January 1, 2013: The "Arab Spring" last year created several unexpected popular uprisings against dictators and monarchs. Most sort-of succeeded (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya), while others failed or never got going (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon) and Syria is not over but the rebels are winning. None of these developed into a true war. The most violent, in Libya, was won by armed civilians assisted by NATO smart bombs and warships. The uprisings were mostly about corruption and the resulting massive poverty. For that reason, Saudi Arabian monarchy was able to buy its way out of an uprising. Yemen mutated into low level civil war, while Syria grew into a countrywide guerilla war. Egypt and Tunisia were over quickly but subsequent elections put Islamic conservatives in power. In Egypt the military was able to maintain its corrupt grip on the economy. It's unclear how this will turn out because the Islamic and secular rebel groups are spending most of their time going after each other. Indeed, the biggest problem was that these dictatorships were not just the single dictator but that the segment of the population that kept the dictator in power, were well rewarded for that and were not eager to flee or give up their wealth. The dictator's supporters are striving to retain or regain their power. The Old Order has substantial economic and political resources and is willing to use them to retain power and wealth.
Most current wars are basically uprisings against police states or feudal societies, which are seen as out-of-step with the modern world. Many are led by radicals preaching failed dogmas (Islamic conservatism, Maoism, and other forms of radical socialism), that still resonate among people who don't know about the dismal track records of these creeds. Iran has picked up some of the lost Soviet terrorist support effort. That keeps Hezbollah, Hamas, and a few smaller groups going, and that's it. Terrorists in general miss the Soviets, who really knew how to treat bad boys right.
The War on Terror has morphed into the War Against Islamic Radicalism. This religious radicalism has always been around, for Islam was born as an aggressive movement that used violence and terror to expand. Past periods of conquest are regarded fondly by Moslems, who are still taught by their religious leaders and teachers that non-Moslems ("infidels") are inferior. The current enthusiasm for violence in the name of God has been building for over half a century. Historically, Islamic radicalism has flared up into mass bloodshed periodically, usually in response to corrupt governments, as a vain attempt to impose a religious solution on some social or political problem. The current violence is international because of the availability of planet wide mass media (which needs a constant supply of headlines) and the fact that the Islamic world is awash in tyranny and economic backwardness. This is why the Arab Spring uprisings, and their desire to establish democracies, may do some permanent damage to the Islamic terrorism tradition. There are already more condemnations of Islamic radicals by Islamic clerics and media in Moslem nations. These changes have not come as quickly as many hoped but at least they finally arrived. This came as a surprise to many Moslems. That’s because the past has had a huge influence on Islamic societies. For many resistance to change is considered a religious obligation. Many Moslems consider democracy a poisonous Western invention. There is still a lot of affection for the clerical dictatorship of legend, a just and efficient government run by virtuous religious leaders. The legends are false and there are centuries of failed religious dictatorships to prove it. But this legend has become a core belief for many Moslems and will be shaken by reality or the historical record.
Islamic radicalism itself is incapable of mustering much military power, and the movement largely relies on terrorism to gain attention. Most of the victims are fellow Moslems, which is why the radicals eventually become so unpopular among their own people that they run out of new recruits and fade away. This is what is happening now. The American invasion of Iraq was a clever exploitation of this, forcing the Islamic radicals to fight in Iraq, where they killed many Moslems, especially women and children, thus causing the Islamic radicals to lose their popularity among Moslems. The sharp decline in the Islamic nation opinion polls was startling.
Normally, the West does not get involved in these Islamic religious wars, unless attacked in a major way. Moreover, modern sensibilities have made retaliation difficult. For example, fighting back is considered, by Moslems, as culturally insensitive ("war on Islam"), and some of the Western media have picked up on this bizarre interpretation of reality. It gets worse. Historians point out, for example, that the medieval Crusades were a series of wars fought in response to Islamic violence against Christians, not the opening act of aggression against Islam that continues to the present. Thus, the current war on terror is, indeed, in the tradition of the Crusades. And there are many other "Crusades" brewing around the world, in the many places where aggressive Islamic militants are making unprovoked war on their Christian and non-Moslem neighbors. Political Correctness among academics and journalists causes pundits to try and turn this reality inside out. But a close look at the violence in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East shows a definite pattern of Islamic radicals persecuting those who do not agree with them, not the other way around.
While Islamic terrorism grabs most of the headlines, it is not the cause of many casualties, at least not compared to more traditional wars. The vast majority of the military related violence and deaths in the world comes from many little wars that get little media attention outside their region. Actually some of them are not so little. While causalities from international terrorism are relatively few, the dead and wounded from all the other wars actually comprise about 95 percent of all the casualties. The Islamic terrorism looms larger because the terrorists threaten attacks everywhere, putting a much larger population in harm's way, and the more numerous potential victims are unhappy with that prospect. In the West, and most Moslem nations, Islamic terrorism remains more of a threat than reality.
There are a lot of people dying from armed and organized (sort of) violence. But most of this violence involved one, or both sides operating as armed civilians. One of the bloodiest of these irregular conflicts is the one going on in Mexico, where drug gangs battle over who shall control the lucrative drug smuggling routes into the United States. Most of the killings are done by drug gang gunmen in civilian clothes. The death toll so far this year is over 5,000. That's right up there with the wars that get a lot more media coverage (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan, Somalia). That's no accident, as the Mexican drug war includes a lot of violence against the media, mainly local print and electronic outlets. The drug gangs don't want any unfavorable coverage and are willing to kill those who dare to say unkind things. This is common in many of the wars where one or both sides are basically outlaws and able to do as they please.
