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Could the US have helped avert the crisis in Sudan?

The debate over the US’s failures in Sudan, explained.

A Sudanese protester walks past a recently painted mural during a demonstration near the army headquarters in the capital, Khartoum, on April 24, 2019.
Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

In 2019, Sudan briefly held out hope. After mass protests, the military arrested and overthrew Omar al-Bashir, who had brutally run Sudan for three decades. Though in the aftermath the military shakily shared power with civilian leaders, that ended two years later when military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Sudanese armed forces launched a military coup. The US engaged with the new military government.

Now, al-Burhan is battling a rival military leader for control of Sudan.

Over the past month, conflict between al-Burhan’s Sudanese armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces, an irregular militia led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who goes by Hemedti, has displaced more than 730,000 people. More than 600 people have been confirmed killed and over 5,000 injured; the real numbers are likely much higher. Airstrikes and street fights in the capital of Khartoum continue, as the battling forces defy ceasefires. The conflict is “likely to be protracted as both sides believe that they can win militarily and have few incentives to come to the negotiating table,” national intelligence director Avril Haines told the Senate last week.

Now, as a humanitarian emergency looms over Sudan’s conflict, a debate has broken out as to whether the US could have handled the situation in Sudan differently — with significant implications for what comes next, and potentially big impact on US policy in Africa and the Middle East. Despite President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to put human rights in the center of foreign policy, the Biden administration has struggled to articulate a rights-driven approach.

There are valid critiques of the US and international community’s role in Sudan since the 2019 change of power. Not enough punitive measures were taken against the generals when they massacred protesters in June 2019 or when they ousted the democratic government. The US froze $700 million of aid after the 2021 coup and worked with international partners to suspend development lending and debt relief to Sudan’s government, though the generals were not personally sanctioned.

“It was a real deep lack of imagination, and a real misunderstanding of democratic transitions in the context of Africa,” says Khalid Mustafa Medani, chair of the African studies program at McGill University. “That is not only naive in terms of how transitions work, but it’s also a misreading of the strength of civil society in Sudan.”

But it’s not clear whether the US could have done much to prevent a coup in Sudan that halted the grassroots democratic movement or ongoing violent conflict. There have been at least seven military coups, plus other coup attempts, in Africa in the past couple years. And the Sudanese generals’ crushing of protest is a mirror to the outcome in Arab states that had overthrown military leaders in the 2011 Arab Spring.

The series of events in Sudan reveals the limits of US influence. “The overall impression is this is a power struggle between Hemedti, Burhan, and their institutions that would have been very difficult for any country alone or in concert to prevent, when each sees the other as an existential threat,” says Jeffrey Feltman, who served as the US’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa from 2021 to 2022.

His successor as special envoy says that the US did everything it could have, and had only bad options, forced to make deals with a military known for its heinous crimes. “At the end of the day, we had to include the military in the dialogue,” David Satterfield, a career diplomat, told me. “And I would argue to you right now, if there is ever an opportunity to return to a path towards restoration of a civilian-led government, you’re going to have to talk to the military then as well.”

In effect, this was the argument that won the day in 2021 among the Biden administration and shapes its policies today.

“I don’t think the US played its hand really well. I also don’t think that if the US had played its hand really well, that it would have necessarily averted a disaster,” says Michael Wahid Hanna of the International Crisis Group. “It’s like nostalgia for a mythical past that never existed.”

What the US has been up to in Sudan

One of the strongest critiques of the Biden administration’s policy toward Sudan is that the country wasn’t a priority.

When the Biden administration convened a summit with African leaders in December, it did not invite Sudan, in part because of the country’s military takeover. The country’s future did not figure prominently into meetings and events at the summit, according to summaries published by the State Department. And Sudan was not a centerpiece of policy discussions during President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, according to diplomatic readouts, despite the Middle East and Gulf countries in attendance at the Riyadh summit having sway in Sudan.

In December 2022, the US, United Nations, African Union, and regional groupings worked with the Sudanese military to compose a framework agreement to transition to civilian rule. The document itself, according to Crisis Group, wasn’t bad. But many of the grassroots protest groups were not involved. Critics noted how it did not offer mechanisms to hold the generals to account.

