After Sudan vote on partition, Obama cannot rest

The US helped quell the deadly conflict in Africa's largest country. After the Jan. 9 referendum on sucession in south Sudan, President Obama can't afford to let fighting resume.

Every US president since Ronald Reagan has sent the military into a new trouble spot somewhere in the world – except Barack Obama. And now he is trying hard to keep that record of no new intervention in the case of Sudan. This year, Africa’s largest country may be split into two.

A referendum is set for Jan. 9 in southern Sudan that will probably result in a partition between the largely Arab, Islamic north and the largely black, Christian, and animist south. If this national divorce goes as planned, it could finally put an end to a conflict that resulted in the loss of more than 2 million lives.

The task of peacefully breaking up Sudan, however, remains far from finished and is a test of Mr. Obama’s attempt to avoid more military deployments. His secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, only recently called Sudan “a ticking time bomb.” And his former director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, stated last year that of all the world’s trouble spots, “a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan” within five years.

It is a mark of US diplomacy – that began with a 2005 agreement between the north and south – that the regime of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in Khartoum now appears willing to let the referendum take place without stirring up militias in the south. Mr. Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party even appear resigned to the south overwhelmingly voting for secession, as is widely expected.

Both sides have strong incentives to make this split-up work. Each government is highly dependent on money from Sudan’s oil exports. And each has enough foes within their own camps not to again fight each other.

Still, a strong American hand is needed through 2011 to ensure that the north and south negotiate a postreferendum deal on border demarcation, oil sharing, foreign debt, the status of southern refugees, and the future of the oil-rich Abyei territory. (The latter is home to both a tribe of farmers supported by the south and a northern-backed Arab nomadic tribe.)

Any number of players with guns has the potential to turn this tinderbox into a place that might require US intervention. Sudan has also drawn the attention of big names, such as actor George Clooney and singer Alicia Keys, as well as Christian activist groups in the United States.

One complication for the US is the fact that Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges for his actions in Sudan’s other hot spot, Darfur. Negotiating with such a wanted figure is awkward. Yet the Obama administration has wisely used incentives rather than threats to persuade Bashir to keep the peace process moving along.

The US, for instance, may remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if Bashir honors the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement mediated between the north and south by the Bush administration. (Sudan was once home to Osama bin Laden.)

Bashir may have only agreed to the 2005 pact after seeing the US invade Afghanistan and Iraq. With the US now more war-averse and money-strapped, he may demand a bushel of diplomatic carrots to make the necessary concessions on the toughest issues of oil sharing and the status of Abyei.

The south, too, needs expert hand-holding by the US during the coming negotiations so as not to force a renewal of the conflict. And if a new country does emerge – one that would be the size of Texas – it must not be allowed to become a failed state with its own internal strife. Many more years of US aid will be required for the landlocked south.

The world has witnessed several messy, violent partitions before: post-British India and later the break-off of Bangladesh from Pakistan; and lately Yugoslavia. Sudan can be different and avoid foreign military intervention if the United States and the West, along with African and Arab states, see the wisdom of separating peoples who never really wanted to be put together when colonial powers carved up Africa. The two parts of Sudan may yet set an example for resolving other ethnic or religious strife in Africa – if they can separate peacefully.

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