Monday, June 8, 2009

Small Arms Survey papers on conflict in Sudan

On the flight to Paris to attend a workshop on the future of Sudan up to the referendum of 2011 and beyond, I took the opportunity to read a bunch of the excellent field reports by the Human Security Baseline Assessment's Small Arms Survey. (Seems like they could have come up with a more self-explanatory name for themselves.)

There are two ways to read the reports. One is if you were some action-oriented person tasked with doing something in a region covered by some of the reports. They would be invaluable for giving you an idea of the recent situation and nature of armed groups in the area. Like a briefing. Probably better than George Bush was getting on Iraq. Reading them gives you an idea of what questions to ask. Did the "White Army" disband or get some command structure? They almost cry out for a table with assistants pushing armies around on a large map... the generals with their whiskeys receiving telegrams. One wonders whether the real commanders on the ground find them useful, or naive?

A second way to read the reports is to say they confirm that a general state of armed mobilization exists in much of peripheral Sudan, and armed entities of 1000+ men are readily available to spoil the CPA. So the situation is very dangerous for everyone. of course, any close observer of the region knows this, and does not need to be convinced of the powderkeg. But then... what? Do the reports contain specific suggestions for policy innovation beyond the standard invocation to do more and do better? Here the reports are less inspiring. But perhaps the problem lies with those needing policy inspiration, hoping to complex problems of war with a clever insight. Unhappy the land that need heroes, and all that.

But on to the specific suggestions of the authors.

Julie Flint and collaborators, in "The drift back to war: Insecurity and militarization in the Nuba Mountains", describe the apparent proliferation of new armed groups in the area, the deep dissatisfaction of much of the population with the interim period, and the absence of any joint effort by the SPLA and NCP to establish a process leading towards peace. It is great reporting, thorough and balanced. But their first suggestion is for "UNMIS to reorient and refocus " on the transitional areas of Abyei and South Kordofan. Do more, do better. The second suggestion is for an "internationally-sponsored plan", but the briefing catalogs the failure of the quite detailed CPA implementation plan (especially the Joint Integrated Forces) as applied to the Nuba Mountains. So what should the new plan contain that the old one did not?

I'll permit myself a snarky aside. Flint (presumably) towards the end blames, among others, "an international community distracted by Darfur", and yet she, with Alex de Waal, is co-author of probably the major book-length treatment of that war. If the international community spent 10 hours each reading that book, we're talking thousands of hours of distraction. Glass house and stones, Ms. Flint, don't mix.

Returning to the issue, what should the new plan contain that the old one did not, I feel honest in admitting to be stumped, though of course this has never been my area of expertise. But somehow I imagine that the experts too are stumped, in which case more humility may be in order. But I can think outside the box. (1) How about regularly publishing satellite imagery to both sides and the public showing structures of encampments etc., ground-truthed with UNMIS commentary? perhaps this is already being done though it does not seem to be easily accessible. (2) How about working with both sides to "uniform" their irregular militias. In my limited experience, irregulars love uniforms, and that may be a big step to reducing conflict, because they don't like their uniforms being shot full of holes. (3) How about a "joint-fly" zone that says for every flying sorty that the SAF has the UNMIS will provide and offer a comparable flying sorty to SPLA for the same duration. Bomb for bomb, I mean. They can outfit a special plane with large buffalo horns so that it will be clear it is not a relief flight. We usually don't think of the third-party "peacemakers" as escalating, but sometimes the threat of escalation can achieve deescalation, no?

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