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  • Writer's pictureJames Maclaren

Sudan Crisis: Protecting Nationals and the Operational Dilemma

By James Maclaren

AS ANOTHER conflict situation threatens thousands of lives including British nationals in the troubled state of Sudan. About 4000 British, 16000 US and many more foreign nationals are trapped in the country, now gripped in a bloody power struggle between two powerful factions in a conflict that started almost without warning and does not look likely to end soon.

The UK, U.S. and others reacted swiftly to the outbreak of fighting launching limited focussed operations to evacuate Embassy staff personnel, using a window of opportunity while the airport was functioning and in response to the Embassy District of Khartoum becoming embroiled in the indiscriminate fighting being waged between the factions. The Service Protected Evacuations were carried out remarkably effectively, rapidly planned, tightly and professionally executed with a high degree of allied coordination. Contingency plans using a doctrinal approach, possibly but not automatically, country specific, were put into action. Full credit to the ministers, diplomats, planning staff and operators who pressed the button to execute without delay.

So now its time for armchair generals and diplomats to take to Twitter and complain. What about everyone else? Why are we not helping them? All those thousands who now feel ‘abandoned’. Why aren’t we sending a ship like India has done and so forth.

To enter an active conflict without agreement requires a major operation and considerable military capability. It must comprise a joint force with sufficient combat power to protect itself and manoeuvre, sustain a contested area for the operation duration and maintain a secure line of communication to ingress and egress the theatre. Its not a question of sending a big plane filling it and taking off again. The selected Point of Entry (POE) must be secure or securable. In Sudan the options for this are limited. Khatoum Airport is in the conflict area and securing that for a period of time risks bringing UK troops into direct confrontation with one or both of the combatants. Other airfield options are either not suitable for large transports or difficult to access. It was a careful calculation of risk that allowed Khartoum international to be used for the evacuation of diplomatic staff. Other airport options, further away from the current conflict area, are over twelve hours travel by road, difficult to access before the outbreak of fighting, almost impossible to contemplate now as the fighting grows and expands.

Port Sudan has seen the arrival of several ships despatched for the purposes of evacuation. Port Sudan is relatively safe, but the ability of a warship to conduct evacuation operations from there is almost nil, unless as is the case with India, most of its nationals are port workers or mariners who are based in that city. Most western nationals are based in Khartoum, nearly a thousand kilometres away, beyond embarked aviation range which would in any case be vulnerable to attack from the ground.

If the UK could secure a POE, how would it then operate. Are the armchair tweeters expecting the military to go and collect, return and if necessary, fight their way back to the POE? An immense task fraught with difficulty and danger. Alternatively, does the POE act as a collection point to which nationals must make their own dangerous route to, again impossibly dangerous for civilians including women and children given the current fighting. The dangers of conducting the operation to service personnel and evacuees alike are considerable and the casualty calculation probably exceeds the discomfort of remaining in safety and waiting for a ceasefire which would allow a Services Assisted Evacuation by airlift to be facilitated.

Of course, it’s no comfort to the thousands of foreign nationals trapped in Sudan to learn that an imminent arrival of military assistance is unlikely. They must be prepared to sit tight and await the tactical conditions on the ground to change and allow the diplomats to do their work, creating the window and organising the means that can allow them to evacuate safely. When that happens, the military will come and relief will follow. If you live in a country where stability is questionable, then it makes sense to have a stash of water, basic supplies, candles, wind-up radio etc.

As for the armchair tweeters, just pause before allowing hot little fingers free on the keyboard.

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