WASHINGTON – Three years after midwifing South Sudan’s birth, the United States is desperately trying to prevent the world’s youngest nation from falling apart.
Yet despite shared consternation by the Obama administration and Congress, no one is quite sure what the United States can do to bring peace to the young country. The violence has killed at least 1,000 people — and possibly many more — and driven 180,000 from their homes in the last month. Neighbors are now killing each other purely on tribal identification, threatening a nation that until recently was viewed by Democrats and Republicans alike as an American success story in Africa.
The crisis has sowed deep concern at the White House. President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, called Thursday for an immediate cease-fire, warning that South Sudan could otherwise witness the escalation of a crisis that its people cannot afford.
The risk of all-out civil war is growing, said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa. “There is clear evidence that targeted killings have taken place, with Dinka killing Nuer, and Nuer killing Dinka. Countless civilians, particularly women and children, have become victims,” she said.
South Sudanese forces were pressing an offensive to wrest back control of the main oil hub from rebel forces Friday.
The worst fighting centered around Bentiu, leaving the oil town ransacked and emptied of its civilian population. An army spokesman said that combat was also raging near Bor, the only other major town in rebel hands.
In total, there are now probably more than a quarter of a million people displaced by the fighting, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said.
Hundreds of fleeing civilians were making a perilous journey by boat and on foot to Minkammen, on the other side of the swamps of the crocodile-infested White Nile river from Bor. Many recounted tales of horror, including civilians mowed down with machine guns as they fled, and gunmen torching entire villages and looting crops and livestock.
For the United States, South Sudan’s instability isn’t just another example of a weak African state struggling to deal with political infighting, endemic poverty and deadly battles between the military and rebel groups. Because of its history as a largely Christian nation that was able to win its freedom from Muslim-dominated Sudan, South Sudan has a powerful constituency in Washington. And the bloodshed is proving an embarrassment to America, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and been its strongest international champion.
The crisis began with a political dispute on Dec. 15 as President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of trying to overthrow the government. Machar denies the accusation, accusing the government of rooting out political opponents. Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. had no evidence of a coup attempt, putting the initial blame on the government for raiding Machar’s home.
But the violence has spread significantly since, sparking a series of ethnically motivated attacks and counterattacks while groups allied to Machar have claimed military victories and greater control of territory. Meanwhile, Uganda has sent in hundreds of troops and provided Sudanese government forces with military hardware, and has threatened deeper intervention if militants move on the capital, Juba.
Washington has mobilized on two fronts, organizing peace talks between representatives of both sides in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and getting the U.N. Security Council last month to approve 5,500 more peacekeepers.
Washington has clear security interests at stake. Having seen al-Qaida gain a foothold in several nearby countries over the last couple of years, the U.S. doesn’t want to see terrorist groups infiltrate yet another place racked by internal fighting. And it also is keeping a wary eye on Sudan, which fought for 22 years to hold onto the oil-rich territory and which the United States still considers a state sponsor of terrorism. Its president has suggested joint security patrols with South Sudan’s government, which the U.S. has yet to respond to.
While the focus is currently on diplomacy, U.S. officials and congressional aides said the military also has begun studying scenarios under which the United States could consider supporting local partners such as Uganda, Ethiopia or Kenya to move into South Sudan to restore order.
Under no scenario are U.S. military boots on the ground envisioned in the country.
The United States has some leverage. After helping secure peace with the north in 2005, Washington guided South Sudan through a referendum three years ago approving its independence. Since then, the U.S. has intervened to secure a series of agreements with Sudan on sharing oil revenue and managing, if not solving, their border disputes. When South Sudan became its own country in July 2011, President Barack Obama hailed it as a “reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible.”
Even before the latest bout of violence, Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress warned Kiir this summer to halt a series of ethnically motivated atrocities against minorities or risk losing vital U.S. aid and diplomatic support. And the White House recently vowed a complete aid cutoff to anyone who seizes power by force.
In response to the violence, Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. was providing an additional $50 million in humanitarian assistance to South Sudan. But with the fighting preventing access to many parts of the country and a dearth of aid workers on the ground to deliver assistance, it is unclear what that commitment will mean in the short term.