Despite the growing military power of China, and the saber rattling from Russia, the major military powers continue the Great Nuclear Truce (GNT) that began in the 1950s, when Russia got nuclear weapons and suddenly realized they could not afford to use them (without risking more destruction than past foes like the Nazis or Mongols inflicted). As more major powers got nukes, the "we can't afford to use them but they're nice to have" attitude, and the unprecedented truce, persisted. There have been wars but not between the big players (who have the largest and most destructive conventional forces). Thus a record was broken in 1986, as there had never before (since the modern state system developed in the 16th century) been so long a period without a war between a major powers (the kind that could afford, these days, to get nukes). Since the Cold War ended in 1991 there have been fewer wars (in the traditional sense) and more low level conflicts (rebellions, civil wars). Most people are unaware of this situation because the mass media never made a lot of the GNT, it was something that was just there and not worth reporting. Besides, "nukes (bombs, power plants, medicine) are "evil" sells if you are in the news business. Calling any incident, with a lot of gunfire and a few dead bodies, a "war" has also been misleading. The fact is, worldwide violence has been declining since the end of the Cold War and the elimination of Russian subsidies and encouragement for pro-communist rebels and terrorists. The media also has a hard time keeping score. For years Iraq was portrayed as a disaster until, suddenly, the enemy was crushed and the war was won. Even that was not considered exciting enough to warrant much attention and that story is still poorly covered. Same pattern is playing out in Afghanistan, where the defeats of the Taliban, and triumph of the drug gangs, go unreported or distorted. However, if you step back and take a look at all the wars going on, a more accurate picture emerges.
Current wars are listed in alphabetical orders. Text underneath briefly describes current status. Click on country name for more details.
The government is working out a deal with the rebellious (largely pro-Taliban) Pushtun tribes and clans, despite the Taliban leadership (most of them in the Pakistan sanctuary Quetta) opposing it. This deal will further splinter the Taliban but lessen the risk of another civil war between Pushtuns (and among Pushtun factions) and the other ethnic groups (who are 60 percent of the population but much less violent than the Pushtuns). Most NATO troops in Afghanistan will be gone by the end of the year. The drug gangs and their Taliban allies are depending on this for long-term survival. But that would create a heroin producing, Islamic terrorist, and gangster sanctuary in Central Asia. You want to know how that works out, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia during the last decade. No one has come up with any cheap, fast, or easy solution for that. Meanwhile, Afghanistan's core problem is that there is no Afghanistan, merely a collection of tribes more concerned about tribal than national prosperity and power. Ten percent of the population, mostly living in the cities and often working with the foreigners, believes in Afghanistan the country. But beyond the city limits, it's a very different Afghanistan that is currently motivated by growing prosperity brought on by a decade of relative peace. By Afghan standards, an unprecedented amount of cash has come into the country since September 11, 2001. Between the growing heroin sales and foreign aid, plus lower losses from violence, it's been something of a Golden Age. But Afghanistan has a long history of civil war and endemic tribal violence. For example, it's often forgotten that the 1990s civil war was still active on September 11, 2001. The Taliban (or, more accurately, Pushtun nationalists from the southwest) have been trying to make a comeback ever since. Meanwhile most Afghans are more interested in grabbing a chunk of the new economic opportunities. Despite a decline in civilian deaths (and the fact that most of them are caused by the Taliban), the Afghan government plays up every civilian death caused by foreign troops as a bargaining chip in the effort to cripple NATO anti-corruption efforts. There hasn't been a "Taliban Spring Offensive" for the last six years and that’s partly because of cash flow problems. The key Taliban financial resource, heroin in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, has been under heavy attack for over three years now. The opium crop has been hammered by drought and disease and drug gang income has suffered. The Taliban expected drug gang profits, al Qaeda assistance, and Pakistani reinforcements to help them out. But al Qaeda is a very junior, and unpopular, partner, and the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was a big blow to morale. Pakistani Taliban are mostly sending refugees, not reinforcements. In the last half of 2011, the Taliban were much reduced and for the year their attacks were down and casualties are up. Losses for foreign troops were also down 63 percent from the peak year of 2010 (711 dead). Foreign troops lost 295 dead in combat during 2008, and that increased 76 percent, to 519, in 2009. That's about half the casualty rate for foreign troops in Iraq during the peak year of 2007. Foreign troop deaths began to rapidly decline in the second half of 2011, with casualties among Afghan police and soldiers rising as Afghans took control of security in more of the country. The higher foreign troop casualties in 2010, were because there were more foreign troops in action during that year and those troops were much more aggressive. The Taliban roadside bomb weapon has lost its punch because of more MRAPs and specialized intel and engineer troops moved in from Iraq. Thus, the proportion of foreign troop deaths from roadside bombs declined from a peak of 61 percent in 2009, to 42 percent last year. This has not helped civilians, who suffer far more deaths from Taliban action. In fact, independent minded tribes, warlords, corruption, and drug gangs remain a greater threat to peace, prosperity, and true national unity than the Taliban (on both sides of the Pakistan border). Newly wealthy civilians are buying rifles and pistols for self-defense. Moreover, the "Taliban" are not an organization but a Pushtun movement that is active on both sides of the border, among less than ten percent of the 40 million Pushtun in the region. Four years ago the Pakistani government finally agreed to take on the pro-Taliban tribes and various Islamic terrorist organizations. That has put pressure on Taliban on both sides of the border. There are fewer safe havens for the Taliban. Violence inside Afghanistan is growing, largely because of the drug gangs and their support for tribes (especially pro-Taliban ones) that oppose the corrupt national government. The foreign nations, fighting their war on terror in Afghanistan, have finally realized that there has never been an Afghan national government that was not corrupt, and changing that is going to be more difficult than fighting the Taliban. NATO is now fully aware of the trans-national nature of the Pushtun tribes and the Taliban movement. The "war in Afghanistan" is more of a "Pushtun Tribal Rebellion" and is being handled as such. Most NATO nations with troops in Afghanistan are willing to just walk away and deal with the fallout later. Afghanistan has become politically unpopular and the easiest way out (for Western politicians) is to get out and let their successors deal with the fallout.
