Washington’s ‘Janjaweed’ Problem

The Darfur conflict began in early 2003 with attacks on towns and government facilities and the murder of hundreds of policemen and civilians in Sudan’s western region by rebel groups such as the ‘Sudan Liberation Army’ (SLA) and the ‘Justice and Equality Movement’ (JEM), claiming to be fighting because of marginalisation.[1] The conflict subsequently spiralled out of control and has caused an acute humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of civilians have died and millions more have been displaced as the crisis has unfolded.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing any analysis of the Darfur conflict, and subsequently any attempt to resolve it, is the extent to which the crisis has been reduced to one or two images –” and with them patently unrealistic demands. This has been the combination of poor analysis, shallow media reporting and, in some instances, pure propaganda. The position taken within the United States, and vigorously advanced by the Bush Administration, has been a clear reflection of this.

One of these images has been that of the “Janjaweed”, the anti-rebel “Arab” militia groups that have proliferated within Darfur in the course of the conflict. With this image has come the demand –” led by the United States government –” that the Government of Sudan immediately disarms all “Janjaweed” militia in Darfur.[2] On 30 July 2004, for example, the UN Security Council passed the American-drafted Resolution 1556, giving the Sudanese government 30 days to disarm the Janjaweed, threatening Khartoum that economic and military sanctions would otherwise be considered.[3]

Washington’s demands have been made despite (and some would say because of) the fact that there is no working definition of what constitutes the “Janjaweed”. It has seemingly been used as a blanket term to describe any armed Arab in Darfur. The United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, for example, adopted a typically questionable definition of “Janjaweed”. It noted that there were two “precisions” in a definition of “Janjaweed”: that attackers were Arab and armed with modern weapons.

The Commission further noted that outside of these “precisions” it is “probably impossible to define the ‘Janjaweed'”.[4] The Reuters correspondent in Sudan has outlined some of these difficulties: “In Darfur, Janjaweed is a word that means everything and nothing.”[5] These facts have not stopped the Bush Administration making its unrealistic demands.

It is a prime example of the intellectually superficial American approach to Darfur that while Washington drafted UN demands of disarmament within 30 days, shortly afterwards other senior American government officials admitted, for example, the impossibility of this happening. The US State Department’s then senior representative on Sudan, and a former United States acting assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Charles Snyder, admitted that there are no “30-day, 90-day quick fixes” to the problem. He also admitted: “This is going to take, in my view, 18 months to two years to conclude the first phase” of making the region safe for people to return to their homes.[6]

Dr Alex de Waal, a widely-published expert on Sudan –” from an anti- government perspective –” has also warned of international naivety with regard to “disarming” the Janjaweed:

“On July 30 [2004], the UN Security Council gave Khartoum 30 days to disarm the Janjawid. But how? There are many different militia groups, ranging from entire nomadic clans that have armed themselves to protect their herds, to brigades of trained fighters headed by Musa Hilal and some of his Chadian Arab comrades in arms…In a region where every community has armed itself, confiscating all arms is frankly impossible: what can be done is community-based regulated of arms, gradually marginalizing criminal elements through a process of political reconstruction.”[7]

Despite the UN Security Council having passed the 30-day “fix-all” demand, the UN Secretary-General also noted very shortly afterwards that: “Making an area the size of Darfur, with the amount of armed men and violent recent history, safe and secure for all civilians takes more than 30 days.”[8]

It is obvious that every effort must be made to remove both weapons, and the motivation or need to carry weapons, from the Darfur situation. Increasingly shrill demands for an immediate disarmament of armed forces within Darfur in the face of the reality outlined by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Charles Snyder, and Dr de Waal serve no purpose other than enflaming an already fraught situation.

Several questions arise regarding the Bush Administration’s stance. Is Washington’s intelligence regarding, and analysis of events and circumstances in, Darfur really as poor as it seems? Is the Bush Administration making demands of Khartoum that it knows to be unrealistic in order to have a pretext for Western intervention in yet another oil-rich Muslim nation? Is Washington treading the path of poor intelligence and political dogma that has led to large-scale and bloody civil war in Iraq and Afghanistan and abject miscalculation in Lebanon?

