January 2, 2018:
Islamic terrorism no longer dominates the news, but one of its primary causes, reviving ancient empires, still is. This a common thread with all the major troublemakers in the early 21st
century (and most of the 20th). This is an ancient curse that has reappeared recently in multiple forms. Some of these efforts are more media friendly than others but all share the same characteristics; mobilizing popular support for rebuilding lost empires. The most obvious one (the Islamic caliphate) grabs most of the headlines because Islamic terrorism has been a common symptom of desperate, longshot efforts to restore the caliphate for a long time (over a thousand years). As a religion based empire (“Islam” literally means “submission”) that has been hostile to any kind of progress (especially technology, economic or religious) past revival efforts have been unsuccessful. Thus the quick and brutal demise of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) because it also tried to use self-righteous fanaticism as its primary weapon and motivation in a world that was largely hostile to such a brutal and simplistic ideology. ISIL was one of the few Islamic radical movements that mobilized nearly all Moslems to unite and violently oppose it. Yet even with ISIL gone (or suppressed) there are plenty of other Islamic empire revivalists who all seek to not just make Islam great again but to do it on a global scale.
ISIL was not the only major Moslem effort to revive a religion-based empire. There are two others underway and causing lots of problems because they are more about nationalism and ethnicity than religion. First there is Iran, which has been a regional superpower for thousands of years but fell on hard times since the 7th century because of a succession of damaging visits. First came conquest by the Arab revival (the initial wars of conquest by newly converted Moslem Arab). This was humiliating because Persians never thought such a thing possible. That was followed by a devastating visit by the Mongols followed by exhausting wars with the Ottoman Turks and finally the Western nations and all their new tech and ideas. Even before the largely secular Iranian monarchy was replaced by a religious dictatorship in the 1980s Iranian imperial ambitions, financed by all that new and unexpected oil wealth, was seen as a problem. This may be a problem that resolves itself because during the last week of 2017 anti-government protests broke out in Iran. Young (born after the 1980s) Iranians are now the majority and want an end to corruption, theocracy and expensive foreign misadventures. The operation in Syria was seen as particularly wasteful, expensive with Israel threatening to use whatever it takes (including their nukes) to prevent Iran from creating a military presence there.
In another unexpected development, Turks got interested in religion and empire building again. In the 1990s the Turks, who had gone secular after their centuries old Ottoman Empire collapsed in the 1920s, decided to give Islam another chance as an elected ruler tries, with some success, to revive the Ottoman empire using a combination of Islam, technology and creative diplomacy to make Turkey great again. This comes into conflict (as it has in the past) with Iranian efforts restore their imperial past. The new Turkish empire builder (called “Sultan Erdogan I” behind his back is not that much interested in taking lack lost real estate but is eager to regain the Turkish leadership of the Islamic world. That was lost a century ago when Turkey renounced the title of caliph. Sultan Erdogan has a lot of opposition at home and not much support in the region for an Ottoman revival.
Meanwhile Eurasia is the scene of several major imperial revival efforts. In the east there is China, where the current dynasty is actually a bunch of communist party leaders trying to stay in power using the appeal of lost (centuries before) imperial glories. The neighbors, and the rest of the world, are more alarmed than inclined to submit.
To the west there is Russia, where former communist era secret police officers are trying to use imperial nostalgia and the more familiar (to these former KGB professionals) police state tactics to at least stay in power and, if possible, Make Russia Imperial Again. West of the Russian revival is an effort to revive a European empire that never really existed, although Charlemagne came close for a short time in the 9th century and a thousand years before that the Romans were a contender for several centuries. There isn’t much nostalgia for these traditional empires but many Europeans back a kinder and gentler empire that is based more on voluntary cooperation than coercion. The EU (European Union) has run into problems because too many Europeans see the EU developing an unelected bureaucracy that can make all sorts of new rules and even foreign policy without any regard for what their constituents (and, technically, employers) the European voters think. A growing number of Europeans think this EU empire sucks and are demanding that their local politicians (who are still responsible to the voters, at least more so than the EU officials) fix this problem or get their country out of the EU. The imperial officials are not pleased with this ignorance and ingratitude by their subjects and are fighting back in an effort to Make Europe Great Again.
