Darfur is no longer in intense conflict, despite what some American campaigners would like you to believe. The situation in that troubled region is in fact a sideshow to a much bigger event in Sudan, namely the referendum in the southern part of the country, tabled for January 2011, on whether Sudan will remain united.
Partitioning a state is a risky business, nowhere more so than Sudan. After 50 years of on-off civil war, the depth of distrust and animosity between northern and South Sudan is such that the great majority of southerners want to take their chance with independence. But with a host of unresolved issues, ranging from an undemarcated border to the millions of southern Sudanese resident in the north, it is likely that any split will be not just acrimonious, but disorderly and violent. Both sides have used the past four years - in effect a truce, not a true peace - to buy weapons and reorganise their respective armed forces.
Neighbouring countries are worried about a resurgent conflict involving the young, desperately fragile state of South Sudan and an embittered north, driven towards political Islam, in a war that drags in other nations along an Arab-black African fault line which threatens to split the continent. The US special envoy for Sudan, General Scott Gration, sees it as his task to avoid this disaster.
Before the current instability, southern Sudan was already in trouble partly of its own making, partly not. When a truce finally came with the comprehensive peace agreement of 2005, the region had experienced virtually no development in half a century and faced a legacy of destruction and division, much of it manipulated by successive governments in Khartoum. It also had the curse of oil - 90 per cent of the revenue of the autonomous government of South Sudan comes from petroleum.
Sharing in the oil bonanza was one reason that the rebels of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement were keen to sign the peace agreement, but the transformation from guerrillas to government has yet to be fully accomplished. Vast sums of oil income remain unaccounted for and last year's crash in oil prices cut the government's income by 70 per cent. The seizing up of the financial system led to salaries for more than 200,000 men on the army payroll being paid late or not at all, contributing in turn to an upsurge in banditry.
If a new north-south war starts, peace talks, international pressure for humanitarian aid and a new mandate for the UN peacekeepers in South Sudan will all be necessary. What is needed now is a political process that builds enough trust between sides for the northern and southern Sudanese to make common decisions about their future. Whether as one nation or two, they will still be neighbours.
There is not much time left to grapple with these huge challenges, but the conditions are propitious. The Darfur crisis in western Sudan, which has taken up so much time, energy and resources, is stabilising. After war broke out in 2003, rebel groups were defeated in a counter-insurgency in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the space of two years and which unleashed a humanitarian crisis. Now, however, armed conflict has subsided substantially. There is a huge legacy of displacement and destruction to overcome, but with the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (Unamid) increasingly effective and most areas stable, the opportunities for progress are strong.
In August, General Martin Luther Agwai, the outgoing Unamid force commander, confirmed this when he said: "As of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur." He continued: "If war is a conflict whereby today you attack and then go back home and stay [for] three, four, five months and come back . . . then there is a war in Darfur. But if that is not the definition, then there is no war as of now in Darfur . . . I think the real thing now is to speed up the political process."
Agwai is an experienced military officer with strong personal morality. He has served in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and rose to become chief of defence staff in the Nigerian army. He sees the file on every violent incident reported in Darfur, and his staff compile the numbers killed in violence in the still-troubled region. In July the figure was 40; in August it was 50. The numbers are probably an undercount, but by only a margin. Agwai's emphasis on the need for a political process fits with the movements of Sudan's civil society organisations and political parties, which are working to prise open the political space in advance of next year's general elections, the first multiparty contest since 1986. They welcome the decrease in violence - and the increase in their leverage - and have no illusions about their brutal government, seeing their best hope in step-by-step dismantling of its monopoly on power.
International campaigns, particularly in the US, claim that they want the same things as the Sudanese - peace and democracy. The Save Darfur Coalition and the Enough project, which calls for robust US action to end genocide, have built up a head of steam. At its best, this movement - which includes an extraordinary array of film stars, private philanthropists and a new breed of "designer activists" - provides awareness about wars and mass atrocities in faraway lands, but, at its worst, it can become a pulpit for latter-day philanthropic imperialism.
John Prendergast of Enough condemned Agwai's words: "The perception . . . that if it is not getting worse . . . it [must be] getting better is something that takes the wind out of the sails of international action." While the Unamid commander imagined peace negotiations in which the various Sudanese parties would sit around a table and make compromises, Prendergast wants a show of US power.
A more nuanced approach came from Donald Steinberg of the International Crisis Group, who feared that a statement of success might harm political support for Unamid: "We saw such difficulty in drawing up the mission . . . it's still not where it should be . . . Premature declarations from prominent officials might undermine existing political support for Unamid and other peacekeeping and aid efforts." This is an odd argument - that demonstrating the success of a peacekeeping mission undermines it. The implication of this is that there can be success only when "we" decide there is success.
The atrocity story
The sort of liberal internationalism that the Save Darfur campaign represents - a legacy of the neocon moral fervour engendered by the Bush administration - conflicts with the other hallowed liberal principle emphasised by President Barack Obama, which insists that a nation should be able to determine its future free from foreign diktat. Sudan needs a judicious balance between the two approaches. But it has become clear that the Save Darfur Coalition, with its campaign for Obama to "end the genocide", can handle only the atrocity story, not the politics of peace. This is shamelessly misleading about what is happening in Darfur.
It is a form of dishonesty that has a wider import, too. It turns Sudanese politics into a high-stakes international game of bluff, feeding the Khartoum government's paranoia that it faces an American regime-change agenda and fuelling the rebels' readiness to persevere in order to get that intervention. If the Save Darfur campaign succeeds, the political failure of Sudan will become a US-owned problem in the heart of Africa. This is what Gration most wants to avoid - while his domestic adversaries seem intent on bringing it about. "Saving Darfur" risks losing Sudan.
Most likely, however, political realism will succeed and the human rights fundamentalists will snarl at the heels of the Obama administration, barking "betrayal". But should the activists get their way, the limits of humanitarian imperialism in dealing with complex political problems will have to be relearned, painfully.
Alex de Waal is the co-author, with Julie Flint, of "Darfur: a New History of a Long War"
(Zed Books, £12.99)