In addition to making unrealistic demands of Sudan’s government over the Darfur militia issue, Washington has also opened itself up to charges of rank hypocrisy.

Washington has repeatedly demanded that the Sudanese government disarm all Arab militia in Darfur.(9) This despite the fact that Darfur is the size of France, has few roads and is more than a thousand kilometres away from Khartoum. Additionally, the Bush Administration has pushed for a no-fly zone in Darfur with the result that the Sudanese military are not able to use helicopters to defeat rebels, disarm militiamen or pursue armed criminals.

A simple comparison with circumstances within Iraq highlights American hypocrisy. While making demands of the Sudanese government regarding disarming militia, US forces have been unable to disarm the plethora of pro-and-anti government and religious militias within Iraq, some of them present, armed and active in the Iraqi capital itself.

The armed Arab militias in Iraq are well-defined and known forces.[10] They have engaged American forces, and killed and wounded American servicemen, on numerous occasions. The Americans maintain 130,000 military personnel in Iraq, supported by unprecedented air and naval power, all part of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated military machine. Despite this immense force they are clearly unable to disarm Iraqi militias.

The ‘New York Times’ has noted that “Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian militias continue to exist…There are a growing number of small, homegrown, paramilitary-style brigades being formed by local tribes, religious leaders, and political parties. Some battle Iraq’s largely Sunni insurgency alongside official Interior and Defence ministry troops, others operate without official assistance or sanction. The larger, more established militias…are tied to Iraq’s leading political parties, organized along sectarian lines, and enforce order in their respective regions.” [11]

Matt Sherman, an American government adviser to the Iraqi government from 2004-2006, notes that “armed militias have roamed [Iraq]…as they see fit”. Writing in the ‘New York Times’, Sherman further noted that “having spent two years in Baghdad as the American policy adviser to Iraq’s Interior Ministry” he had “a sense of just how strong these militias really are and just how destabilizing they can be.” Sherman stated that there were nine major militias operating in Iraq –” one which had “slowly gained virtual control of the Interior Ministry”. Sherman concluded:

“Unfortunately, the militias are part of the social fabric in Iraq. They cannot be simply eliminated or disarmed.”[12]

One of the Iraqi militias in question is the “Mahdi” militia led by Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Unlike militias in Darfur, over a thousand kilometres from the Sudanese capital, the “Mahdi army” and other militias are present in Baghdad itself, some four or five kilometres away from the “Green Zone”, the command centre of the United States occupation forces in Iraq. ‘Newsweek’ magazine has highlighted this contradiction:

“At one time…there was a murder warrant out for the arrest of Moqtada al-Sadr, on the charge of killing an ayatollah in 2003. U.S. Army Gen. Richardo Sanchez later publicly vowed that coalition troops in Iraq would ‘kill or capture’ Sadr, and not rest until they had destroyed his militia…Today his militia is back, and bigger than ever: He is now estimated to have 15,000 armed followers, three times as many as when he fought U.S. forces in 2004.”.[13]

‘Newsweek’ has noted that despite Sadr’s militia’s clear involvement in violence “The American military no longer talks about killing or capturing Sadr: in fact, they’re careful to not even point a finger of blame at him.”. Two of Sadr’s followers control ministries in the new government, health and transportation. Sadr is allowed by the Americans to tour Middle Eastern capitals. Sadr’s militia is described by ‘Time’ magazine as “the most potent of the armed militias that have carved Baghdad into fiefdoms”. ‘Time’ notes that “Even though he has attacked U.S. troops countless times, no one will touch him.” ‘Time’ also pointed out that Iraqi military forces “are powerless in the face of the Mahdi army”. ‘Time’ notes that “The U.S. would prefer that the Iraqi security forces disarm the militias, but it hasn’t happened. A senior military official in Baghdad says the U.S. is deliberately avoiding confrontations with the militias.” [14]

Sadr’s militias have fought pitched battles with US forces on several occasions. His forces have killed American servicemen. Have the Americans disarmed his militia? No. The height of the American response has been calls by the US Ambassador for Sadr to moderate his rhetoric.

