"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


let's not arm south sudan

@laurenist has already said pretty much everything I have to say about Prendergast's latest idea for South Sudan: arming them with air defense systems. This sounds great until you remember that the South Sudanese air force isn't trained well enough to use air defense systems, the region is already super-saturated with arms, and, oh, yeah, arming the South might spook the North into going to war by creating a spiraling security dilemma. As Aly Verjee notes, "this is simply a bad idea."

David Sullivan, a smart guy who has unenviable task of defending Prendergast's ideas, argues that providing South Sudan with air defense systems is the least-bad of several bad options. I disagree, primarily because we do not have any guarantees about how the new South Sudan army will behave now that it is no longer a rebel movement. The population of South Sudan was united behind the idea of independence, but they are far from united in identifying with the SPLM and its army. As the euphoria of independence wears off and disappointments arise as unrealistic expectations go unmet, I fully expect to see healthy, democratic political fracturing in the new state. I hope that we will see more peaceful ways for South Sudanese to express disagreement; as Naomi Pendle notes, for the moment, there are no serious contenders. We are already seeing increased activity from the "renegade militias," which, as Jens Pederson notes, are challenging the SPLM government's credibility.

If we choose to provide these defense systems, we are taking sides not only with South Sudan, but also implicitly with one political party. What guarantees do we have that any kind of training we provide the South Sudanese military will not be used against the renegade militias, or against civilians perceived to support them? Yes, these are air defense systems we're talking about, but by providing them, we free up resources with which the Sudanese army can buy other weapons. I doubt they'll invest in rubber bullets.

Sullivan acknowledges that the training issue is a big one, and that even were we to provide air defense systems, that does nothing to help address these problems in the short term as it will take an extended period of time to properly train troops to use them. Could we not say the same of politics and diplomacy, which is far more likely to produce a lasting peace? The clear issues not resolved by the CPA - the status of the borders and of Abyei - are not going to be solved on the battlefield. It would be far preferable to focus our efforts and finances on hammering out a workable solution to the status of Abyei and the final demarcation of borders than to spend months or years on end training the South Sudan army in the use of weapons systems they may or may not need.

Finally, there's the question of the long term. While we can consider Juba a reliable ally for now, we don't know what will happen in the future. If there's one lesson we can learn from US engagement in Africa over the past fifty years, it's that putting more weapons into a situation always backfires against us, and, more importantly, against innocent civilians in the region. South Sudan is a prime example of this problem; go to a weapons dealer and you'll find US and Soviet-made weapons shipped into Somalia and Ethiopia during the Ogaden War, or perhaps a Kalishnakov that's made its way from Angola where it was used to fight South Africans before playing a role in the Congo wars. Or you could check the tank dumps outside Asmara and Addis Ababa, where larger weaponry sit in their graves after terrorizing countless civilians. The problem with giving weapons to South Sudan is that we can't guarantee how those weapons will be used over the short or the long term.

If we cannot know that the weapons we provide 1) will be used properly; 2) will not be used against civilian targets, and 3) will not be used against our allies or us, what then are we to do? I'd suggest another less-than-ideal alternative: nothing, at least nothing militarily. Instead, we should focus our efforts on diplomacy and politics, recognizing that two countries that managed to separate peacefully have a mutual interest in having stable borders and not being at war with one another.

Photo: Screen capture from colbertnation.com See Bored in Post-Conflict for thoughts on Prendergast's Colbert Report appearance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Texas in Africa:

"Yes, these are air defense systems we're talking about, but by providing them, we free up resources with which the Sudanese army can buy other weapons. I doubt they'll invest in rubber bullets."

As people discuss the possible consequences of distributing arms, I just wanted to chime in and note that the title "air defense system" can be a little misleading in and of itself.

Active air defense involves a kinetic component, which means guns and/or missiles. Generally speaking, the latter tend to be more expensive, advanced, and discriminating systems (targets are sought via radar, confirming their friend/foe status in the process, before the missile is launched.)

Cheaper and more primitive gun-based systems, often near cousins to the anti-air flak guns of World War II, can be just as easily used to fire on ground targets. At the end of the day, they're big guns mounted on turrets. They'll hit whatever you point them at. You can mount a small one in the back of a truck.

If policymakers are considering giving anti-air defense mechanisms to South Sudan, it behooves us to consider the flexible nature of "defense" in modern warfare. These are guns, not static shields.

Thank you for your time (and blog!)

An aspiring naval officer

Friday, July 22, 2011 5:46:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the clarification, Aspiring Naval Officer. I suspected as much, but I try to avoid commenting on weapons systems as I'm not an expert on them. This makes it all the more scary, and I think is yet another compelling argument for not providing South Sudan with these systems.

Saturday, July 23, 2011 9:48:00 AM

Blogger Gyre said...

It would be overkill to use them on civilians on the ground. I can't even begin to imagine SPLA soldiers targeting civilians with anti-aircraft guns. They'd be much more likely to use small arms. Of course that doesn't take away from the fact that the SPLA probably isn't going to be the most restrained of forces, but I'd say the main concern should be the Sudanese security situation and the chance of starting a local arms race.

Sunday, July 24, 2011 1:18:00 PM

Blogger Maggie Fick said...

Thank you, Texas in Africa--for the level-headed commentary on why all this is, as Aly Verjee has also argued cogently, a very bad idea. Best, Maggie F in Juba.

Sunday, July 24, 2011 2:15:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, Maggie.

Gyre, I suspect you're right. Ken Opalo has posted an excellent response to this post in which he notes that an arms race has already started, which seems to me to be an excellent reason not to enable the South in this respect. His post is here: http://kenopalo.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/securing-peace-in-south-sudan/

Sunday, July 24, 2011 7:49:00 PM


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