we ignore its internal, racist terrorism, just so long as the regime confines itself to bombing and torturing its own people. In return we get "concrete cooperation," in the form of leaks about Sudan's friends. As they used to say on Soap, the 1970s TV comedy, "Confused? You won't be!"
For those who practice real politique it matters little that for decades the Khartoum regime and its proxies ethnically cleansed its own non-Arab and non-Muslim citizens in the south of Sudan, killing an estimated two million, and prompting its persecuted people to secede last year. Nor are they concerned that since 2003 Khartoum has waged a similar war on Darfur, where the U.N. believes 300,000 have died. The fact that Sudan's leader, Field Marshall Bashir, has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court does not disqualify him from being our geopolitical partner.
While we welcome democracy elsewhere, we ignore the fact that Sudan crushes any sign of dissent among its Arab and Muslim citizens, too, jailing and torturing journalists and those astonishingly brave individuals campaigning for democracy and human rights. According to Carl Wege, above, we also turn a blind eye to the sanctuary it offers Hezbollah operatives, and the Khartoum's intimacy with Tehran.
Unfortunately we've been here before in Afghanistan, when we armed and supported the Taliban and al Qaeda against the Soviet Union; and in Iraq, when we armed and supported Saddam Hussein against Iran. Neither of these strategies worked out very well for the USA, or the U.S. soldiers who continue to return home in body bags or with limbs missing.
Last year the U.S. envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, explained America's agenda in Sudan: "Frankly, we do not see the ouster of the regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures."
Judging by the number of democracy activists languishing in Sudanese jails, Field Marshall Bashir isn't planning much reform any time soon. Rather, he reaffirmed his Islamist, fundamentalist credentials as recently as last month at the Non Aligned States gathering in Iran (9).
Is Sudan's unspecified cooperation worth this price, when so many continue to die and suffer within Sudan? If the regime is capable of betraying its friends, surely in time it will also betray its ideological enemy, the USA. Please take a moment to urge your senators to place the basic human rights of the people of Sudan above our misconceived foreign policy objectives.