I met a few of them in the town of Pibor last year. These battle-tested veterans had just completed two or three years of military service. They told me about the rigors of a soldier’s life, about toting AK-47s, about the circumstances that led them to take up arms. In the United States, not one of these soldiers would have met the age requirements to enlist in the Army. None were older than 16.
Rebel forces in southern Sudan began using child soldiers long before seceding from Sudan in 2011. The United States, on the other hand, passed a law in 2008 that banned providing military assistance to nations that use child soldiers. The law was called the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, or CSPA, but after South Sudan’s independence, the White House issued annual waivers that kept aid flowing to the world’s newest nation despite its use of child soldiers. President Obama stated in 2012 that the waiver that year was in “the national interest of the United States.”
The president’s move was criticized by human rights activists and others. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska and the author of the CSPA, described the use of child soldiers as an “unthinkable practice.” The U.S. “must not be complicit in this practice,” he said. “The intent of the law is clear — the waiver authority should be used as a mechanism for reform, not as a way of continuing the status quo.” Because of the requirements of the law, the waivers were issued by the White House rather than the State Department, so Obama was the target of most of the criticism.
Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state when the first waivers were issued, was apparently never asked to comment on them, and the State Department never provided any explanations about its role. Clinton had spent years vowing to defend the rights of children worldwide — in 2012, she railed against “modern-day slavery” in the introduction to a State Department report on human trafficking that took aim at the “unlawful recruitment or use of children” by armed forces. Yet she does not appear to have publicly explained her role in allowing South Sudan and other countries to receive military support despite using children as combatants. In fact, the State Department played a central role in issuing the controversial waivers, according to two sources, including a former State Department official.
As a presidential candidate, Clinton has made her foreign policy experience a centerpiece of her campaign. Under scrutiny, however, Clinton’s acumen has been consistently called into question — from her vote, as a U.S. senator, for the Iraq War (which led to the collapse of that country into near failed-state status) to her relentless push to intervene in Libya (which led to the collapse of that country into near failed-state status); not to mention her handling of the Russian “reset,” the so-called pivot to Asia, and the Arab Spring, among other issues.
Until now, however, there has been little of mention of Clinton’s handling of South Sudan. With strong U.S. support, South Sudan became an independent country while she was secretary of state — and soon spiraled into a disastrous civil war that involved large numbers of child soldiers. The CSPA waivers and the broader panoply of military and diplomatic support that was extended to South Sudan and the government of its president, Salva Kiir, failed to prevent a descent into violence that has cost more than 50,000 lives and forced more than 2.4 million people to flee their homes.
At a major conference on South Sudan in 2011, Clinton spoke about “the opportunity to make it possible for [South Sudan’s] children to envision a different future.” Yet in that same year, the Obama administration used a technicality to gain a CSPA exemption for South Sudan, since the list of countries subject to the law that year was created before the new nation became independent. There would be no “different future” for South Sudan’s child soldiers in 2011, nor the next year, when the White House issued a waiver for South Sudan, as well as for now war-torn Libya and Yemen.
What role was played by Clinton and the State Department?
Daniel Mahanty, who served in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under Clinton, confirmed that the State Department, in consultation with the White House, controlled the process. The State Department drafted all waiver materials and all recommendations to the president were made on behalf of the secretary of state and with her full approval. “We will have already drafted the letter from the president to Congress that says what waivers he’s going to invoke,” Mahanty told me. “So it goes up to the secretary [of state], then over to the White House, and from the White House out to the public.”
Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, has closely followed the process behind the waivers and also believes Clinton’s State Department played a central role. “It’s the State Department that gives the recommendations to Obama on who he should waive,” she told me.
Contacted by The Intercept, key officials at the State Department at the time of the waivers did not respond to requests for comment, and Clinton’s campaign staff failed to provide information about her role. The Intercept reached out to Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Clinton, but he did not make himself available to speak. Other officials who did not comment include Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff and counselor at the State Department; Jake Sullivan, formerly the director of policy planning at the State Department and deputy chief of staff to Clinton; and Karen Hanrahan, who served as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
The State Department claimed it was unable to provide any information about Clinton’s role. “I don’t have any record of Secretary Clinton’s discussions,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to my inquiry about whether she had provided guidance to the president or expressed any reservations about the waivers. “We are looking forward rather than rehashing the past, much of which is difficult to determine,” he told me. “We do not comment on internal deliberations.”
The White House was similarly opaque about the waivers, although it gave a tacit nod to State Department involvement. “It’s an interagency process,” a White House official told The Intercept.
