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Darfur has become even more of a problem

The U.N.'s military commander in Sudan's genocide-ravaged province says the war is over, but the conflicts underlying the fighting are still there.

August 31, 2009

According to the United Nations' military commander in Darfur, the war in Sudan's genocide-ravaged province is over. It would be nice if that meant the humanitarian crisis were finished, the U.N. peacekeepers could go home and President Obama could cross one big foreign policy headache off his list. But it really just means that an already complex problem has become even tougher to solve.

Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, ending his tour of duty as head of the joint U.N./African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur last week, said that instead of open war between rebels and government troops, there is now mostly low-level banditry by assorted armed groups. Yet if the fighting that broke out in 2003 is effectively over, the conflicts underlying it are still there. And it is still far too dangerous for the more than 2.5 million people chased from their homes by soldiers and government-armed Arab militias -- part of a calculated strategy to crush Darfur's rebellion via ethnic cleansing -- to leave the refugee camps. The biggest change is that it will now be even harder to reach a peace agreement between the government in Khartoum and the rebels, because the latter have fractured into multiple rival camps and don't speak with a unified voice.

It's understandable if the tragedy in Darfur has been low on Obama's priority list -- he has been a bit busy trying to head off a deep U.S. recession, overhaul the nation's healthcare system and reinvent its energy infrastructure -- but the millions suffering in Darfur need his attention to shift in their direction. His administration has been dismayingly late in developing its Sudan strategy, possibly reflecting a split within the State Department between those who favor even tougher sanctions against Khartoum and those who want to ease them.

Obama's special envoy on Sudan, Scott Gration, falls in the latter group. He has called for ending some of the trade restrictions placed on Khartoum by the Clinton administration 12 years ago because they're stalling important infrastructure projects in the country's southern region.

Gration might be right about the importance of developing the south, which faces a crucial vote on independence in 2011 and hasn't yet built the institutions a separate state needs. But we hope that when the administration finally reveals its Darfur plan in the coming days or weeks, it will focus on ways to tighten the screws on Khartoum -- in particular by twisting arms at the Security Council to toughen international sanctions. If the killers who control Sudan have demonstrated anything in 20 years of bloodshed, it's that they respond more reliably to sticks than carrots.

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