Pompeo sits on the left of the photo on a low white couch, as al-Burhan sits in a matching white chair on the right. Behind both are drawn curtains in a large room.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chair of the Transitional Military Council, on August 25, 2020, in Khartoum, Sudan.
Sudanese Presidency Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Phee, in a blue suit, stands on the left of the photo, shaking hands with Dagalo, in military fatigues. Both wear white masks and are surrounded by beautiful furnishings.
Molly Phee, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, meets with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, in Khartoum, Sudan on June 7, 2022.
Sudanese Presidency Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We’re working incredibly hard in Sudan … with civil society to work toward a civilian transitional government,” Judd Devermont, Biden’s top Africa adviser, said in February.

But the conditions for civil war came into place during the previous US administration.

After Bashir’s overthrow, in June 2019, the Sudanese military killed more than 120 protesters and seriously injured about 900. There has been no accountability, and the Trump administration did little in response to the massacre. One of the few arenas where Trump’s team meaningfully deployed leverage against Sudan was in urging the country to normalize relations with Israel as part of Trump’s Abraham Accords effort. In exchange, the US removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in December 2020.

The US’s tendency to play footsie with the Sudanese military in those two years reinforced the conditions that sparked today’s fighting.

Then the Biden administration, according to analysts, failed to put pressure on the generals in October 2021 when they detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. (Though they agreed to a deal a month later that reinstalled Hamdok as the head of a “technocratic government,” Hamdok resigned in January 2022, recognizing the failure of that deal.)

Activists say the US should have quickly implemented targeted sanctions against Sudan’s military in those months. The US was even reluctant to refer to al-Burhan’s military takeover of the country as a coup.

Feltman, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that measures against Sudan’s generals after the coup should have been a priority.

“The value would have been that the Sudanese civilians would have seen our actions match our words, in terms of trying to promote a civilian-led democratic transition,” he told me. “Refraining from imposing any punitive steps on generals bought time, but it didn’t buy us the type of goodwill from them to really promote a civilian transition.”

Still, it’s not clear whether sanctions would have deterred the generals. Sudanese civil society was organized and active, but continually repressed by the military. Despite US efforts, democratic transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have been elusive.

Another key moment of US policy relates to the failure to anticipate how security sector reform — consolidating Sudan’s military and militias under one centralized umbrella, including al-Burhan and Hemedti — would invariably lead to conflict.

Such reform was necessary for Sudan’s transition to democracy, but the timeline was rushed and the process unplanned. Medani says a fatal error was “the notion that security sector reform, accountability, issues of justice, and the dismantling of a deep state could occur and be agreed upon in one year.”

The US also outsourced much of its policy to the Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. But the future of Sudan was never a priority for those countries, where countering Iran’s influence, the war in Yemen, and other conflicts took precedence. But by ceding much to them, the US diminished its own agency.

“The incompetence and short-sightedness was ridiculous, and also the inability and unwillingness to use American power to influence the allies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE is an astronomical mistake,” Medani told me.

The debate around the US in Sudan, explained

Just three days after the two rival military leaders began warring in Sudan, Feltman published an essay for the Washington Post arguing that the United States and its partners got burned by putting too much faith in the generals.

It was a rare, scathing criticism from a recent alumnus of the Biden administration. That has crescendoed into a growing chorus of voices saying that the US screwed up. The “United States seems curiously mute or even absent,” columnist Lydia Polgreen wrote in the New York Times. “Washington and its allies in the West have prioritized the voices of those people with guns over the people in the civilian, civil society leadership of the country,” Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst affiliated with the CSIS think tank, told Deutsche Welle recently.

I asked the State Department how they respond to these criticisms.

A senior official said it’s “confusing when we’re told that we haven’t been pressing the generals” and described how the US “mobilized extraordinary economic pressure on the generals” against Burhan and Hemedti when they overthrew the democratic government in 2021. The senior official said they were part of a long line of “American officials from different agencies who have stood by the side of the Sudanese people and used US power and influence to press the generals to respond to the aspirations of the Sudanese people.”