On July 9, 2011, South Sudan’s Independence Day, President Obama issued a statement of strong support despite the new country’s use of child soldiers. “I am confident that the bonds of friendship between South Sudan and the United States will only deepen in the years to come,” he announced. “As Southern Sudanese undertake the hard work of building their new country, the United States pledges our partnership as they seek the security, development, and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights.”
Clinton was equally effusive.
“I’m betting on South Sudan, and I don’t like to lose bets,” she said at the International Engagement Conference for South Sudan, which was held in 2011 in Washington, D.C. It was, she said, her honor to welcome President Kiir to America. “We have a chance to raise up the first generation of South Sudanese who have not known and, God willing, never will know war.”
Obama and other supporters of South Sudan were hoping that their toleration of child soldiers, as well as other problems in the country’s military and government, would be a short-term compromise. As Nate Haken, a senior associate at the Fund for Peace, described the situation, “The rhetoric was very rosy at the time. Everyone was caught up in the euphoria … and trade-offs were being calculated.”
Nonetheless, the contrast was jarring — quietly supporting a military that used child soldiers while loudly decrying the use of child soldiers.
In a September 25, 2012, speech before the Clinton Global Initiative, Obama spoke about an issue that he said “ought to concern every nation. … I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name — modern slavery.” The president added, “When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed — that’s slavery. … It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world.” Applause predictably followed.
Three days later, and with much less fanfare, the president issued a CSPA waiver for South Sudan.
Behind the scenes, the Obama administration believed it needed to issue waivers, allowing South Sudan to get on its feet before making demands of its military.
“A waiver allowed the United States government’s continued delivery of necessary assistance to ensure security sector reform,” according to the White House official. “This assistance, which provided training on human rights and protection of children, was also designed to help increase the military’s command and control capacity, which in turn increased its ability to prevent and eliminate child soldiers in its ranks.”
But the latter never happened — child soldiers remained in the military as U.S. aid kept flowing to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, and into the coffers of President Kiir’s government, almost $620 million in U.S. assistance in 2012. In 2013, U.S. aid topped out at more than $556 million. That September, Obama issued another CSPA waiver — this time in the form of a memorandum to new Secretary of State John Kerry.
In her memoir, Hard Choices, which was published in 2014, Clinton wrote a brief section about South Sudan that did not mention the controversial waivers on child soldiers. The passage did illustrate, mostly by omission, the failures in South Sudan.
“I flew to Juba, the new capital of South Sudan, to try to broker a deal,” she wrote. “It had taken years of patient diplomacy to end the civil war and midwife the birth of a new nation, and we couldn’t let that achievement fall apart now.”
It was August 2012, a little more than a year after South Sudan’s inaugural Independence Day — the product, beyond any sort of American midwifery, of two brutal conflicts with Sudan that raged from 1955 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005, leaving millions dead and displaced. But it was also true that for more than 20 years, a bipartisan coalition in the United States had championed the southern rebels. And as the new nation broke away from Sudan, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in aid, including hundreds of millions in military and security assistance.
Now, the Sudans were at risk of another war — this time over oil being pumped in the south and processed in the north. The world’s newest nation had cut off oil production and Clinton was there to get the tap turned back on. With the U.S. then attempting to economically strangle Iran by pressuring nations not to buy its petroleum, Clinton wanted to make sure South Sudan’s oil remained on the market.
“But the new president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, wouldn’t budge,” she wrote in her memoir. “I listened to him explain all the reasons why South Sudan couldn’t compromise with the North on an oil deal. Behind all the arguments about pricing and refining was a simple human reality: These battle-scarred freedom fighters couldn’t bring themselves to move beyond the horrors of the past.”
Picking her moment, Clinton wrote that she threw Kiir a curveball, pulling out a New York Times op-ed by a fellow South Sudanese and sliding it over to him. “As he began to read, his eyes widened. Pointing to the byline, he said, ‘He was a soldier with me.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but now he’s a man of peace. And he remembers that you fought together for freedom and dignity, not for oil.’”
Her gambit, she implied, paid off. Kiir quickly resumed negotiations and made a deal. Readers were left with little question that this was one of those signature Clinton foreign policy triumphs, the diplomatic experience that now makes her the logical choice for America’s next president. It was a stirring tale, an example of how “hard choices” can yield happy outcomes — except the story got much messier just before Clinton’s memoir was published. Tacked onto her memoir’s section on South Sudan is a sentence that reads like a last-minute addition: “In late 2013, tribal divisions and personal feuds erupted in a spasm of violence that threatens to tear the country apart.”
