Machar’s calculations were more complex but led him to the same conclusion. Returning now meant returning in a position of comparative weakness; his forces have largely demobilized, the balance of power clearly favors his foe, and he fears further defections from his remaining forces should he come back to the capital without adequate concessions from him. Machar’s gamble when he signed the deal appears to have been that he would have time to embark on a recruitment spree, attract new fighters, stack his forces with loyalists from ethnic or clan networks, and build up strength in case of renewed warfare. The opposition offered a preview of this pattern following an earlier accord in 2015, with fateful results: It mobilized fighters from areas previously unaffected by conflict, thus expanding the war’s boundaries as soon as it resumed. Yet, over the past eight months, Machar made few advances in this regard. He has been struggling to get his fighters, many of whom have deserted and now live in refugee camps or other East African capitals, to return.
Read: Preventing atrocity in the age of Trump
To achieve his goal, he would have had to have money to pay, feed, and otherwise take care of new recruits. External donors refused to foot the bill, for good reason: The parties intended to create a 300,000-strong joint security force, a significant expansion of what presently exists, most of whose members would have to be freshly recruited, at a cost of more than $200 million. South Sudan needs fewer men with guns, not more. Unable to rebuild his forces, Machar had little option but to seek an extension of the deadline. At a minimum, it gives him a chance for a do-over.
The question remains: How to make the halt in fighting endure? Pressure from outside powers—African nations, but also the United States and Europe—has its part to play. Faced with a credible threat of sanctions targeting their personal economic interests, Kiir and Machar might think twice before dragging their people back down the road of confrontation. But without some advance toward bringing Machar back into the government, and some combination of demobilizing and integrating the two rival armed forces, the risk of a resumption of violence will grow over time. Already, in private conversations, Machar’s aides promise war will reignite if no progress is made in implementing the deal. It could be bluster, of course—but it might not be.
Perhaps the smartest step that could be taken now would be to focus on immediate, realistic steps. Machar’s demands regarding broader reform of the military and integration of his own disparate armed forces may be in line with the agreement he signed. But they won’t happen, or won’t happen anytime soon. Nor is he being sensible in his insistence that he return only after thousands of his fighters are deployed to Juba; twice in the recent past, in 2013 and 2016, a major eruption of violence was triggered by a confrontation between Kiir’s and Machar’s bodyguards. A potential alternative solution would be for an external, third-party force to provide protection for Machar, allow him to return safely and with dignity intact, assume the vice presidency, and—by keeping the process afloat—lend more time and space for the peace deal to progress without holding it hostage to wider security reforms. We suggested such an idea in conversations with the two leaders. Neither jumped at it, but neither shut the door completely. By South Sudanese standards, that counts as hope.