Kate Almquist Knopf, formerly a visiting policy fellow at CGD, previously served as USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Africa and Sudan mission director. This is the second in a series of guest posts from Kate about US policy options in response to the crisis in South Sudan. The first can be read here. Her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 9, 2014 can be read here.

A robust diplomatic and humanitarian presence is essential for upholding the US commitment to a people in crisis.

As the conflict in South Sudan intensifies, this is not a time for incremental approaches. High-level phone calls and shuttle diplomacy will be insufficient to end the immediate crisis and to help chart a course toward peace, stability, and inclusive, democratic governance. Keeping skin in the game through the immediate restoration of a sustained and robust diplomatic and humanitarian presence on the ground is essential to backing up the United States’ decades-long commitment to South Sudan’s people and averting a slide into full-scale civil war. 

As the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Africa Bureau and the former USAID mission director in Sudan who re-opened the mission after 14 years of closure, I understand all too well the trade-offs between security and impact, which are exacerbated in today’s post-Benghazi, hyper risk-averse environment. Indeed, two USAID employees who reported to me were brazenly murdered in Khartoum on January 1, 2008. We nonetheless maintained a formidable diplomatic and development presence in Sudan and South Sudan. That was the right call then. And it’s the right call now, in spite of the inherent risks.

In just over a month, more than ten years of progress to secure peace and improve the lives of the South Sudanese has been undone due to the outbreak of violence between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar in December. While the full impact of this crisis is still unclear, it has already claimed thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more from their homes. If not immediately curtailed, the violence will devolve into decades more civil war. The last civil war lasted 22 years, some two million lives were lost, four million were internally displaced, and over 600,000 were forced to flee the country. Much of this human suffering resulted from internecine southern fighting, even more so than it resulted from conflict between northern and southern Sudanese.

Despite pressure on the State Department and USAID to minimize the U.S. presence, the ambassador on the ground is best placed to make the call and must be allowed to do so. An effective U.S. response cannot be conducted by remote control. The U.S. Embassy has already been reduced to the ambassador and a skeletal staff. USAID is running its humanitarian response off-shore from Nairobi, Kenya. And the development program has ground to a halt.

While the security risks are real—the situation in South Sudan is unstable and can quickly become chaotic—the threat does not emanate from hostility towards the United States, as the 2008 attack in Khartoum did. In fact, there are few other, if any, countries in the world where the United States is more beloved. But it cannot make a difference if it is not there.

The United States has unique influence and deep relationships with the protagonists, a singular degree of influence, and the responsibility to use that influence to broker a return to nonviolent political competition. American diplomats and aid professionals must know first-hand and in real-time what is happening in order to calibrate the response and intervene in moments of greatest impact. They must engage face-to-face with parties and stakeholders on all sides of the crisis. They must signal persistence and hope, not abandon and despair to the people of South Sudan.

Moreover, the United States cannot outsource its responsibility. While U.S. financial assistance is vital for humanitarian response, human rights monitoring, peacekeeping, and, ultimately, the rebuilding of South Sudan, simply funding these activities through the United Nations and other international and national organizations would be inadequate and hypocritical in the absence of a U.S. presence on the ground—especially when that presence carries such unparalleled weight.

At the country’s independence celebration on July 9, 2011, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice pledged: “We helped broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that led us here today, and we will continue to watch over it—and the future to come… The task is great. The responsibility is yours. But so long as you seek a more perfect union, you will never be alone.”

South Sudan’s political leadership has failed its people; the United States should not.