September 22, 2006

Occasional snippets on the news remind us that there's a terrible conflict going on in some place called Darfur. Pictures of dead civilians, images of refugees living in horrific conditions, sights of aid workers handing out humanitarian assistance — all are caught in the back pages of the newspapers or the tail end of evening news reports. And that's only when they're caught at all.

The reality is that another long-term problem for the U.S. and its Western allies is looming within the Islamic state of Sudan, where Darfur is one of its regions. Interestingly, it's a region whose population is largely Christian, although the ongoing conflict isn't characterized as a religious one. Sudan is also strategically located in northwest Africa, with ports and coastline access to the Red Sea, the narrow waterway which in the north leads to the Suez Canal, and in the south leads to Yemen and out to the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. This waterway is a critical passage for both commercial shipping and for naval forces.

The crisis there, which pits a government-supported militia called the Janjaweed against local tribes, has been termed a genocide by many. And while the government denies that it gives any support to the Janjaweed, unquestionable evidence shows it to be providing arms and assistance, up to and including, air strikes against civilian targets. Moreover, it is the government itself, which seems the least interested in resolving the conflict through peaceful means. Recent estimates of deaths in the nearly four-year conflict place the number at 450,000, and the mass media has described the conflict as both ethnic cleansing and genocide. Upwards of 2.5 million people sit in overcrowded refugee camps.

Meanwhile, the UN's efforts at resolving it have been marginal at best. Somehow, the deaths of almost half a million people is barely a blip on the radar screen of the world body which was totally preoccupied with the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Against strong Sudanese objections, a 7,000 man African Union peacekeeping force was sent into the region in 2004 to help protect innocent civilians. That force, unfortunately, has been able to do little to quell the violence. With its two-year mission ending shortly, the African Union force has now been extended another three months. Once again, the government has squeeled like a stuck pig. That, while the U.N. tries to decide whether it's willing, or even capable, of doing something to help. At this moment, the subject of whether the U.N. will help is subject to debate.

The question to Americans, then, becomes one of whether or not we should become more actively involved. If so, why? And if so, how? Clearly, the positioning of Sudan on the critical Red Sea should be an indicator of the strategic importance of the country. It's in our best, and perhaps vital, interest to see a stable nation there — preferably one not ruled by Islamists bent on supporting or exporting terror. Moreover, we already have enough issues in that area of Africa, not the least of which is Somalia, a neighbor to Sudan. Those points alone tell us we should be engaged on some level.

How could we do it? To be sure, we're busy enough in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere to even consider any direct role for U.S. forces. That really only leaves us our political and economic clout, and on neither count are we taking the lead. But we should be.

President Bush spoke loudly at the U.N. this week about the need to resolve the crisis. At the same time, however, we've hosted members of the very regime which is doing all it can do continue the crisis. Our courtesies were extended in an effort to maintain Sudan's help in the fight against terrorism, although the level and value of that help is questionable. To those in Sudan and elsewhere, we are sending extremely mixed messages.

Darfur and Sudan may be back-page news right now. But if there isn't a dramatic change in the ongoing conflict, it could well become front-page news. It could also become one more significant battleground for the U.S. as we fight this global war on terror.

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally-acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. He spent 11 years doing undercover operations in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. Read his full bio here.