The Arab Spring made only a slight impact on Algeria. Many locals are still traumatized by the 1990s war against Islamic terrorists, which is still not completely over. But the anger is growing because of decades of inept dictatorship. There are few Islamic radicals left in Algeria. Over the last decade most of them were killed, captured, or ran off to Europe or south into the desert and across the southern borders into Black Africa. In addition to the new al Qaeda sanctuary in Mali, there is also al Qaeda smuggling gangs moving South American cocaine north. The few remaining Islamic terrorists in Algeria have few hiding places left. Despite the large amount of uninhabited mountains and forests along the eastern coast, the police and army have been operating there for so long that it's difficult to stay hidden. Too many civilians are hostile to Islamic radicalism and will phone in a tip. Algeria has become a very dangerous place for Islamic terrorists. There was a slight increase in terror attacks, as Islamic radicals tried to capitalize on the Arab Spring unrest in neighboring Tunisia and Libya. But in both those countries the popular uprising was against the local dictators and for democracy, not Islamic radicalism. Islamic political parties were popular but not Islamic radicals. The uprisings in Tunisia and Libya weakened the local security forces and made it easier for Islamic radicals to move around and recruit. Algeria increased its border security. The major problem remains an Algerian government that is basically a corrupt military dictatorship that uses the national oil wealth to buy enough votes to get elected again and again. So more Algerians are fleeing or vacillating between despair and a desire to fight. The corrupt government insures that there are always more desperate young men willing to give Islamic terrorism a try but not enough to overthrow the government, or even keep Arab Spring demonstrations going. Many expect another, and larger, Arab Spring in Algeria eventually.
Corruption, crime, and the pursuit of past glories continue to be the main cause of violence here. An Islamic government in Turkey is looking east and south, like the late Ottoman Turk Empire. But to the east and south there is only trouble, while Turkey's growing economy looks west, where the major trading partners are. Greece's economic meltdown meant big cuts in the Greek military budget, ending the decades-long arms race with Turkey. Meanwhile, West Europeans got their way and Kosovo became independent. Serbia disagrees with that, and Big Brother Russia offers all manner of support and threats. But no one is willing to resume the war, yet. No one is willing to renounce war as an option either. Bosnia continues to attract Islamic terrorists, despite the local government becoming increasingly hostile to these foreign troublemakers and alien Islamic conservatism. Moldova continues to muddle, and Bulgaria and Romania continue to fight corruption and lose. The EU is pulling its peacekeepers out of the Balkans, leaving the gangsters, Islamic radicals, and corrupt officials more freedom of action.
The Arab Spring tried to spread to this area but didn't take hold. Local dictators continue to brew rebellion by suppressing democrats, Islamic radicals, and anyone else who objects to strongman rule. Not much violence most of the time, just a lot of potential. The dictators in the "Stans" (the former provinces of the Soviet Union that became five independent nations: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan) have been rebuilding the Soviet era secret police. The new dictators noted that the Soviets never had any problems with Islamic terrorism, or any other kind of terrorism, and are going old school on this new problem. Nevertheless, popular uprisings have succeeded here. Yet a recent upheaval in Kyrgyzstan just replaced an existing despot with a new one who only seemed like a reformer for a while. Now Kyrgyzstan is seeking closer economic and political ties with Russia, just in case the local situation gets out of control. Russia stands ready to provide similar help to the other Stans, which are all being pulled back into the Russian economic and political orbit.
Chad and Sudan halted their support for each other's rebels three years ago and formally made peace. Now the biggest problem along the border is the bandits, who prey on the refugees and the foreign aid workers. The peacekeepers have left, and the foreign aid groups threatened to follow if Chad security forces were unable or unwilling to deal with the banditry in and around the refugee camps. Chadian soldiers and police did keep the bandits in check, and the aid groups (a major source of economic activity in eastern Chad) remained. The unrest along the Sudan border is caused by refugees from tribal battles in Sudan, who bring their feuds with them. Prospects for peace are not good in Sudan, so the Sudanese refugees remain a problem. Chad is now quieter but not peaceful. Same with its neighbor, the CAR (Central African Republic), which suffers from the same plague of multiculturalism induced rebellions. The civil war in CAR flared up last year and may escalate in 2013. For both Chad and CAR corruption, poverty, disorder, and starvation are larger problems than armed violence.
China is edging towards war with its neighbors. This is already being played out in the South China Sea, where the Chinese embraced the idea that this entire area is not international waters or the property of the nearest country but part of China. This violates international agreements on such matters but China disagrees and is becoming more aggressive with enforcing these claims. China is using the “death by a thousand cuts” approach, constantly pushing other nations away from disputed rocks and reefs and threatening worse if anyone tries drilling for oil or gas in these offshore waters. Meanwhile, there are growing problems at home, where growing success in using the Internet for espionage did not translate into the ability to establish a lot of control over Internet use within China. The government has been unable to create a new domestic information monopoly (as existed in the pre-cell phone/Internet days). Bad news gets out and causes growing unrest or corruption and abusive government. There are thousands of large protest riots each year, and some towns are openly rebelling. It's all because of an unelected government run by communists who no longer believe in communism. The growing corruption taints everything. For example, military reforms are crippled by corruption and energetic government efforts to clean it up constantly fail. At the same time, China has become major secret supplier of cheap weapons to bad guys everywhere. World class weapons are planned for the future, some 10-20 years from now, but every year China offers more advanced weapons to the world market. Chinese military technology is suspect, as much of it is based on Russian stuff and during the Cold War Russian weapons always seemed to be what the losers used. A lot of this new tech is aimed at India. The rivalry between China and India becomes more obvious and dangerous. China is mainly concerned about its trade routes through the Indian Ocean. The confrontation with Taiwan continues to subside, replaced by kind words and gracious lies, along with increases in trade and commerce. Taiwan buys more arms and China speeds up modernization of its armed forces, with an emphasis on protecting its sea trade routes and overseas economic interests. Thus the world is seeing more Chinese in peacekeeping missions as well as growing Chinese threats to peace.