The “Janjaweed” are a problem for Washington for two reasons. Having helped to create the “Janjaweed” propaganda theme, if Washington genuinely wishes a solution to the Darfur crisis it must play a considerably more constructive role –” something which would involve it helping to dismantle its own propaganda. Washington’s demands for disarmament of the “Janjaweed”, given its own chronic failings in Iraq, have additionally opened it up to charges of hypocrisy.

The patently unrealistic demands made by both the Security Council and the Bush Administration for immediate disarmament of militias in Darfur discredit both the UN and Washington. It shows the absurdity of “quick-fix” solutions in such complex conflict situations –” and highlights the hypocrisy of the Bush Administration. Washington’s demands for yet another “quick-fix”, the introduction of NATO/UN military forces in Darfur, are equally flawed. Simply put, Washington’s hypocrisy on Darfur goes a long way to validating the Sudanese government’s reluctance to entertain such an intervention.


[1]. For an analysis of the origin of the Darfur crisis see the updated edition of “Darfur in Perspective” available at http://www.darfurinperspective.com/pdf/Darfur-Book-New-Edition.pdf.

[2]. This claim has gone hand in hand with opportunistic and deeply questionable American claims of “genocide” in Darfur. For a critique of the genocide claim see, “Doctors Without Borders Challenge US Darfur Genocide Claim”, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, 5 October 2004, available at http://usa.mediamonitors.net/headlines/doctors_without

[3]. See, for example, “Sudan Must Act on Darfur in 30 Days or Face Measures, Security Council Warns”, News Article by the United Nations News Center, New York, 30 July 2004.

[4]. ‘Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General’, United Nations, January 2005, Paragraphs 103-104, pp. 32-33.

[5]. Nima el-Baghir, “What’s in a Name?”, ‘Focus on Africa’, BBC, October-December 2004, London.

[6]. “U.S. Diplomat Says it May Take 2 Years to Disarm Militias in Sudan”, News Article by Associated Press, 24 September 2004.

[7]. Alex de Waal, “Tragedy in Darfur: On Understanding and Ending the Horror”, ‘Boston Review’, Volume 29, Number 5, October-November 2004.

[8]. ‘Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to Paragraphs 6 and 13 of Security Council Resolution 1556 (2004)’, S/2004, United Nations, New York, 30 August 2004.

[9]. See, for example, “US Tells Sudan: Disarm Darfur Militias”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 3 June 2005.

[10]. The presence of militias in Iraq has been well documented. See, for example, “Iraqi Militias Will ‘Undermine Government'”, News Article by Reuters, 26 May 2004; “Delicate Challenge of Taming Iraq’s Militias”, ‘Christian Science Monitor’, 13 April 2004; “New Factor in Iraq: Irregular Brigades Fill Security Void”, ‘Wall Street Journal’ (New York), 16 February 2005; “Invisible Militias in Iraq”, Article by UPI, 9 March 2005; “Unravelling Iraq’s Secret Militias”, Z Magazine Online, May 2005, available at http://zmagsite.zmag.org/Images/guptapr0505.html; “Iraq: Militias’Law Rules”, News Article by Aljazeera.net, 11 March 2004

[11]. “Q&A: Iraq’s Militias”, ‘The New York Times’, 9 June 2005.

[12]. “Iraq’s Militias: Many Little Armies, One Huge Problem”, ‘The New York Times’, 9 March 2006.

[13]. “Sadr Strikes”, ‘Newsweek’, 10 April 2006.

[14]. “Can Iraq’s Militia’s be Tamed?”, ‘Time’, 10 April 2006.