Senior US military delegation visits Sudan to deepen defence ties

Two-day trip by officials is a first since Washington removed Khartoum from the terror list

FILE PHOTO: The Pentagon building is seen in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

One of the US military's top Africa Command (Africom) officials, Andrew Young, arrived in Sudan on Tuesday on a two-day visit.

Sudan is undergoing a transition towards democracy and a full revamp of its relations with Washington.

A Pentagon official confirmed to The National that Mr Young, deputy to the commander for civil-military engagement at Africom, will be meeting high-level officials in Khartoum on Tuesday and Wednesday. Sudan News Agency was the first to report on the visit.

Accompanying Mr Young on the trip is Africom Director for Intelligence and Navy Rear Admiral Heidi Berg.

Mr Young called the visit “a new beginning and the start of a renewed relationship" between the US and Sudan.

"We want to deepen and broaden our relationship and pursue shared objectives," Mr Young told The National. "We want to build trust, build partnerships and get after solutions to problems together."

Africom's director of public affairs Col Christopher Karns said the US military delegation in their meetings with government and military counterparts, was hoping to foster deeper partnership with Khartoum. "Ambassador Young and Rear Admiral Berg are here to foster co-operative engagement and expand partnership development."

"The international community recognises the value of a credible, professional military and African nations see the value of US Africa Command training, military expertise, and partnership," Col Karns told The National.

He stressed the increasingly competitive geopolitical landscape and the presence of violent extremist organisations in Africa, and other security issues that affect the US as challenges that require partnership.

Mr Young is a career diplomat with more than 30 years of experience. He served as US Ambassador to Burkina Faso where he worked on civil-military co-operation.

Mr Young’s trip has been in the works for months.

It will be the first visit by a US senior official with the military since Sudan was removed last month from the state sponsors of terrorism list after 27 years.

He is expected to meet Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, Sudan's head of state, and the country’s prime minister Abdalla Hamdok.

The visit is expected to focus on boosting Sudan’s security and defence capabilities and counterterrorism co-operation between the two countries.

Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former chief of staff for the US special envoy to Sudan, saw the significance of the visit in its potential to establish grounds for a relationship between Africom and Khartoum.

"Any interaction between Africom and Sudan is significant given the lack of any real relationship since Africom's founding more than a decade ago," Mr Hudson told The National.

Sudan's relations with the US were marred by hostility and sanctions until Omar Al Bashir's removal from power in April 2019.

In 1993, the US added Sudan to the state sponsors of terrorism list, then imposed a trade embargo and crippling sanctions to punish Khartoum for its ties to extremist organisations and Iran, as well as for its role in the genocide in Darfur.

Following Al Bashir's downfall, the Trump administration took major strides towards normalising relations, granting Khartoum partial immunity from further lawsuits after a payout of $335 million for US victims of Al Qaeda attacks that the Al Bashir regime supported.

Sudan also agreed to normalise relations with Israel last year, adding impetus to its improved bilateral ties with Washington.

This visit is about testing the relationship and paving the way for deepening ties. “Other options under consideration include having a US naval vessel visit Sudan or having Gen Al Burhan visit Africom headquarters in Stuttgart,” Mr Hudson said.

In December, Sudan signed a port agreement with Russia for a major military base.

Mr Hudson said the "US should be both embarrassed and anxious to establish its own strategic linkages to Sudan" after Russia's naval expansion.

The visit, albeit planned before Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump last week, is a test for the new US administration, said Alberto Fernandez, the vice president of Memri (Middle East Media Research Institute) and a former chargé d'affaires of the US embassy in Khartoum.

"It is a good development in principle, [to see] engagement with the Sudanese government and military on the ground early on in the new American administration, thus showing a willingness to connect on the sensitive Sudanese civilian-military file," Mr Fernandez told The National.

“But it is so early that it may have been in the works even before Mr Biden was inaugurated and the new administration just gave it a green light.”

The larger question, the former US official said, was how the Biden administration would deal with Sudan. "There is a very fragile opportunity, a real chance to get things right with a successful Sudanese transition process over the next two years," he said. "But the situation can also go very wrong if it doesn't receive the right attention [from Washington]."

During the Obama-Biden administration, the US pursued a quiet engagement with Sudan. More recently, senior Biden officials such as secretary of state nominee Tony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have pledged to work on improving relations following the Abraham Accord.

US ties with Sudan were mentioned in a call between Mr Sullivan and Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat last week. “They discussed opportunities to enhance the partnership over the coming months, including by building on the success of Israel’s normalisation arrangements with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco,” the White House said.

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