The Atlantic | From Victim to (Mutual) Aggressor: South Sudan’s Disastrous First Year
Some wars have a self-evident logic to them. When U.S. troops first set foot in Afghanistan, there was little doubt about why they were there or what they wanted to do. But the fighting between The Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan, which reached official “war” status when Khartoum formally declared war on its southern neighbor on April 19, belongs to a different category of armed conflict. It’s more like Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, or Israel’s 2006 incursion into Lebanon, the end product of a long series of calculations and miscalculations, internal politics and external pressures, suspicions legitimate and imagined — a war launched on its own uncontrollable momentum.
Still, this conflict, which has cooled in the few days since the UN Security Council demanded that both sides cease hostilities and enter into negotiations, could have been prevented. When I visited South Sudan in mid-March, knowledgeable individuals described war between the north and south as a serious, though not inevitable, prospect. A non-Arab Sudanese rebel group known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North — which Khartoum sees as aided by South Sudan — is fighting the northern army in South Kordofan, Sudan. If the rebels had made dramatic enough gains, one U.S. official had earlier speculated to me, the northern government might attack the South in response. A South Sudanese government official told me that Khartoum wanted to go to war, or at least wanted to appear willing to go to war, in order to pressure the South into making concessions during ongoing negotiations over oil revenues. Ethnic conflict in Jonglei and Unity States, two provinces in South Sudan, risked throwing much of the new nation into the sort of chaos that the regime in Khartoum, still smarting from the loss of over a third of its territory, was likely to exploit. Abyei and other disputed areas were mentioned as possible flashpoints, but in all of my conversations with officials, scholars, consultants, and civil society figures, the name Heglig — the oil-producing border region that southern troops entered on April 10, sparking the current crisis — was never mentioned. There had even been a recent, diplomatic thaw. Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was scheduled to visit Juba on April 3 for a presidential-level summit. A soccer match between youth clubs from the countries’ capital cities would even mark the occasion (the summit was canceled on March 26, when border flare-ups began).