After nearly half a century of violence, leftist rebels are rapidly losing support, recruits, and territory. The drug gangs and leftist rebels have merged in many parts of the country, and the war is increasingly about money, not ideology. The leftist rebels are definitely fading but all that drug money will keep them in the game for quite a while. Alarmed at this leftist demagogues in neighboring countries (Venezuela and Ecuador) are rethinking their support for Colombian rebels and their cocaine producing allies. Venezuela is also spending several billion dollars a year on new weapons (mostly Russian). This is mainly to disarm internal critics, upset at how radical populist president Hugo Chavez has trashed the Venezuelan economy and democracy. Popular discontent in Venezuela threatens to turn that country into another Colombia, but Chavez sees Venezuela becoming a socialist dictatorship supported by oil revenue. His neighbors consider Chavez an increasingly dangerous demagogue. Chavez appears willing to allow his actions to develop into civil war, despite the fact that he is dying of cancer and his anointed successor has the same goals but none of his mentor’s charisma. That means Venezuela is headed for civil war while Colombia is in peace talks with leftist rebels to end an uprising that has festered for half a century.
Congo has returned to being a one party dictatorship based on corruption and exploiting ethnic divisions. Multiple tribal and political militias, plus an increasing number of bandits, continue to roam the eastern border area, perpetuating the bloodiest (and least reported) war of the last decade (several million dead, depending on who is counting). Peacekeeper and army action have reduced the size of these violent groups but not eliminated them. However, there are fewer places where the bad guys can roam freely. Attempts to absorb rebels into the army have not worked well. The last major problem is a Tutsi militia which will not disarm until the government destroys Hutu militias, organized by Hutu mass murderers who fled neighboring Rwanda in the 1990s. The Congolese government finds it cannot (and to a certain extent, will not) cope with this. The reason is money, the millions of dollars available each year to whoever has gunmen controlling the mines that extract valuable ores and allow the stuff out of the country. UN peacekeepers are criticized for not fighting more but that’s not their job. The Congolese army is not up to it yet either, and late last year one of the more troublesome militias (a Rwanda supported Tutsi outfit) rebelled and rolled over army and peacekeeper troops. The rebels did not seek to overthrow the national government but remain in control of much of the eastern border area. Meanwhile, the inept and corrupt government creates more anger than contentment, setting the stage for another civil war. The population is not eager for more violence, not after two decades of mayhem.
The border dispute with Eritrea festers, and rebellion by ethnic Somalis in Ogaden province persists. There's oil in Ogaden and that has caused the Ethiopians to be brutal to the rebels. Ethiopian troops are still active on both sides of the Somali border, taking part in last years’ multi-pronged offensive that shattered al Shabaab. Ethiopia will withdraw their troops from Somalia once replaced by new peacekeeper contingents. Ethiopia is accustomed to dealing with the Somalis, something the rest of the world should study more closely. Internally, rebellious Moslem groups are a constant threat, especially with more active support from Eritrea.
The May 2nd, 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden caused an unexpected popular backlash against the Pakistani military. Not just for sheltering bin Laden (which the generals denied) but for being unable to spot the "invading Americans", or stop local Islamic radicals from carrying out "revenge attacks" that left hundreds dead. This led to a major confrontation between the Pakistani military and the civilian government and growing hostility towards military economic and political power. The generals had created a confrontation with the United States as a way to get their own civilian leaders to back off on plans to trim the independence (and wealth) the Pakistani military has long enjoyed. This did not work, nor did an effort to increase hostility with India. This is the result of growing Indian anger at Pakistani support of Islamic terrorism and realization that China is the main enemy now, with Pakistan fading fast. After the Mumbai terrorist attacks in late 2008, India pressured Pakistan to quit playing media games and get serious about anti-Indian Islamic terrorists (created and sustained by the Pakistani military) based in Pakistan. This caused a struggle within the Pakistani government, over how to deal with Islamic radicalism and their own armed forces. Pakistan quietly backed off on any efforts to suppress its anti-India Islamic terror groups (who are popular with nationalistic Pakistanis). Meanwhile, India has to deal with religious (Islamic) separatists in Kashmir, plus tribal rebels in the northeast, and Maoist (communist) ones in between. In 2010, India launched a large offensive against the Maoists, a war they expect to take several years to finish and, not surprisingly, is proceeding slowly. Pakistan has Islamic radicals in the north and rebellious Pushtun and Baluchi tribes along the Afghan border. The Taliban had become stronger in Pakistan, where it originated, than in Afghanistan. The elected (2008) Pakistani government tried to make peace with the Taliban and when that failed, invaded the Taliban heartland. The previous military government had always avoided open war with the Islamic radicals. But this time the Taliban were beat up pretty bad, and the number of Taliban sponsored terrorist attacks increased in response. The military refused to clear the Islamic radicals out of their two last refuges in North Waziristan and Quetta (Baluchistan). Meanwhile the economy is a mess and the favorite national pastime is blaming foreigners for all these problems. By way of comparison, Moslem Bangladesh, which broke away from being part of Pakistan in the early 1970s, has no such Islamic radical problem (leftist rebels are the major troublemakers). India and Pakistan both have nukes, making escalation a potential catastrophe. As a result, recent peace talks have lowered the possibility of war but both sides continue an arms race. Pakistan has always been a mess and does not appear to be getting better. But at least it's becoming less hospitable to Islamic radicals. Even those Islamic terrorists, who concentrate on attacking India, are being pressured to back off by the civilian government. But as long as the military is independent, and supporting Islamic terrorists, the terrorists going after India will still have bases and support in Pakistan. There are still many Pakistanis, including government officials, who back Islamic radicalism, but continued attacks on Pakistani civilians have made it more popular to criticize Islamic radicals for the many problems they cause. Pakistan still has a way to go in dealing with that demon. The U.S. has threatened to invade if Pakistan based Islamic terrorists launch a successful terror attack in the United States. Evidence is piling up that Pakistani based groups have supported, and still support, efforts to carry out attacks in the U.S. America has told Pakistan that this would have consequences, but the Pakistanis fear a larger civil war of their own if they go after the radicals, mainly because about a third of Pakistanis still back Islamic radicalism. The moderates are a majority but the minority is more willing to die for their beliefs. That, however, is beginning to slowly change, aided by recent Taliban attacks on women doing “un-Islamic” things (like backing education for girls or vaccinating children against polio).
