In the months leading up to the referendum in southern Sudan, scheduled for January 9, the United States and its international partners have been scrambling to prepare for the challenges a divided Sudan might bring.

The referendum, born from the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), presents an opportunity for the south to achieve independence following years of brutal repression and violence perpetrated by the government in Khartoum headlined by a decades-long civil war. The Obama Administration has expressed cautious optimism in the lead-up to the referendum. “We believe that the right signals are being sent, both in North and South, in terms of the upcoming referendum and respecting the results,” said State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley. He added, however, that there is “a difficult road ahead” to resolve the outstanding differences between the two sides.

However, the numerous setbacks leading up to and following the referendum could spell chaos for Africa’s largest country.

Preparation for the referendum has been flawed from the start, mainly because of logistical delays. Owing to a lack of communication throughout the south, voter registration was extended to boost turnout. Accessing the 2,600 polling stations and distributing ballots in the most remote areas has proven to be no easy task. Furthermore, training of polling staff has fallen short, as has Khartoum’s promise of funding for the referendum.

Completing the referendum successfully and without widespread flaws and fraud is critical. A disputed referendum could be the worst possible outcome. The north would likely demand continued unity while the south would insist on independence. This disagreement could lead to another civil war. The last one claimed the lives of 2 million people and displaced 4.5 million. A return to these horrific conditions is the biggest fear of the U.S. and its international partners.

Once the weeklong referendum is completed, however, the challenges do not disappear, nor do they become less daunting.

If the south votes for secession as the international community anticipates, southern Sudan will be woefully ill-equipped to handle the complexities of governing an independent nation. Its population and economy have been devastated by years of conflict. Extensive oil reserves are a potential resource for development, but other oil-rich economies facing far fewer problems than southern Sudan have failed to capitalize on their energy wealth.

Even with a successful outcome in the referendum, southern Sudan’s relationship with the north will remain overshadowed by the possibility of renewed conflict. The north and south border regions, already subject to ethnic and religious tensions, could end up creating instability due to disputes over the border. The regions along the north–south divide are preparing for the worst. Northern Sudanese forces in the Blue Nile region have not reduced their numbers as required by the CPA, and the referendum in oil-rich Abyei is now delayed indefinitely.

Then there’s the possibility of the Islamic government in Khartoum seeking to undermine governance and stability in southern Sudan post-independence. Although Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has repeatedly voiced his support for an independent south—Bashir visited the southern capital of Juba yesterday, again promising that his government will respect the referendum’s outcome—his past record in both southern Sudan and Darfur gives plenty of reason for skepticism.

Then there is the question of international commitment. Although success ultimately depends on the actions of the Sudanese governments and citizens in the north and south, an independent southern Sudan would require long-term support from the international community.

In Sudan, the White House has a chance to mobilize bipartisan foreign policy support, as did President Bush, and work with a new Congress to avoid a massive humanitarian disaster. The U.S. under President Obama has increased its diplomatic involvement and promises to support the independence process and invest in southern Sudan’s future. It has also pledged to improve ties with a Khartoum and Bashir. This is one issue where bipartisan cooperation is achievable.