The Price of Inviting Nafie Ali Nafie to Washington

The Obama administration might not have fully considered the implications of hosting the bloodstained Sudanese presidential adviser.
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Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (R) waves to participants while adviser Nafi Ali Nafi watches during the National Congress Party's third general conference in Khartoum on November 24, 2011. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

In October of 2008, an L.A. Times journalist asked Nafie Ali Nafie, then a top advisor to Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, whether he felt any regret over personally torturing opposition activists in the early 90s, when Nafie was head of country's internal intelligence service and Sudan was a hardcore Islamist state that sheltered Osama Bin Laden. "In his characteristic style," reporter Edmund Sanders wrote, "Nafie expressed no regrets, saying opposition activists at the time were planning counter-coups and civil war."

"We were there to protect ourselves," he said with a shrug. "Definitely we were not there to play cards with them.'"

It should come as no shock that a man like Nafie would have such a flippant attitude towards torture. He has dedicated his entire career to propagating such cruelties: According to that same article, Nafie was in charge of the government's "Darfur portfolio" at some points in the decade-long conflict. He is still a high-ranking adviser to Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. "His central role in orchestrating the Darfur genocide is well-known," writes longtime Sudan researcher and activist Eric Reeves, "[and] indeed is even acknowledged by Nafie himself."

What should come as a shock, though, is that in late April, Nafie was officially invited to head a high-level Sudanese delegation that will visit Washington, D.C. sometime this year. Girifna, Sudan's web-savvy and pan-political anti-government movement, was quick to question the invitation:

The man the Obama Administration will be speaking with has blood on his hands, quite literally. As one of the most brutal members of the National Islamic Front regime and head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) in the 1990′s, Nafie masterminded a savage campaign of torture and killing in compounds known as "Ghost Houses." Thousands of people were tortured and hundreds disappeared in a campaign that saw the annihilation of voices of dissent. Leaders of civil society and professional and student unions were persecuted under his direct orders. He himself is known to have tortured individuals directly.

The US government must understand that the NCP has lost all legitimacy and has never represented the Sudanese people. Rather, it represents a tiny cabal of individuals that have exploited us, killed hundreds of thousands of our innocent brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, and continues to commit mass atrocities and crimes against humanity until this day. The regime of Omar al-Bashir has proved itself unwilling to accept the rule of law, or implement any of the myriad agreements it has signed with the various armed groups and the civilian opposition.

The only agenda this regime has is the continuation of its stranglehold on power.

Even so, the U.S.'s strategy is easy to see here. The Obama administration has undoubtedly taken note of, for instance, Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti's denunciations of the country's willingness to let Iranian warships dock at Port Sudan, as well as rumors about Omar al-Bashir's poor health. Now is an ideal time to make tensions within Sudan's notoriously compartmentalized state structure work to the U.S.'s benefit -- in a best case scenario, Nafie could deliver a clean break from the Iranians, and maybe even a partial opening of Khartoum's ongoing humanitarian blockade of war-torn Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Even better, U.S. officials would have an inside track on what's sure to be a chaotic and highly-opaque succession process within the ruling National Congress Party -- Bashir says he's stepping down in 2015.

And there's an even larger strategic interest at stake here: as recounted in Rebecca Hamilton's indispensable Fighting for Darfur, successive U.S. administrations have simply failed to get Sudan right. The George W. Bush administration was willing to exchange a major diplomatic upgrade for a resolution to the country's decades-long north-south civil war; thanks to Khartoum's atrocities in Darfur and the resulting public outcry in the U.S., those plans were put on hold. Obama followed a similar template by appointing a Sudan envoy who pursued a more conciliatory path with the regime. Khartoum let the South secede relatively incident-free in 2011, creating the independent state of South Sudan. But fresh atrocities in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, along with Khartoum's support for the terrorist organization Hamas and close relations with Iran, made a full restoration of diplomatic ties just as untenable as before.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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