Satterfield, who served as special envoy for the Horn of Africa last year, says that the Biden administration did the best it could. “We tried all the tools available to us that were practicable and legally possible,” he told me.

Though critics of the Biden administration are arguing that the US should have taken a stronger line against the generals, that might not have been doable. Much of Hemedti’s assets are non-traditional, notably in gold. He trades billions annually with the United Arab Emirates, which would be unlikely to implement sanctions against the Sudanese warlord. “The reach of sanctions would have been meaningless. You would have antagonized both of them at a time when they were indeed interlocutors for us, the international community, and achieved zero,” Satterfield, who is now at Rice University, told me.

Women, some with signs and one with a megaphone, walk in a city street with crowds of onlookers.
Sudanese women take to the streets of the capital Khartoum, as they join the ongoing protests against military rule, on July 6, 2022.
AFP via Getty Images

Satterfield said he talked “continuously” with Sudan’s grassroots activist groups, “with the aim of shaping them into a coherent force that could, through and with the UN, present a unified and reasonable position.”

That is not the consensus. “Americans missed an opportunity in the sense that they thought that their pragmatism was going to be the most effective,” says Medani. “They didn’t understand that, despite the divisions within civil society, it really was the only balancing act that could actually guarantee that kind of transition.”

The lack of US leverage led the State Department to focus on engaging Sudan through partner countries and international organizations.

As for the criticism that the US paid too much attention to the generals: “Listen, if the generals don’t want there to be a transition, there’s no transition. They have the guns, they have the power,” Hanna of International Crisis Group explained.

What the US could do going forward

For now, a ceasefire is the most urgent priority. The rival factions have been negotiating in Saudi Arabia. “The two combatants still believe they can win,” Satterfield told me. “Until they have concluded that they can only lose, this is going to continue.”

On Thursday, the State Department announced it had helped broker an initial commitment between Burhan and Hemedti’s forces to allow for some humanitarian measures, like the delivery of aid, withdrawing troops from medical facilities, and allowing for burials.

“The negotiations were very tough” and a broader cessation of hostilities is “going to be a step-by-step process,” said a second senior State Department official. “We’ve also talked about steps that the civilian actors could take now to prepare to effectively participate in discussions when they go to that expanded format.”

The current Horn of Africa envoy, Mike Hammer, has been more focused on Ethiopia. This week, he travels to the West Coast to meet with leaders in the Ethiopian diaspora. Victoria Nuland, the top policy leader at the State Department, told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the US ambassador to Sudan, John Godfrey, is “likely to play a stronger role in some of the regional diplomacy and global diplomacy that we need on Sudan.”

This division underestimates how easily Sudan could become a regional issue. “If you’ve restricted the special envoy for the Horn of Africa to just Ethiopia, you have undermined the purpose of having a special envoy that can look broadly, regionally,” Feltman told me.

In this melting pot of external interests, the concerns go far beyond Sudan and to the potential spillover effects, especially as thousands of refugees flee Sudan. As neighboring countries get involved and may pick their own winners, new regional dynamics will likely exacerbate the situation. If Egypt takes a stronger side, then Ethiopia is likely to take the opposite side, given their conflict over the new Nile dam.

Plus Hemedti may be able to reinforce his militia by drawing upon combatants from his own ethnic group across the continent and widening the conflict to the Sahel region. “So you could imagine a situation in which fighters are recruited from as far west as Mali,” political scientist Mai Hassan of the University of Michigan said. “Each new day brings us closer to these worst-case scenarios.”

Feltman says that even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not clear whether different US policies could have changed the trajectory. “There’s an overestimation of the US role, and an underestimation of the agency of the local actors,” he told me.

But that doesn’t mean the US is powerless to influence change at this critical juncture for Sudan. “There has to be a graceful exit for these generals who have proven unable and unwilling to take the steps that would lead to fulfilling the aspiration of the Sudanese people for democratic, civilian-led government,” Feltman said. “That has to be a unified message, not from just the United States, but from neighbors.”