South Sudan gained independence just six months ago, but the country is already plagued by ethnic violence at home and ongoing tensions with its previous rulers in Sudan.
Potential humanitarian crises are brewing in both Sudans, and U.S. diplomats are sounding frustrated that the two are not talking to each other enough.
U.S. officials still don't really have a handle on the violence that exploded this month in a remote part of South Sudan. But U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman says the deadly cattle-raiding and ethnic clashes that have forced tens of thousands to flee shows that the new government's reach is still weak.
"There are real fragile points in this society and years of neglect of their basic needs," Lyman says. "The government is going to have to move very, very fast to get a handle on it and not let ethnic politics get in the way."
Humanitarian groups are desperately trying to reach people in South Sudan's troubled Jonglei state. Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America says the violence threatens the new nation's plans to develop its agricultural sector.
"When you see this type of displacement happening in this short period of time, where you see the challenges cattle keepers are facing … it's really worrying," he says. "If [agriculture] is what the government of South Sudan pins its hopes on, this will need to be addressed."
U.S. Sending Military Advisers
The White House announced recently that it is sending five military advisers to help United Nations peacekeepers, who warned of the latest violence but mainly stayed on the sidelines.
The Obama administration also cleared a legal hurdle to provide military assistance. Lyman says the goal is to help a former liberation movement that fought for independence become a real army with civilian oversight.
"Right now we are looking at help for establishing a stronger Ministry of Defense, command-and-control capability, human-rights monitoring and better overall organization," he says. "We have no plans under way for lethal assistance to South Sudan."
One of Lyman's former aides, Cameron Hudson, says the U.S. needs to show more tough love with South Sudan. Hudson is now with the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and he's worried about what former rebels now in government might do during this volatile time.
"Politically their instincts, I think, are in the right place, but when faced with really overwhelming violence, tribal violence and intercommunal violence around them, there are tendencies and temptations on the ground that make doing the right thing difficult on a day-to-day basis," he says. "So the United States and other allied countries, I think, have a real opportunity and responsibility to keep Sudan on track."
The U.S. is also worried about the relationship between the two Sudans. The north accuses the south of arming rebels. Lyman can't rule that out, though the south denies it is meddling.
"There is frustration, but there is frustration that both countries have failed to establish the kind of relationships, or even any of the basic institutions for dealing with their bilateral problems," Lyman says. "There's almost no high-level communications between the two."
Now there are fears of famine in those areas where Sudan has been cracking down on rebel movements.
"We've gone to the government, we've gone to countries around the world to say, 'Look, this is a catastrophe, but a preventable one,' " Lyman says. He says that the U.S. has urged other countries to tell Sudan's government that it must allow in the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council, though, has been deadlocked on the issue, says Hudson, the former State Department official.
"What China and Russia see is a proxy war," says Hudson. "So they are reticent to take really strong action like the U.S. government would like to see because they think there isn't just one side involved here. Both sides are at fault."
And there is another brewing conflict between the two Sudans that the U.S. is trying to manage. They are fighting over their shared oil wealth, and U.S. officials warn that if this isn't resolved soon, both countries could face a serious financial crisis.