Posted by: Steve Coplan | March 10, 2007

Iraq and Darfur

It’s unfortunate that Mahmood Mamdani lacks the proclivity for self promotion. He is by far the most clear-headed analysts and commentators on Africa and the “clash” of civilizations. In this London Review of Books essay he turns his attention to Darfur, its complexities and the misleading distillation of the conflict. ‘Save Darfur’ is the most liberal of liberal causes and few would oppose military intervention to prevent the continued slaughter by Arabs of Africans. Mamdani explains it’s not all as simple as New York Times op-eds would have us believe, and does a very good job of exposing the naivete that allows for unequivocal distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ military intervention. Because the issues in Darfur are so clear-cut with obvious remorseless perpetrators and obvious defenseless victims, the case for military intervention is unassailable:

The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and so should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied Iraq. But Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in Iraq. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as ‘Arabs’ confront victims clearly identifiable as ‘Africans’.

Instead, Mamdani systematically outlines why these certainties are fabrications, and the potential for military intervention to exacerbate the situation just as explosive.

What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics – a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq.

As Mamdani explains, the situation in Darfur is in part the result of a regional insurgency, a counter-insurgency, divisions with the insurgent movement and economic divisions exploited by the Sudanese government and other governments. To intervene militarily would be the worst course of action under these circumstances, Mamdani writes:

Now, as then, imperial interventions claim to have a dual purpose: on the one hand, to rescue minority victims of ongoing barbarities and, on the other, to quarantine majority perpetrators with the stated aim of civilising them. Iraq should act as a warning on this score. The worst thing in Darfur would be an Iraq-style intervention. That would almost certainly spread the civil war to other parts of Sudan, unravelling the peace process in the east and south and dragging the whole country into the global War on Terror.

My first inkling that I was missing the complexity of the Darfur situation was this account by Alex de Waal of the negotiations between Darfuri secessionsists, those advocating regional autonomy and the ‘Arab’ government in Khartoum.

Related: Arm the Victims


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