Mostly at peace but separatism, pirates, Islamic terrorists, and government corruption create a volatile situation that could get hot real fast. Islamic terrorists have been greatly diminished, as Islamic moderates flex their traditional popularity. But Islamic radicals are allowed to continue harassing non-Moslems and Moslems who are not Moslem enough. This is causing growing friction. Aceh still has a few diehard separatist rebels. There is growing separatist unrest in Papua. Newly independent East Timor has taken the leap and replaced peacekeepers with local police. East Timor is still stuck in a cycle of perpetual poverty.
Last year brought many new economic sanctions that cut oil income sharply and resulted in more inflation and unemployment. The government says it will take care of all this, in time. Meanwhile the radical Israel hating and anti-corruption president Ahmadinejad openly took on the senior clerics who hold the ultimate power and failed. Ahmadinejad was popular because of his anti-corruption efforts but the major crooks are senior clerics or their kin. The clerics fought back and Ahmadinejad is headed for obscurity and no chance of reelection. Meanwhile, popular unrest has been greatly reduced by intense government suppression. The basic problem, for all the things that bother Iranians, is that an Islamic conservative minority has veto power over the larger number of reformers. Most Iranians just want a better life. The supply of peaceful solutions is drying up. After that comes another revolution. There are some more complications. Half the population consists of ethnic minorities (mainly Turks and Arabs), and some of these groups (Arabs, Kurds, and Baluchis) are getting more restive and violent (for different reasons). Meanwhile, the Islamic conservatives are determined to support terrorism overseas and build nuclear weapons at home, rather than concentrating on improving the economy and living standards. Unrest and terrorist violence are becoming more common in Iran and the government seeks foreign adventures to distract an unhappy population. That is not working, and the inept management of the economy is creating more unemployed young men desperate for a solution. Increased sanctions over Iran's nuclear weapons program have hurt, and Iran threatened to blockade oil tanker traffic out of the Persian Gulf if more sanctions were imposed. Iranian leaders were quickly reminded by oil importing nations that this would mean war and Iran backed away. Meanwhile, religious dictatorship is backed by religious fanatics that are willing to kill to stay in power, and guys like this are very difficult to remove. These are also the kind of men who would follow orders and take on the world (over access to the Persian Gulf). The nuclear weapon program moves forward and is very popular with nearly all Iranians (who feel they are a great and powerful people who need nukes to prove it once more).
All American troops are gone for a year and Islamic terrorists are now a local police problem. Violence in general continues to be down over 90 percent from the bad old days of six years ago, but some Sunni Arab terrorism continues. More areas of the country are now at peace (as some have been since 2003). The Sunni Arab minority peace deals with the majority Kurds and Shia Arabs are unraveling. That's because some Sunni Arab Islamic radicals are still active, supported by Sunni Arab nationalists in the Persian Gulf. Some Sunni Arabs, who had fled the country, are returning, but nearly half the Sunni Arabs are still gone (either outside the country or hiding inside Iraq). The Shia militias have been defeated as well, mainly by Iraqi police and troops. Corruption and inept government are now the major problems, with potential Iranian meddling (or even invasion) a permanent threat. For example, the Iranians have had their way and Iraq has quietly allowed Iran to ship weapons via Iraq to Syria. Yet the government backed off on attempts to discourage Iraqi Sunni Arabs from supporting their Sunni brethren in Syria. There are growing tensions between the Kurds in the north (over northern oil fields) and the Arab majority. That could trigger a civil war. Because the Kurds are better prepared for war, and the oil money is very important to preserving their autonomy, the Kurds might win. Plus, the Kurds don't trust the Arabs. To make matters worse for the Iraqi government, Turkey backs the Kurds.
