One of the offshoots of the current fixation with Afghanistan is that it tends to redirect our attention away from other crises in the world that might otherwise attract our attention, and even possibly corrective action.

The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is a case in point. The Sudanese government’s efforts to repress the insurgency in their Darfur province is slightly longer in duration than the American war in Iraq (the insurgency by the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM] and Sudanese Liberation Army/Movemnt [SLA/M] in Darfur began in February 2003, while the American invasion of Iraq occurred in March 2003). The toll in Darfur is high: estmates suggest between 2-400,000 killed in Darfur as well as upwards of 2 million internal and external displaced persons (IDPs and EDPs) or refugees. The Darfurian population, both in and outside Sudan, have been subjected to regular atrocities ever since, with the most public being the actions of the so-called Janjaweed (which translates as “evil men on horseback”), a sort of informal militia with apparent ties to the Sudanese government.

The Darfurian case is part of a broader pattern of unrest, rebellion, and atrocity in Sudan. In addition to the troubles in the western Darfur region, there has been an ongoing civil war in the southern parts of Sudan since 1962 that has periodicially raised its ugly head, been negotiated to a ceasefire, and then reemerged. What sets this conflict apart is that oil was discovered in the southern part of the country in 1978, which makes control of the area all the more important. This aspect of Sudanese violence has, over the year, resulted in as many as 2,000,000 deaths and 4 million IDPs and EDPs.

And yet the world hardly notices, and when its attention is forced back to the situation, does very little. Media coverage of Darfurian misery prompted international cries of despair, and even caused then Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George Bush to describe the campaign against the Darfurians a “genocide.” Sudanese President (since 1993) Omar al-Bashir has since been indicted in absentia for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). These charges do not include genocide, and the United States is disadvantaged in being part of this process since it not a member of the ICC. To deal with Darfur, the UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force, the United Nations Mission in Darfur (or UNAMID) in July 2007 with an authorized force size of 26,000 soldiers and police to bring and maintain order in an area roughly the size of Texas. As of this month, the actual force is less than 19,000, including no American participation.

While the United States continues to debate how many troops are needed in Afghanistan, Darfurians in Sudan and contiguous countries (notably Chad and the Central African Republic) continue to suffer, with little prospect of improvement. Sudan’s civil war in the south is in abeyance as Sudan moves toward national elections next year that could provide for substantial autonomy for the south, including a division of oil revenues between Khartoum and the southerners that appafrently is acceptable to both. Despite a 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement that neither side honors, the situation is not so hopeful in Darfur.

Why has nothing been done internationally to halt this disaster. While there is no universally agreed answer to that question, let me suggest four possible elements.

1. It happened at the wrong time. The Darfur crisis, as well as the war in the south, happened at times when the international system was preoccupied with other problems. The civil war in the south began during the height of the Cold War, the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, as noted, Darfur began a month before the US invasion of Iraq. Had Darfur occurred during the 1990s, when response to humanitarian disasters was at its peak in places like the Balkans, there might have been a stronger response. But maybe not, for reason #2.

2. It happened at the wrong place to the wrong people. The Sudan is, after all, in Africa, where humanitarian responses to tragedies by the west have been, to put it politely, restrained. In the 1990s, the international system acted forcefully in the European Balkans but ignored Rwanda until it was too late. The southern civil war in Sudan pits the majority Arab Muslims of northern Sudan against a collection of Christian and animist Africans, with the Christians in the minority. In Darfur, the combatants are basically all Muslims, with sedentary farming Africans being besieged by nomadic Arabs. For better of worse, these are not conflict parameters thathave activated the outrage of the developed world.

3. The United States, Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation,” was otherwise predisposed in both cases. As the world learned in the 1990s, international responses depend on a prominent American role, and we were busy with other things. UNAMID, for instance, has no American personnel, although the United States does provide some aid to the displaced.

4. Sudan has international defenders. Sudan, of course, has maintained all along that these situations are entirely internal and thus exclusively within the purview of Sudan. Their argument for non-interference is based in sovereignty, and they have one strong champion in defending this position, China. The PRC is,along with the United States, one of the staunchest defenders of national sovereignty. China is also the largest importer on Sudanese oil. Draw whatever conclusions you wish.

5. The international response is inappropriate. The IN Security Council has conceptualized the Darfur crisis as apeacekeeping operation (PKO), which it is not. You must have peace as prerequisite to keeping it, and that is clearly not the case in Darfur. Yet UNAMID is a PKO. Why? Because it is what the UN can afford and what the international community is willing to support. That it is also almost totally ineffective is almost beside the point.

So, Darfur simmers and festers while the world looks the other way. “Attention! Eyes Right (or Closed)!” Now, what’s going on in the strategic review over Afghanistan…?

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.  This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq? blog as “The World Averts Its Eyes: Darfur”.