Johannesburg — WASHINGTON continues to face a contradiction in dealing with Sudan. The US administration is genuinely concerned about the Darfur tragedy, but it also needs Khartoum's support in the long war against al-Qaeda. Hence the high-level CIA presence at a somewhat surreal intelligence summit earlier this month in the Sudanese capital.
Khartoum was the venue for a week-long conference of all the heads of African intelligence agencies, to which -- bizarrely -- a small number of journalists was invited. In the same week that Washington tightened the sanctions screw, Khartoum wanted to underscore that it had the support of its brothers on the continent. It was also intended to show that Africa could set its own intelligence agenda, sidestepping the flawed policies of US President George Bush.
Khartoum hosted the fourth conference of the Committee for Intelligence and Security Systems in Africa (CISSA), which operates under the African Union (AU) umbrella. At least 46 African agencies were present, plus nearly all the main western intelligence agencies. The senior CIA and British Secret Service representatives were naturally wary of publicity: Sudan is, according to Washington, still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
As it happens, Khartoum has bent over backwards to provide intelligence to the west, especially on al-Qaeda's penetration of north Africa. In addition, it was reported that Khartoum is providing intelligence on jihadist operations in Iraq.
CIA attendance was a public statement in itself. Top western spooks mingled fraternally with their opposite numbers in Sudan's National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS). Its chief, Salah Al-Din Abdulla Mohamed, was in good spirits, back-slapping his western counterparts and even dancing on stage, while a band entertained the visitors at the imposing new intelligence headquarters in Khartoum.
In the past year, the Pentagon has beefed up its new US Africa Command with an investment of $50m. So far this is big on geography, but light on troops, for a structure that will eventually cover nearly all of Africa. US military and intelligence experts know that they have to recover from the Somalia syndrome and concentrate on the Mahgreb and sub-Saharan Africa, which are perceived as a growing front in the war on al-Qaeda. Recent Islamic terrorist attacks in Algeria, Morocco and northern Nigeria, as well as Islamic extremist resurgence in Somalia following the invasion by Ethiopia, added extra urgency to the summit.
Some of the sentimental "suits" in the US administration may shed real tears for the Darfurians, but the hard-nosed warriors know that Sudan is a vital element in regional security. Hence the paradox of Washington imposing sanctions in the same week that it sends a top intelligence delegation to Khartoum.
Sudan's leader, President Omar Al-Bashir, has long resisted United Nations (UN) demands for blue-hatted peacekeepers to enter Darfur. A UN military intervention without Khartoum's permission would be seen as an invasion, and could prompt a jihad to match Iraq and Afghanistan.
A few days after the conference, Al-Bashir reaffirmed his compromise position to allow UN troops to augment the current ill-performing AU force of 7000 troops and police.
Darfur was a major issue for the CISSA delegates, who were invited on a whistle-stop visit to El-Fashir, the capital of North Darfur. The governor of North Darfur state, Osman Khibir, told the visitors that there "could be no winning in this war". A political settlement was required.
Peacekeepers cannot keep a peace that does not exist. Even if all US troops in Iraq were suddenly transplanted to Darfur, they would not be able to police a region the size of France. What is required is neither troops nor sanctions, but energetic western political engagement with the rebels, and Khartoum, and those African states backing the insurgents.
Darfur is an international tragedy in what is perhaps the first environmental war of the 21st century. After a peace deal comes the hard part: resolving the fundamental causes, the lack of water and arable land caused by the desertification of the region.
As the south of Sudan rebuilds after its 50 years of war, and as Darfur struggles to provide the basics of life, is this a good time to impose further sanctions on a country that desperately needs to develop its economy?
The US has strict economic sanctions on Sudan. The UN has imposed an arms embargo, which prevents weapons being used in Darfur. But China and Russian still sell arms to Khartoum, which technically are not for use in the western war.
While the intelligence conference was going on, in SA, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for more sanctions against Sudan to replicate the antiapartheid embargoes. "Especially when they are targeted, sanctions are effective," he said.
At the same time, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first warrants for suspects accused of war crimes in Darfur. The ICC wanted to extradite two middle-ranking Sudanese to The Hague. But is this helpful? The ICC's Eurocentric legal approach has retarded the peace process in Uganda by demanding extradition of the leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army, instead of allowing local reconciliation methods to work. Isn't the Truth and Reconciliation process, SA's model, a better route ?
Likewise, the west is calling for more pressure on Robert Mugabe, as Zimbabwe totters on the edge of total implosion. Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) was active at the Khartoum conference, allying with Khartoum's charge that western pressure is all about regime change. It is true that the west wants to topple Mugabe and, until the enhanced intelligence co-operation, also wanted to get rid of Bashir. But many of the delegates at the conference completely bought the imperialist conspiracy line, without looking at the many internal factors undermining African countries.
While the delegates talked about co-operating to fight against the threats of external terrorism, most of the agencies need first to put their own houses in order. Zimbabwe's CIO, for example, is far too busy bashing the heads of its own citizens and spying on Zimbabwean dissidents in SA to worry about much else.
Sudan's NISS does have real wars to fight, and not just in the west, in Darfur. Peace deals in the east and south have to be policed. And its external role in monitoring al-Qaeda has been increasingly praised, albeit discreetly, by Washington.
The NISS put on quite a show in Khartoum -- playing both to the African and western galleries. The Sudanese government knows that a tsunami of Islamic extremism threatens the region, and so Washington has to back-pedal on condemnation of Khartoum's policy in Darfur.
Moreover, US and European Union isolation has allowed in a flood of competitors in a vital energy market. Khartoum has boomed, despite sanctions: all part of the oil bonanza and an 11% growth rate, the highest in Africa. China buys perhaps 64% of the oil from Sudan, now the third-largest producer in Africa. Much of it is paid in barter agreements -- oil for weapons.
This has created a recent squeeze in government funding, already strained by reconstruction deals with the government of southern Sudan.
Nevertheless, Khartoum has modernised dramatically in the past decade, and it is still probably the safest city in Africa. Islamic austerity and discipline inspire a very low crime rate, especially against foreigners. Sudanese are famous for their hospitality, though the conference delegates trooped off to the refurbished airport moaning about the heat and the lack of alcoholic refreshments. For once, hacks and spooks were in agreement.
Prof Moorcraft is the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, London, and visiting professor at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.