The crisis in Darfur enters its fifth year with prospects for peace more remote than ever. A huge displaced population remains under threat from militias nominally controlled by the Sudanese government while the international community attempts to broker a settlement between Khartoum and rebel leaders in the area. The U.S. special envoy assigned to help resolve the crisis, Andrew Natsios, says the situation could soon grow even more unstable as the central government loses control and rebel groups in the region splinter. But he says Washington will maintain pressure on Khartoum to protect noncombatants while trying to forge a political settlement, which he says “is the only way to put Darfur back together again.”
Could you describe the situation as it exists now in Darfur? What are the biggest threats the people of that region face?
There are three major threats. First, the displaced camps where two and a half million people live are vulnerable, because people are in very closed-in areas. If there was an attempt by the janjaweed militia, which is paid for, equipped, and directed by the Sudanese government, but not always completely under their control, to start to attack the camps, to disperse them, or to take things from people, then I think there would be widespread bloodshed in the camps. That’s a grave risk. There are some people within the regime that think the displaced camps are the problem, that if the displaced camps weren’t there, there wouldn’t be pressure for all these international troops and there wouldn’t be pressure for resolving the situation. This is a visible evidence of the failure of their policy. So far, the government has not attempted to shut the camps down. But should they, then we have a huge problem on our hands. We have given credible warnings of what will happen if they do that.
Two, there is a risk that the instability in the province will lead to the voluntary departure or the expulsion of the NGOs—the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross) and the UN humanitarian agencies that support the people in these camps. Without those agencies, people will die, because they have no way of feeding themselves and providing the medical support and the water that’s needed to sustain life in the camps. If the attacks by rebel forces on the NGOs to loot their trucks—that’s what the rebels are doing—or the harassment by the government against the humanitarian aid agencies results in the departure of these NGOS and UN agencies, that would be a disaster.
The third risk is simply the fact that there’s near anarchy in the province. The Sudanese government has lost control of large parts of the province. They have been defeated militarily three times now in major battles with the rebels. But the rebels are atomizing, they are breaking down into smaller and smaller groups. Some of the rebels are fighting with each other and some of the [formerly allied] tribes have been fighting with each other. The chaotic conditions make it much harder to achieve a peace agreement, which is the only way to put Darfur back together again. It’s more difficult under those circumstances to get troop-contributing countries to agree to put their soldiers in harm’s way when there’s no agreement and there’s chaos on the ground and a lot of guns around.
Outline how the UN peacekeeping role plays into this.
We need another ten thousand troops and three thousand police, which is what the [UN] secretary-general requested and has suggested from the assessments the United Nations did last summer. This is necessary for several reasons. One, it will allow greater protection for civilians. [Two,] it will allow protection for the humanitarian aid effort. Third, if there is a negotiated peace settlement, there will be things like the disarmament of rebels on either side of the conflict [including the] militias that are associated with the government—particularly the disarmament from the use of heavy weapons—that I think only troops that are experienced in doing this should be charged with carrying out. The United Nations [UN] has this experience, but the African Union [AU] does not. The AU basically has said, “We want to help, we want to be there, we’re willing to provide the protection, but some of these duties that we’re being asked to perform we do not have experience with.” So we need a combination of the UN and the AU. That’s what’s been agreed to, a hybrid force of the two, but getting other countries to contribute troops under these circumstances is difficult.
You generated a lot of interest with your ‘Plan B’ warning. What can you say about what sort of levers the United States has to try to influence the situation?
Our leverage over the rebel movements to unify is more limited than our leverage over the Sudanese government, but we have to have movement on both sides. If we get the Sudanese government to sit down at the table and there are fifteen rebel groups fighting with each other, there’s not going to be any peace agreement. So we need both sides to cooperate. The Sudanese have not been particularly cooperative. They bombed the first two meetings of rebel commanders that we in the international community had encouraged because they don’t want them talking. Two days ago, Jan Eliasson, the special envoy of the secretary-general and Salim Salim, the special envoy of the African Union, did sit down with two hundred rebel commanders in a very productive meeting in Darfur, and the government agreed not to bomb it. So that, for us, was a step forward in the process. We believe we can move both sides towards a negotiated settlement, but it’s not easy to do it.
So the announcement of a Plan B laying out of a marker, perhaps, for the Sudanese—that there are penalties down the road, and that there are plans for certain financial sanctions and things like that?
We needed to send a message to the Sudanese government that we were no longer simply going to continue with the situation the way it’s been the last four years, that there was a change. We are considering more aggressive measures should we make no progress in the humanitarian area, in the political negotiations, and in the implementation of Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon’s [former and current UN secretary-generals] plan to introduce these additional forces.
The Chinese president made a recent trip to the region. You actually went to China before that to talk to the Chinese. The visit ended with an agreement to eliminate Sudanese debt and to help finance a presidential palace. What should we make of this trip?
The Sudanese and the Chinese have been discussing this issue. We wanted to encourage the Chinese to press the Sudanese for progress [in protecting civilians and moving toward a negotiated solution], which is sort of a broad agreement in the international community in terms of where we need to go. The Chinese delivered the messages, I believe quietly in their own nonconfrontational way. We tend to be more confrontational in our diplomacy traditionally, and as a result of that, we were disappointed in the low-key approach the Chinese took. However, the Chinese can play an important role as interlocutors for the Sudanese government. We need to keep cultivating that and I am actually hopeful that there will be more cooperation with the Chinese on this.
The neighboring countries of Chad and Central African Republic are getting swept into the conflict. Can you talk about the concern the United States has for this being a region-wide crisis, and maybe what contingencies there are to address it?
Well, it already is a region-wide conflict. Chad is at war with Sudan even though it’s not a declaration of war. Essentially they’re destabilizing each other, and this conflict has spilled over into the Central African Republic. Our plan for dealing with it, one, is the U.S. support with the French for a robust UN peacekeeping force to be placed in Chad along the border that will protect the refugee camps and the displaced camps, and then through diplomacy to stabilize the situation within Chad. We don’t need a civil war within Chad now with what’s happening in Darfur. So we’ve been working with our European allies on this. We support efforts to resolve the internal differences in Chad that have led to the instability, and we’ve been urging both the Chadians to not interfere in Darfur and the government of Sudan not to interfere in Chad.
As a presidential envoy in this region and previously as USAID [Agency for International Development] director, how would you describe the scale of this conflict and the thicket that has to be navigated to get to a political resolution?
This is one of the most complex conflicts in the world. The risk to the civilian population is enormous. Our levers and instruments of influence are more limited than people realize. But I still think we have a chance of success. We do have a unified world community in terms of wanting to resolve this. We have people’s attention. The Africans are very upset with what’s happening in Darfur and they want to resolve this, so do the Europeans, and the Chinese in their own way as well, and some of the Arab states have been helpful. They’re not going to go as far as we would go. They’re not going to impose sanctions, they don’t want to go to Plan B. We will have a much smaller coalition should we go to a Plan B, but we have enough countries that it won’t be just the United States versus