Those “tribal divisions and personal feuds” spiraled into a civil war pitting the forces led by Kiir — a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka — against those loyal to Riek Machar, the vice president he had sacked earlier in 2013 and an ethnic Nuer — the second-largest tribe in the country. Kiir said the violence stemmed from an abortive coup by Machar, but a comprehensive investigation by an African Union commission found no evidence of one. It did find evidence that “Dinka soldiers, members of presidential guard, and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes” in Juba. From there, the war crimes spread across the country as Kiir’s SPLA and Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition, which was filled with SPLA defectors, made war on civilians in towns like Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal.
The U.S. had lavished support on South Sudan’s security forces, especially the SPLA, in the years leading up to the conflict. This included the training and equipping of the elite presidential guard; employment of foreign instructors to teach SPLA recruits; development of riverine forces; training of commandos by Ethiopian troops; establishment of a noncommissioned officers academy with training from private contractors and later U.S. military personnel; deployment of a “training advisory team” to guide the overhaul of military intelligence; renovation of a training center at the SPLA Command and Staff College; and construction of the headquarters of two SPLA divisions, according to a comprehensive report focusing on the years 2006-2010 by the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
During these years and afterward, members of the SPLA were implicated in myriad human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and torture. A 2012 report by Clinton’s State Department, for example, noted that in addition to recruiting child soldiers, South Sudan’s security forces also committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, tortured and raped women, arbitrarily arrested and detained people, and “tortured, beat, and harassed political opponents, journalists, and human rights workers.” The SPLA also broke its 2010 pledge to demobilize all of its child soldiers by the end of the year, leaving children serving in the force.
“Post-2005, I think the lack of public criticism — by the U.S. — of the SPLA for its abuses and then the military assistance given to the SPLA by private contractors and others was silly,” said Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “It was totally counterproductive. They should have found another way to try to professionalize the army. It was clear that it wasn’t going to work.”
After South Sudan’s independence, compromises were repeatedly made by the U.S. and yet the country did fall apart or, rather, was torn apart by the very leaders and institutions the U.S. supported. De Waal thinks the Obama administration was, in many ways, handcuffed by an intractable Congress. Still, Clinton’s State Department was far from blameless for the descent into civil war. “There’s a fair amount that they could have done to emphasize democratization,” de Waal said. “They really put democracy in the background when they could have put democracy and human rights up front.”
A peace deal between the government and the rebels, signed in August 2015, and even Machar’s recent return to the government, has so far failed to end the bloodshed from a war that fractured into a series of sub-conflicts as well as from peripheral violence — including ethnic and tribal clashes — carried out by a plethora of armed groups with shifting alliances and a variety of aims.
Nobody knows how many South Sudanese have perished in the war. The estimates run from 50,000 to 300,000. Add to that 2.4 million people forced to flee their homes and up to 5.3 million — almost half the population — facing “severe food insecurity” in the months ahead. About 6.1 million people, in total, need assistance. The number of children under arms also skyrocketed, increasing from hundreds to more than 12,000 serving in the SPLA, the opposition forces, or other militias.
“The U.S. seems to make the same kind of mistake again and again,” said Haken of the Fund for Peace. “We catalyze major change without understanding, or at least grappling with, the long-term implications — whether it’s Iraq or Libya or whether it’s South Sudan. We definitely need to do better.”
Would presidential candidates Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, or Clinton’s Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, do better?
Warren Gunnels, a policy director for the Sanders campaign, told The Intercept that the senator “strongly supports” the CSPA and, as president, would “follow both the spirit and the intent of this law.” Sanders, he says, also supports continuing humanitarian aid for the South Sudanese. The Trump campaign failed to respond.
On child soldiers, permissiveness can have far-reaching effects, says Mahanty, who concluded his 15-year career at the State Department by creating and heading the Office of Security and Human Rights. “There are risks with continually providing a waiver,” he said. “Certainly you’re undermining your own credibility when you’re trying to engage in parts of Africa where they’re not receiving a waiver.”
He pointed to a stronger application of the CSPA with countries like Myanmar as having made a real difference for children. “When combined with other forms of collective action, it has had a tangible impact on progress in improving the prevention process or in weeding kids out of the ranks.”
And what about a President Hillary Clinton, would she do better than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when it comes to South Sudan? It’s hard to know. For more than a month, her campaign failed to respond to repeated requests for comment by The Intercept. After The Intercept contacted several top Clinton confidantes, campaign spokesperson Nick Merrill finally got in touch.
“Let me get into this a bit,” he emailed, after I sent a list of questions. After multiple follow-ups, he wrote, “I haven’t forgotten about you.”
The Clinton campaign still has not provided any answers.
Reporting for this story by Nick Turse, who is the author of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, was made possible through the support of Lannan Foundation.