When I drafted "Sudan's Perfect War," it was the summer of 2001. The thesis of the article was that Sudan's 18-year-old war could easily go on forever without outside intervention. When oil came on line in 1999, the war was in effect made perfect: oil revenues could pay for the war, and the war itself was necessary to take and hold the land from which the oil came. Moreover, oil made Sudan less dependent on the world's rogue nations for material support, while earning it friends among oil-dependent states, including some members of the Security Council. There was a danger that international pressure to resolve the war would dissipate. U.S. policy toward Sudan was teetering. The Clinton administration had sent cruise missiles. The Bush administration had sent a special envoy. The religious right pushed for arming the south to overthrow the regime in Khartoum, the oil industry pushed for engaging the regime.

The attacks of September 11 forced me to rewrite the article before it was published. The emerging war on terrorism changed the scenario for Sudan. The Bush administration began to engage the Khartoum regime by appointing John Danforth as its special envoy to Sudan. And the war on terrorism—with so many of its roots in Afghanistan, whose faulty peace process had been abandoned by the United States in 1993—led many policymakers to conclude that countries like Sudan could not be left to fester. Sudan was already under U.S. and UN sanctions for its support of terrorist groups in the mid-1990s, but it appeared to be on the mend. Yet, in the midst of all other international turmoil over the ensuing three years, Washington redoubled efforts to nurture the Sudan peace process, actively engaging with other nations in the process. The agreement that was signed on January 9, 2005, is a testament to that effort.

But wars that have lasted for generations are not brought to a close with the signing of a peace agreement. The Afghan peace agreement of 1992 only began what was to be a long process of confidence-building; it unraveled within a year, sending the country into another decade of war and allowing the emergence of the Taliban regime. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 demonstrated the fragility of the prior Hutu-Tutsi reconciliation there. Sudan itself had already seen 18 years of north-south conflict before an agreement was reached in 1973. Then, ten years later the central government unilaterally abrogated the agreement's core tenets, leading to another 22 years of war. The point should be clear: the signing of the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Act last week is the beginning, not the end, of the peace process.

Building a sustainable peace in Sudan will require ongoing diplomatic engagement and coordinated, balanced development assistance. There are many challenges ahead. The war has been fought primarily through proxies who are not signatories to the agreement. How will they be demobilized? The agreement includes a referendum for southern independence after six years. Will Washington use its development assistance to foster national unity or southern independence? A war rages on in Darfur that has displaced 1.8 million Sudanese. How can Washington provide peace dividends for the north-south agreement while applying pressure for a resolution to the Darfur crisis? The United States has been a generous contributor of humanitarian assistance to Sudan, but will that commitment be sustained in an austere fiscal environment with massive demands for reconstruction in Iraq, tsunami relief, and who knows what other international calamity that awaits? The questions go on: are we ready to upgrade our diplomatic presence, rescind sanctions, consider debt relief, contribute to a peacekeeping effort?

For all the enormity of the achievement that is the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Act, it is only a cornerstone. Continued engagement and support will be essential to the construction of lasting peace.

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  • RANDOLPH MARTIN is the Director for Global Emergency Operations and senior advisor to Mercy Corps' relief program in Darfur and reconstruction programs in southern Sudan. He has traveled extensively in Sudan over the past 25 years and lived there for five years.
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