From Khartoum to Kabul: Lessons from Evacuation Efforts in Sudan and Afghanistan

The CDA Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring Deborah Lyons, former UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Major-General (Ret) David Fraser, and Canada’s first resident diplomat in Khartoum, Nicholas Coghlan. The three experts discuss the current conflict in Sudan and the potential for civil war. The complexities underpinning the conflict provide context for understanding Canada’s evacuation efforts in both Sudan and Afghanistan. Crises such as these highlight the importance of Canada’s diplomatic and military partnerships with its allies. The importance of continued work towards a ceasefire and building a new political reality in Sudan is emphasized, as well as the necessity of partnerships with NGOs and the attention of the international community to deliver humanitarian aid and support.

Catalyst for the Sudan Conflict and Regional Implications

The current conflict in Sudan is primarily fueled by two armies—the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—vying for control over Khartoum and, consequently, all of Sudan. If this conflict is not resolved, it risks escalating into a civil war, whereby both parties could seek to co-opt the civilian population and regional partners.

Sudan has traditionally experienced problems in its peripheries. The South seceded after a 22-year-long war in 2011, and there have been issues in the Red Sea Hills to the east and the Darfur region in the west. In 2002, the Fur of Western Sudan rebelled against incursions by Arab nomads from the north. In response, the Omar al-Bashir-led government franchised out fighting through the recruitment of local mercenaries and militias. In Darfur, this resulted in the recruitment of Arab raiders on the government’s side, leading to genocide.

Al-Bashir, who was later indicted by the ICC, formalized them into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a uniformed parallel army used for various purposes, including supplying mercenaries to the war in Yemen and suppressing ongoing rebellions in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. However, Al-Bashir primarily formed the RSF in case the SAF turned against him.

This plan went awry in 2019 when a massive popular uprising sparked by economic issues led to Al-Bashir’s ouster and imprisonment. This created a brief period of power-sharing with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s civilian government. However, the two militaries, fearing a loss of control, joined forces to depose the civilian element and take power, leading to a turbulent coexistence.

The pressure to democratize and merge the militaries resulted in a falling out between the two generals, Abdel-Fattah Burhan, commander of the SAF, and General Mohamed Dagalo (known as Hemedti), leader of the RSF. The UN and other Western countries attempted to impose a two-year process of integration, which would have resulted in the overall command being given to the conventional military, the Sudan Armed Forces. However, Hemedti wanted no integration at all, resulting in a falling out; most commentators read this as meaning he doesn’t want to see integration at all.

The Importance of Diplomatic and Military Relationships in Canada’s Evacuation Efforts in Sudan and Afghanistan

The complexities at the heart of the crisis in Sudan provide important context for understanding Canada’s evacuation efforts, both in Sudan and in Afghanistan. Canada’s relationships and alliances with organizations such as NATO and NORAD, as well as military-to-military, foreign affairs, and strategic department relations, have become increasingly important. These relationships have been instrumental in facilitating the diplomatic and strategic efforts necessary for evacuation operations in Sudan, as well as in other regions such as Lebanon.

Canada’s size has posed challenges in executing effective evacuation operations. In Sudan, a coalition of the willing was required to help facilitate the evacuation process. The United States played a crucial role in managing the airport evacuations in Afghanistan, which enabled other countries such as Canada and Great Britain to operate under its umbrella. The success of such operations relies heavily on strong diplomatic and military partnerships with allies.

In addition to the logistical challenges, the displacement of over 100,000 people in the region will continue to have a ripple effect on surrounding countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Chad. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has the necessary capabilities to support non-combat evacuation operations, with high-readiness personnel and special forces working in cooperation with other government departments and allies. However, the effectiveness of such operations depends on the speed at which a coalition of willing countries can be activated.

The recent major evacuations from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Sudan have highlighted the importance of partnerships across nations in responding to complex emergencies. The concentration of these types of engagements in such a short time frame raises important questions about how we prepare for the future and whether this pattern of crises will continue.

The logistics of evacuation are merely the beginning. Allies and partners will need to continue working towards a ceasefire and building a new political reality in Sudan. The Canadian government has taken constructive steps by engaging with African leaders, as well as communicating with other countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Effective partnerships involve collaboration not just between countries, but also within the Canadian government itself, as different departments and agencies work together to communicate the government’s actions.

Partnerships with NGOs on the ground are also crucial. NGOs cannot work effectively without the support and cover provided by countries and international organizations such as the UN. The UN’s presence in such situations is vital in delivering humanitarian aid and support, and they remain committed to staying and delivering, even as they work to evacuate their personnel.

Canada’s dependence on the United States is a reality that cannot be ignored. The United States and the United Kingdom were the first to leave Sudan, which made decision-making at GAC (Global Affairs Canada) very difficult. Their decision to leave complicated matters for Canada, especially without personnel on the ground.

Next Steps from Canada and the International Community

A sustainable ceasefire is crucial, and it will require a sponsor. A chain of ceasefires has been attempted in Sudan, but none have held. The US is working on a ceasefire with Saudi Arabia, but it will be challenging. There is a sense of urgency to get humanitarian assistance to Sudan, particularly in Darfur, where the situation is dire. Unfortunately, the UN’s transport fleet and stocks have been destroyed, making the situation more challenging.

Preventive diplomacy between regional partners is essential, and we need constructive engagement from Cairo, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea. It is vital to recognize that the world is more dangerous than it has been in the last 40 years, with millions of displaced people creating challenges for regional countries and disrupting their social structures. Sudan is just one example of larger global trends.

Increasingly, governments will face pressure to have better intelligence so that they can anticipate and act, rather than react. Although Canada’s response in Sudan was an improvement on the Afghanistan withdrawal, Canada was late to the party, with the US and Britain quickly and decisively leaving Sudan. Improving decision cycles and making them faster is crucial to engage our capabilities sooner and determine what comes next.

There are several challenges ahead, chiefly, a humanitarian crisis, the facilitation of ceasefire talks, and rebuilding the Sudanese government. Dealing with entities that do not espouse the rule of law, such as the SAF, RSF, and the Taliban, will be challenging, but we cannot ignore them. Additionally, Scenario planning, including diplomacy, military, development, and humanitarian efforts, must be brought together more tightly.

It is critical to communicate to Canadians how uncertain and volatile the world is, as well as articulate Canada’s role in this increasingly volatile world. We must be more realistic about what is happening in the world. The government has done better in adapting to these situations, but there is a long road ahead for Sudan. Canada must stay engaged from a humanitarian and political perspective.

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