Policy Adrift on Darfur

By Barack Obama and Sam Brownback
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

For two years the Bush administration has made commendable efforts to improve the lives of people in Darfur. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has become personally invested in the crisis, recently completing his fourth trip to the region in the past seven months. The United States has spent almost $1 billion aiding refugees and displaced persons who might otherwise have died of disease or starvation. And the U.S. military has helped airlift and fund African Union troops stationed in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Yet, despite American engagement, Darfur's humanitarian, security and political conditions are deteriorating. If the United States does not change its approach to Darfur, an already grim situation is likely to spiral out of control.

Although the killing abated somewhat this year, Darfurians continue to be displaced -- more than 20,000 in the past few weeks alone. In addition, several million civilians are trapped in camps that are becoming more, not less, vulnerable. Women living in camps for internally displaced persons have to walk ever farther to obtain the firewood they need to cook the food donated by the United States. This has increased the incidence of rape, a tool in the onslaught of the militias known as the janjaweed. Mounting banditry has caused the closure of vital road corridors and the evacuation of some international aid workers. As a result, humanitarian access is more limited than it has been at any point since April 2004, causing a spike in the number of Darfurians who are not receiving lifesaving aid.

While the 7,000-strong African Union force in Darfur has undoubtedly reduced the violence, it has become clear in recent weeks that it lacks the resources and manpower to secure a region the size of France. Indeed, the African Union force itself is increasingly being targeted and harassed. Five of its soldiers were killed and 34 were kidnapped in October. As one AU colonel recently said, "We are sitting ducks." Administration officials have publicly expressed doubts that African countries will provide the additional troops needed to create a stable security environment. The African Union also lacks the communications, airlift, logistics and intelligence capabilities to challenge the aggressors in Darfur. A political settlement is clearly critical to resolving these challenges. Unfortunately, the U.S.-facilitated political negotiations are at best sputtering. Having brokered the landmark peace accord between Khartoum and rebels in the south, senior administration officials had hoped that the integration of southerners into the Sudanese government would change Khartoum's stance on Darfur. But there is no balance of power between the rebels, who are disorganized and wracked by infighting, and the Sudanese authorities, who have no incentive to compromise. As a result, the talks are entering their seventh round with no consensus in sight.

Meanwhile, large numbers of vulnerable people in Darfur are confined to camps surrounded by a variety of hostile armed elements, with no effective security force or political process in which to invest hope. Absent a drastic change of course, many Darfurians will take up arms, and far more will die.

It is essential that the Bush administration shift its approach to confront the new and mounting challenges. Only the United States, working in concert with key nations, has the leverage and resources to persuade Khartoum to change its ways:

First, the administration must help transform the African Union protection force into a sizable, effective multinational force.

In the near term, Washington must pressure Khartoum to allow more advisers from Western nations to embed within the African Union's mission so they support intelligence, logistics and communications. It must work with other nations to provide military assets to African Union forces, such as attack helicopters and armored personnel carriers, so they can respond immediately to attacks. And it must urge the African Union to be more aggressive in protecting civilians. More important, Washington must immediately spearhead efforts to create a larger multinational force. The African Union has begun discussions with the United Nations about folding itself into a follow-on U.N. mission, but because of the West's reluctance to offend African sensibilities, all parties seem resigned to muddling along. It has become clear that a U.N.- or NATO-led force is required, and the administration must use diplomacy to override Chinese and Sudanese opposition to such a force and persuade outside troops to join it.

Second, the administration must keep up the pressure on the rebels to unite their negotiating positions, and it must enlist Sudan's allies to increase the pressure on Khartoum to share power and resources.

Third, the United States and other nations must place additional pressure on key nations -- Chad, Eritrea and Libya -- to stop playing a destructive role in the conflict.

Fourth, the administration needs to place its weight behind the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which would impose targeted sanctions on the leading perpetrators of the genocide.

The Bush administration has helped reduce suffering in Darfur, but the situation is dangerously adrift. And when the history of this tragedy is written, nobody will remember how many times officials visited the region or how much humanitarian aid was delivered. They will only remember the death toll.

Barack Obama is a Democratic senator from Illinois. Sam Brownback is a Republican senator from Kansas.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company