An eight day war with Hamas in November led to a temporary halt in rocket attacks from Gaza. Hamas declared itself the winner of that war because it was still around after the Israelis were finished destroying most of the Hamas rocket stockpile. Hamas did gain prestige in the Arab world for taking on Israel. Defeat is no big deal because that’s what has always happened when Arabs attack Israel. As a result of the war Fatah is feeling more pressure from Hamas in the West Bank. Neither Palestinian faction is interested in real peace talks with Israel. That's because Palestinian leaders continue to preach endless war against Israel and destruction of the Jewish state. Any peace deal is seen as a stepping stone towards that ultimate goal. Some Palestinians keep trying to make any kind of peace, in order to reverse the economic disaster they brought on themselves as a result of their 14 year old terror campaign against Israel. Polls show that Palestinians are tired of terrorism, even though they still support it (in order to destroy Israel, which remains an article of faith in the Palestinian community). The Palestinian economy in Gaza has collapsed, as a major component foreign charity was reduced because the people elected the Hamas (Islamic terrorists) party to power. Hamas is trying to convince foreigners that it has changed (it hasn't) in order to get more cash to keep their religious dictatorship going. Civil war between radical Hamas and corrupt Palestinian old guard (Fatah) has split Palestinians. Long time Arab allies are giving up on the Palestinians, who seem to have abandoned any meaningful attempt to unite and make some kind of peace with Israel. Iran backed Islamic radicals (Hezbollah) and Hamas are still allies, and most Lebanese back the destruction of Israel. Hezbollah violence threatens to drag Lebanon into another civil war or another war with Israel. The Arab Spring in Syria has removed Syria as a threat to Israel for the moment. Hamas and Iranian disagreements over support for the Syrian dictatorship have led to a cut in Iranian support for Hamas. Egypt has adopted a new constitution which threatens to turn into a religious dictatorship. Many Egyptians oppose that and are increasingly violent about it. Meanwhile, the Israeli economy booms, partly because of a very effective counter-terrorism campaign. This annoys Arabs most of all.
The death of northern ruler Kim Jong Il in 2011 changed nothing, yet. Growing unrest, corruption, and privation continue to weaken the iron control that has long kept the north peaceful and the Kim family in control. North Korea continues to destroy its economy, in order to maintain armed forces capable of invading South Korea and keeping its own population in bondage. Continued famine in the north has prompted China to send more and more troops to the border to keep hungry North Koreas out. North Korean military power declines, as lack of money for maintenance or training causes growing rot. The government is split into reform and conservative factions, making change difficult to achieve. The death of Kim Jong Il made Chinese style economic reforms more acceptable but not in a big way. Torpedoing of a South Korean warship and firing artillery at a South Korea island in 2010 are seen as a signs of factions maneuvering for control, as once Kim died several key people associated with those attacks disappeared from power. There have since been a lot more changes in the military high command. South Koreans are growing tired of the madness that still reigns in the north and have, for the first time in over half a century, promised retaliation if the north fires again. This could lead to war, especially since North Korea sees this threat as, well, a threat. Meanwhile, it's become clear that political collapse in the north is now a matter of when, not if. Growing popular unrest in the north is more evident with each passing month. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il selected his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. Some factions were not enthusiastic about this, but China endorsed the heir, and that seems to have been decisive and the reason why Kim Jong Un is getting away with removing so many dissident leaders from power. China has made it clear that North Korea is a Chinese responsibility, and if the North Korean government collapses, China, not South Korea, will pick up the pieces. South Korea does not agree with that, and this could be a big problem in the future. South Korea elected its first female president last year and she confirmed that the hard line against North Korea would continue.
Turkish forces continue to battle Kurdish separatists and push their bases further into Iraq. Iraqi Kurds have agreed to crack down on the PKK separatists the Turks have been fighting for over a decade. But the crackdown never does as much damage as the Turks want. The PKK has a lot of quiet support among Kurds. As a result, Kurds continue their 5,000 year long struggle to form their own country. Iran is cracking down on its Kurds, in cooperation with Turkey. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds believe they will get control of some Iraqi oil fields, providing cash for all manner of opportunities. But that is opposed by Iraqi Arabs and other minorities, although it is now encouraged by Turkey. Despite all this, Turkish Kurds are gaining more support in Turkey for autonomy and freedom to be Kurds (and not "mountain Turks"). Iraqi Kurds have Turkey guaranteeing their autonomy in Iraq (and ability to control local oil fields) in return for keeping a lid on the PKK. That works for the Turks but has the Arab dominated government in Iraq threatening yet another war with its own Kurds. That has already happened in neighboring Syria, where the Kurdish minority have chased government soldiers and Sunni Arab rebels out of their territory and are threatening to secede (and probably merge with the northern Iraq Kurds) if not given more autonomy in the post Assad government.
Early in 2012, Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The army mutinied down south but backed off when neighboring nations threatened to intervene. The thinly populated northern two-thirds of the country has a population of less than two million, out of 15 million for all of Mali. The north was very poor in the best of times, and the recent violence there has halted tourism (a major source of income, especially in the three major cities) and the movement of many goods. Al Qaeda, better financed and more fanatic, soon took over. The Tuareg rebels had objected to the imposition of Islamic law, but the Islamic radical gunmen drove the Tuareg fighters out of the cities and large towns. There are only about 2,000 Islamic terrorists up north, which has now been declared a sanctuary and base for Islamic radicals. The few thousand Tuareg rebels are talking with the Mali government about cooperation. The UN has approved an invasion of the north by a force of about 7,000 troops. Half will be from Mali, half from neighboring countries. France is leading a NATO effort to train, equip, supply, and support the invaders. The invasion is supposed to take place around September. Things might heat up sooner if the al Qaeda men in the north start staging attacks in the area or in the West.
Violence with drug cartels refuses to be put down. Nearly all the cartel violence (which accounts for three percent of all crime) occurs in 3.2 percent of the 2,500 municipalities the country is divided into. But the often spectacular Cartel War violence gets the headlines, making it appear that the entire country is aflame. Because so much of the violence is on the U.S. border, it seems, to Americans, that Mexico is a war zone. The passing of one-party rule, the growth of drug gangs, and increasing corruption in the security forces has triggered unprecedented levels of violence and unrest in the areas involved. The government has gone to war with the drug gangs, and the outcome is still in doubt. Presidential elections returned PRI to power last year, and now there is fear that the decades old PRI deal with the drug gangs (keep quiet and the police won't bother you) will be quietly reinstated.
