Then U.S. President George W. Bush and Salva Kiir meet in the Oval Office on Jan. 5, 2009, in Washington, D.C., to discuss a peace agreement with Khartoum as well as the situation in Darfur.
To the outside world, the reference might have seemed cryptic. But in South Sudan, the message was crystal clear: 1991 was the year Machar broke away from the main southern guerilla movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), that was fighting against the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The move nearly brought about the SPLA’s demise. Now, Machar was again estranged from the flock and about to mount a new rebellion from the bush. By linking the two events, Kiir was invoking an old and powerful grudge. “It was not in the spirit of reconciliation,” Lam Akol, who led the breakaway SPLA faction with Machar in 1991 and later served as Sudan’s foreign minister, told me. “It was a declaration of war.”
“When South Sudan finally hoisted its own flag in Juba on July 9th, 2011, someone waved a sign that read ‘Thank you George Bush’.”
During and after Kiir’s press conference, forces loyal to the president rounded up and executed hundreds of male Nuers, the ethnic group to which Machar belongs. The soldiers reportedly identified the men by asking their names in Dinka, the language of Kiir’s ethnic group; inability to answer could be a death sentence. In one neighborhood, according to Human Rights Watch, between 200 and 300 men were detained in a building used by police and then murdered by gunmen, alleged to be members of the South Sudanese armed forces, who fired on the prisoners through windows.
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Machar denied the coup allegation, but as Juba descended deeper into violence, he quickly took up arms against the government. Soon, blood was flowing across the northeastern portion of the country: in Bor, the capital of restive Jonglei state, and then in Bentiu and Malakal, two major cities in the heart of South Sudan’s oil country. Reports of war crimes committed by both sides followed.
Over the next year, somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 people would be killed and another 2 million forced to flee their homes. Farmers missed their planting season, and aid agencies warned of an impending famine. According to the United Nations, the humanitarian crisis created by South Sudan’s civil war is now on par with those in Syria, Iraq, and the Central African Republic. “I never thought I’d see the day when people would be fleeing to Darfur,” Toby Lanzer, the top U.N. aid official in South Sudan, told me in August. “But that’s the situation we’re in.”
“These tensions have come to the fore in the Obama era. Unlike Bush, who one senior White House official told me ‘could have been the desk officer’ because he was so engaged on southern Sudan, Obama has preferred to leave details to his staffers, who have not always seen eye to eye with one another.”
A few days after my meeting with Lanzer, I boarded a U.N. plane in Juba packed with peacekeepers and other humanitarians and flew several hundred miles north over swampland and jungle to Malakal, roughly tracing the path of the violence that had exploded across the country. Control of the city had changed hands between the government and Machar’s rebels six times in nine months, and some of the worst atrocities of the civil war had been committed there. The last time rebels overran the city, they burned so much of it that satellite imagery revealed charcoal smudges where whole neighborhoods once stood. Now, the government was back in charge, and it was flooding troops and equipment in ahead of the dry season, when fighting in South Sudan has historically taken place. Rumors abounded of an impending rebel attack.
After a brief stop at the U.N. base near Malakal, where roughly 20,000 civilians were waiting out the violence in overcrowded displacement camps, I caught a ride with UNICEF employees down the rutted dirt track to what used to be South Sudan’s second-largest city. The closer we got, the fewer civilians there were. In the center of town, where abandoned market stalls sat bleakly on patches of scorched earth, the only humans in evidence were government soldiers, most of them carrying AK-47s. When we passed the sagging bungalow that used to serve as UNICEF’s living quarters, half a dozen armed men grinned out at us. Like most structures that hadn’t been destroyed, the building was occupied by the South Sudanese army.
We drove past looted warehouses, shelled government buildings, and rows of thatched huts that had been put to the torch. Not far from the obliterated central market, the ruins of a teaching hospital spilled out into the street: smashed vials, soiled bandages, and now-useless medical equipment. In February 2014, at least 14 people were murdered there when rebels swept into Malakal. The day before our arrival, I was told, staff members discovered a body rotting on the roof of one of the hospital’s annex buildings. While we toured a gutted pediatric complex across the street, I nearly stepped on a skull that was hidden in the grass.
Slogging through what was left of Malakal, it was difficult to imagine that South Sudan was once considered a major U.S. foreign-policy success. Over a span of nearly two decades, three different U.S. administrations worked to bring the new nation into being. Bill Clinton was the first to signal support for the southern separatists battling Khartoum in the Second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted more than 20 years and left an estimated 2 million people dead; his administration unlocked military support for neighboring countries that was then funneled covertly across borders. George W. Bush later made Southern Sudan a centerpiece of his foreign policy, helping broker a landmark north-south peace deal in 2005 that ended the civil war and paved the way for southern independence. The Obama administration carried the ball across the goal line, ensuring that an independence referendum went ahead as planned in early 2011 and pouring hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid into the new country.
When South Sudan finally hoisted its own flag in Juba on July 9, 2011, a delegation of Bush and Obama administration officials was in attendance. In the crowd, the New York Times reported, someone waved a sign that read, “Thank You George Bush.”
Now that South Sudan has imploded in spectacular fashion, however, it offers a case study in the limits of American power: Not only have its tremendous state-building efforts failed to bear fruit, but the U.S. government now finds itself with virtually no ability to shape events on the ground. “We’re at an all-time low in terms of influence,” said Cameron Hudson, who worked on South Sudan policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
“There are those who feel that Obama saw little benefit from engaging with the young and troubled nation. Certainly, they say, he did not share the same political incentives as Bush, whose evangelical base championed the southern cause.”
To be sure, the new nation faced long odds. At independence, it had virtually no civil institutions, about 120 doctors for a population of roughly 9 million, and a total of 35 miles of paved roads spanning a territory the size of France. It was also landlocked, ethnically diverse, and entirely dependent on oil revenue. In other words, it faced every major challenge identified by social scientists as a predictor of state failure.
Yet there are American officials who have worked closely on Sudan and South Sudan policy who still feel the situation could have played out differently, and that brutal war could have been avoided. The story of how the South Sudan project came unhinged — pieced together over six months from more than two dozen interviews with current and former U.S., U.N., and South Sudanese officials — is one of extraordinary challenges faced down and enormous errors made by leaders in Juba. It is also the story of how tensions between and within U.S. administrations alienated the South Sudanese government, reduced American leverage, and blinded U.S. officials to warning signs that the new nation’s ruling party was breaking apart.
“The cumulative effect of all these factors was that the United States began to distance itself from South Sudan at a time when the young nation, long supported by Washington, was arguably at its most vulnerable.”
These tensions have come to the fore in the Obama era. Unlike Bush, who one senior White House official told me “could have been the desk officer” because he was so engaged on southern Sudan, Obama has preferred to leave details to his staffers, who have not always seen eye to eye with one another. Key administration posts, including the special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, ambassador to South Sudan, and assistant secretary of state for African affairs, have remained vacant for extended periods during his presidency. “Through the crucial part of the time that the relationship between [South Sudanese] factions deteriorated, the U.S. had nobody in office,” said John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official who co-founded the Washington-based Enough Project, a group that works to end genocide around the world.