It is endless, and it comes (tellingly) from the both the right and the left. The latest entry is from Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani, writing in the March 8 London Review of Books—who probably fancies himself on the left. But like his counterparts on the right and even in the Bush administration, he has a lot invested in denying that there is genocide in Darfur. What’s particularly maddening is that Mamdani’s piece, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency,” could be a good starting point for a sorely needed discussion—could, that is, if it were not guilty of exactly what he accuses his opponents of…
The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?
We can anticipate his answers from the start: the “genocide” charge is a propaganda charade to justify “humanitarian intervention.” But the dishonesty is also evident from the start: Mamdani can only find “roughly similar” casualty counts in Iraq and Darfur by using the highest estimates from the former and lowest from the latter. The 2004 figure of 100,000 killed in Iraq since the US invasion published in the Lancet medical journal, based on the findings of a team from Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities, has been widely questioned. So has the 655,000 figure published by the same team in the Lancet last year. These were extrapolations based on a supposedly representative survey of Iraqi doctors. The far more cautious figure calculated by Iraq Body Count, based on killings documented in the world press, currently stands at not quite 65,000. The low estimates for Darfur meanwhile, stand at 100,000, with the high estimates at 400,000, and the increasingly accepted figure 200,000.
Mamdani also fails to address the critical question of proportionality to total population. Darfur has perhaps 6 million inhabitants; Iraq more than four times as many. Ironically, after such numbers tricks, Mamdani has the chutzpah to call out Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times for playing fast and loose with the Darfur body count.
This bean-counting often strikes us as vulgar, and we acknoweldge that the violence in Iraq is in fact approaching genocidal levels. But in Iraq, the state-backed forces and the “insurgents” both massively target civilians of the rival ethno-religious faction—with the “insurgents” being perhaps more ambitious and ruthless on this count. In Darfur, in contrast, it is overwhelmingly the state-backed forces which have carried out massive attacks on civilians. In Iraq, Sunni and Shi’ite are slaughtering each other in roughly equal numbers. In Darfur, the victims are overwhelmingly of the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalliet peoples. Mamdani obfuscates this reality. He writes:
What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics – a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq.
Where are the responsible observers who contend that there is anything aproaching rough parity between the Janjaweed and the guerillas in their attacks on civilians? There aren’t any. This is an insidious distortion. Mamdani does concede: “The worst violence came from the Janjawiid, but the insurgent movements were also accused of gross violations.” He also concedes that the UN Commission on Darfur in its January 2005 report assigned only “secondary” responsibility for the violence to the guerillas, finding them guilty of “war crimes” but not “crimes against humanity.” The commission found the government-backed forces guilty of “crimes against humanity,” while absolving the Sudanese regime of pursuing a “policy of genocide.” But the thrust of Mamdani’s argument goes the other way—Darfur is just a civil war, not a genocide. He writes:
In the Kristof columns, there is one area of deafening silence, to do with the fact that what is happening in Darfur is a civil war. Hardly a word is said about the insurgency, about the civilian deaths insurgents mete out, about acts that the commission characterised as ‘war crimes’.
Again, this is a valid point—but Mamdani has little moral ground from which to make it. He is engaging in a bogus moral equivalism. We agree that US intervention in Darfur, as in Iraq, may only make things worse. There is a good case to be made against “humanitarian intervention.” But kneejerk genocide denial is assuredly not it.