The new government is actually trying to not be a tool of the former military junta. Reforms are slowly being made. Elections in November, 2010, replaced the military dictatorship with many of the same people, out of uniform and trying to hide the fact that they rigged the vote. The rural tribes in the north revolted (again). Decades of low level fighting against ethnic separatists in the north has resulted, during the last decade, in major victories for the government. There is not a lot of fighting but major movements by Burmese troops into separatist areas that were long outside the control of the government. Temporary peace deals were made but the tribal rebels are producing major quantities of methamphetamine, and increasing amounts of heroin, to support continued fighting. Tribal separatists continue to flee into Thailand. The half century old military government remains entrenched in power, even as it makes moves to change its status as an international pariah. There is some change, like the popular opposition to major Chinese economic projects (dams and pipeline) in the north but the fundamentals remain the same. Economic and political progress is slow.
A group of Taliban wannabes (Boko Haram) in the north are increasingly violent. By itself the group is too small to have much impact on a national scale. But the attacks against Christians in the north have triggered revenge attacks against Moslems in the north and, more ominously, in the south. Efforts to suppress Boko Haram have made some progress but the Islamic radical group is still operating. Meanwhile, too many tribes, not enough oil money, and too much corruption create growing unrest. The government continues to placate the ethnic oil gangs and rebels in the oil producing region (the Niger River Delta) with a 2009 amnesty deal. That worked because, while the gangs were getting organized, and a lot more violent, the government was moving more police and military forces into the region. Most gang members accepted the amnesty, rather than take on the armed forces. The amnesty deal did not hold and there are still attacks on oil facilities. It was later discovered that local politicians and business leaders had taken over the oil theft business from the disarmed tribal rebels and the thefts are larger than ever. Meanwhile, the northern Moslems want more control over the federal government (and the oil money). The situation is still capable of sliding into regional civil wars, over money and political power. Corruption and ethnic/tribal/religious rivalries threaten to trigger, at worse, another civil war and, at least, more street violence and public anger.
POTENTIAL HOT SPOTS
Various places where the local situation is warming up and might turn into a war. Leftist rebels are making a comeback in Peru and some of the lesser but persistent Arab Spring uprisings (especially Bahrain) continue to simmer.
The Islamic minority in the south agreed to a peace deal that gave it more autonomy but not its own country and the expulsion of non-Moslems. The government convinced the separatists to settle for less. Communist rebels fight on for social justice and a dictatorship, but the government believes the leftists are on the way out. The communists are taking a beating and agreed to negotiate a peace deal. The Moslems have, as always, lots of clan feuds and internal violence, which will survive the autonomy deal with the government. Meanwhile, most Filipinos are more concerned with endemic corruption and the resulting economic stagnation.
Rebuilding and reforming the decrepit Soviet era armed forces continues. This must succeed because the Cold War era weapons are wearing out fast. It's either new stuff or being stuck with nothing that works anymore. The major problem the reformers are facing is corruption and resistance to change. The war against gangsters and Islamic radicals in Chechnya has been sort of won, but the Islamic radicals continue to operate in other parts of the Caucasus, preventing the government from proclaiming peace. Corruption keeps rebellion alive down there. Russia has returned to police state ways and the traditional threatening attitude towards neighbors. Rather than being run by corrupt communist bureaucrats, the country is now dominated by corrupt businessmen, gangsters, and self-serving government officials. The semi-free economy is more productive than the centrally controlled communist one but that just provides more money to steal. A rebellion against the new dictatorship is brewing, showing enough democratic impulses remain to shape government and push reform.
RWANDA & BURUNDI
Wars between better organized and more aggressive Tutsis and more numerous Hutu tribes have died down in both countries. It's been going on for centuries, but the latest installment has finally, mostly, ended, with the last Hutu group in Burundi giving up, then changing its mind but not making nearly as much trouble as in the past. Rwanda blamed for continuing violence in eastern Congo, as they attempt to destroy Hutu terrorists based there. As long as there are armed Hutus fighting, the 1990s wars will never be over.
Al Shabaab, an Islamic radical group, has been crushed but not completely destroyed. It has been driven out of most of the territory it controlled for years. Kenyan troops invaded from the south in 2011, and Ethiopian troops from the west. Within al Shabaab there continues to be fighting over the question of how "international" (pro-al Qaeda) the group should be. The imposition of oppressive Taliban-like lifestyle rules created local armed opposition that contributed to the collapse of the Islamic radical group. Between that and the peacekeepers and Western trained troops of the transitional government, the Islamic radicals were doomed. The temporary Somali government, propped up by foreign aid (most of which is stolen) was forced to elect a permanent government last year. Somalia is still a failed state that defies every attempt at nation building. But the situation is worse than it appears. Somalia was never a country but a collection of clans and tribes that fight each other constantly over economic issues (land and water). The country remains an economic and political mess, a black hole on the map. Not much hope in sight, until the pirates (which have been around for a decade) became a major problem. The major trading nations launched a counter-piracy effort which, in the last year, reduced pirate success (captured ships) considerably. The northern statelet of Puntland has apparently been convinced by wealthy seafaring nations to attack the pirate bases. No quick and easy fixes for this mess because of the pervasive corruption and factionalism.
