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.

nafie with bashir banner.png
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.

The administration might view the Nafie meeting as a chance to break over 20 years of U.S.-Sudanese gridlock, or as the first steps towards striking the "grand bargain" that has eluded both sides. There's ample reason to question the wisdom of this, beginning with Khartoum's long and reliable history of bad-faith negotiation with the U.S., its neighbors, and armed groups within its own borders. But even with the assumption that detente is a proper and justifiable path for U.S. policy to take, it's unclear why it necessitates the honor of a Washington visit for a man with a rap sheet as long as Nafie's. This question becomes especially troubling in light of Nafie's own apparent marginalization within Khartoum's governing structure: in June of 2011, Nafie helped negotiate a "framework agreement" between the government and militants in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Bashir personally disowned the treaty just days later, and by August, Khartoum was running frequent bombing sorties over villages in the Nuba Mountains. Not only is Nafie an unsavory character -- he also might be incapable of delivering what the U.S. wants.

The State Department itself seems to be at a loss here. Witness this exchange between State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell and a journalist at Friday's press briefing:

QUESTION: On Sudan, you took a question earlier this week regarding a letter from Congressman Wolf [see here] expressing his objection over the Obama Administration's invitation of the Sudanese presidential advisor, Nafie Ali Nafie.


QUESTION: Can you confirm receipt of that letter?

MR. VENTRELL: So we have seen the letter from Congressman Wolf. We're aware of the allegation, and we're not under any illusions about this delegation or any of the other senior leaders of the regime. However, we believe that engagements with this delegation can advance our policy goals in Sudan, and if we don't make our arguments directly to the Sudanese, who influence and direct their country's policy, our ability to affect change will be limited. So this engagement can set the stage for a continuing dialogue on a peaceful, sustainable resolution to the conflicts and governance issues throughout Sudan.

QUESTION: So you're under no illusion about Mr. Nafie Ali Nafie, but nonetheless he is still invited to come to the United States as part of that delegation.

MR. VENTRELL: And again, we agreed to receive the delegation. They expressed an interest in meeting, and we've invited the delegation to travel to Washington following their initial expression of interest....

...QUESTION: Is there any reason why the U.S. would be comfortable issuing a visa to Mr. Nafie? I mean, doesn't that erode the U.S. credibility by doing so? Why can't you say to the Sudanese, "Yes, you can send a delegation, but you need to send someone else"?

MR. VENTRELL: We adjudicate visas based on applicable visa law. I don't have any information on this specific case or specific allegations, but we certainly adjudicate all the visas based on the law.

QUESTION: Certainly, human rights groups that advocate for better conditions in Sudan and along the border with South Sudan are quite dismayed that the U.S. may, in essence, raise -- remove all of its pressure on the Bashir government by allowing Mr. Nafie to come in.

MR. VENTRELL: We're - look, we're under no illusions about a specific individual or the leadership of the regime as a whole. But we are going to pursue this engagement.

The Obama administration needs to ask itself whether the still-unforeseeable political and diplomatic payoff of Nafie's visit is worth the moral statement that such a visit conveys. As Friday's exchange makes clear, they still have a ways to go.