An unofficial state of war developed after the south became an independent "South Sudan" in 2011. The northern government agreed to the vote and the split, but did not really back the idea, and sent troops and pro-government militias to seize disputed border areas. Moslems in the north tried, for decades, to suppress separatist tendencies among Christians in the south and Moslem rebels in the east (on the coast) and west (non-Arab Darfur). All this was complicated by the development of oil fields in the south and Moslem government attempts to drive Christians from those oil regions. The central government tried to halt, or rig, the independence vote in the south. Meanwhile, battles over land in the west continue to pit Arab herders against black Sudanese farmers. Both sides are Moslem but the government has long backed the Arabs. The government uses Arab nationalism and economic ties with Russia and China to defy the world and get away with driving non-Arab tribes from Darfur. Sudan is also an ally of Iran and recipient of weapons and advice on how to best terrorize a population into submission. The government believes time is on its side and that the West will never try anything bold and effective enough to halt the violence. So far, the government has been proven right but keeps losing control of Sudan, bit by bit.
One of the many Arab Spring uprisings but one that did not win quickly (as in Tunisia and Egypt), evolve into civil war (as in Libya and Yemen), or get suppressed (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain). The Syrian protests just continued and turned into armed rebellion last year. Syria is, like Iraq under Saddam, a Baath Party dictatorship. But there are two differences. Unlike Iraq, where a Sunni minority dominated a Shia majority, it's just the opposite in Syria. More importantly, Syria has little oil wealth and the government depends on subsidies from Shia Iran to survive. Despite growing international criticism (even from the Arab League) the government refused to stop using violence and other police state tactics to suppress the pro-democracy demonstrations. In nearly two years of unrest and a year of growing violence, nearly 50,000 people have died. The outcome is no longer in doubt. The growing strength of the armed rebels has doomed the stubborn dictatorship.
The border conflict with much weaker Cambodia was negotiated away (but not settled). This one was all about ancient (and conflicting) claims and nationalism. Meanwhile, Malay Moslems in the south (three percent of the population) continue to cause problems. Most Thais are ethnic Thais and Buddhist, while the southerners are Moslem and ethnic Malays. In the south Islamic radicalism arrived a decade ago along with an armed effort to create a separate Islamic state in the three southern provinces. Islamic terrorists grew more powerful month by month for several years and refused to negotiate. Security forces persisted and are making progress in identifying and rounding up the terrorists. But there is no quick victory in sight. Up north a civil war over military control of the government has been avoided, for the moment.
Religion and tribalism created unrest (the LRA or Lord's Resistance Army) in the north that just will not go away. LRA was driven out of Uganda but is now marauding its way through neighboring states. A final peace deal with LRA rebels proved impossible to negotiate because no amnesty was possible. Meanwhile, Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia briefly brought Somali Islamic terrorists to Uganda. This turned out to be more threat than reality and the biggest problems in Uganda remain corruption and tribal feuds.
WAR ON TERROR
Osama bin Laden was killed by American commandos in 2011, and there were some "revenge" attacks (mostly in Pakistan, where bin Laden was hiding in plain sight). But it's not the terrorist backlash that's important. International terrorism has created an international backlash and a war unlike any other. These days most terrorist victories are in the media. On the ground the terrorists are losing everywhere. Their last refuges are chaotic or cynical places like Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Gaza, Mali, the Sahel, a few of the Philippine islands, and especially tribal regions of Pakistan (where al Qaeda is staging a well-publicized last stand). They were chased out of Iraq (and replaced by terrorists who were die-hard Sunni Arab nationalists), Indonesia, and the Philippines. Iran continues to support terrorism in the face of much local disapproval. Lebanon is in chaos because of Iranian subsidized terrorists. Gaza went the same way. Islamic radicals are a traditional reaction to tyranny in their region and the inability of local despots to rule effectively. Economic and diplomatic ties with the West are interpreted as support for "un-Islamic" thought and behavior, leading to attacks on Western targets. After 2001, this resulted in a devastating counterattack. The result of this in the Moslem world has been dramatic, finally forcing leaders and people to confront their self-inflicted problems. Al Qaeda is as self-destructive as its many predecessors. Al Qaeda suicide bomb attacks killed civilians, turning Moslems against al Qaeda in a big way. But the terrorists justify such counterproductive attacks because their doctrine holds that Moslems, who don’t agree with them, are not really Moslems. You can imagine how well that goes over with the survivors and the many potential victims. You can but al Qaeda can’t, and that is what guarantees their demise. Since all this is religion based, and Islam is a faith that calls for world conquest and violent intolerance of other faiths, you have a large pool of ambitious and murderous new recruits. Many Moslems insist they do not support the "world conquest" crowd but few are willing to confront the maniacs head-on and denounce the killing on religious grounds. Islam has some internal problems that Moslems will have to deal with before all this unpleasantness goes away. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the various Arab Spring movements were initially dominated by pro-democracy groups. Islamic radicals were a minority, and one that was often better organized, feared, and not trusted, either. Thus the Islamic conservatives were better organized and have been winning the elections.
The Arab Spring hit Yemen hard and upset the "arrangement" that left one group of tribal, criminal, and business leaders in charge for over three decades. This uprising was finally resolved towards the end of 2011. A successor coalition emerged and persuaded (with the promise of amnesty) the old dictator Saleh to step down. Meanwhile, there are still many Yemenis who have a grudge against the government. Most of this can be traced back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemens finally united in 1990, but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and the north and south have always been pulling apart. This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate, or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship). For a long time the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They want to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of "Al Qaeda in Arabia" (Saudi Arabia no longer being safe for the terrorists) over the last few years. Islamic terrorists have been more active since the government began arresting key members of al Qaeda in 2010. Other groups (mainly tribal leaders) in the south wanted more say in the government and a larger share of the oil revenue and foreign aid. In early 2012, the new ruling coalition massed its military and tribal forces and decisively defeated al Qaeda in the south. The tribes that had allied themselves with al Qaeda quickly made temporary peace. It's still unclear where the al Qaeda survivors will flee to, as all of the usual al Qaeda refuges (with the exception of Mali) are not so safe anymore.