Meanwhile the United States, where millions of people fled to over the last four centuries trying to escape all these old world empires are now dealing with a movement by some of the descendants of these imperial refugees to revive imperial links with the rest of the world. But there are so many to choose from. The EU and Islam seem to be favorites although all the imperial revival movements have some fans in the United States. But many Americans don’t want to Make America Imperial. There are still a lot of new arrivals who have recent personal experience with this stuff and will tell anyone who will listen that all this empire building does not end well but those painful memories tend to be forgotten after a few generations aided by those who seek to reinterpret history to better serve their current goals rather than to rectify past mistakes. So Americans seek to Make Reality Great Again, at least once they agree on which interpretation of reality to use.
Peace Breaks Out
Meanwhile there are positive developments to consider. These are not popular with the news media because, well, good news isn’t news. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 overall deaths from wars and large scale civil disorder (which is often recorded as some kind of war) has led to a sharp (about 20 percent so far) drop in violence worldwide. This occurred despite increasingly active and lethal Islamic terrorists. While the terror attacks themselves were news the current and historical causes of the Islamic terrorism were not. Examining that would have revealed that Islamic radicalism has a large anti-technology component, which is why Islamic terrorist violence tends to be low tech and disorganized. Thus most war deaths are not caused by terrorists and even in 2014 (a peak year for Islamic death cults) terrorism related deaths (mostly Islamic terrorism) accounted for 20 percent of all war related deaths. Islamic terrorism gets the most publicity but less glamorous disputes do most of the killing.
Nuclear Peacekeeping Goes Gangster
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, French or Mongols inflicted. As more countries 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) in general.
The down side is a lot more low level conflicts (rebellions, civil wars) but overall a lot less death and destruction. 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 (or simply pro-Russia or just anti-West) rebels and terrorists. The media also has a hard time keeping score. If you step back and take a look at all the wars going on, a more accurate picture emerges. So take sensational reporting of the “Chinese threat” with a bit of skepticism.
Most current wars are basically uprisings against inefficient, corrupt and oppressive 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 replaced 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. No one has yet replaced the Soviets in that respect, an accomplishment even most Russians would rather not dwell on.
Listed in alphabetical order. Text underneath briefly describes current status. Click on country name for more details.
The drugs are winning as they usually do wherever they get established. Eventually they get crushed but eventually can last a long time. Look at how that worked in Colombia and Burma. The only thing that nearly everyone in the country can agree on is that the opium and heroin is bad. Nearly ten percent of the population is addicted to drugs (mostly opiates) and another ten percent (there is some overlap) makes a living or gets rich from the drug trade. Most Afghans consider the biggest threat to be the drug gangs, which are largely run and staffed (like the Taliban) by Pushtun. The Taliban want to create a heroin producing Islamic terrorist and gangster sanctuary in Central Asia. If you want to know how that works, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia or Yemen in the early 21st century. 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 issues than anything else. 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 relative peace and the persistent “traditional” violence. By Afghan standards, an unprecedented amount of cash has come into the country since September 11, 2001. Between economic growth, growing heroin sales, and foreign aid, plus lower losses from violence, it's been something of a Golden Age. This despite decades of war since the 1970s. For example, it's often forgotten that the 1990s civil war was still active on September 11, 2001. The Taliban have been trying to make a comeback ever since. The key Taliban financial resource; heroin in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, remains the key to this war. Even many Pushtun do not like this development and more Taliban factions are negotiating some kind of settlement with the government. In other words, everything is pretty normal by Afghan standards. Afghanistan has become politically unpopular in the West and the easiest way out (for Western politicians) is to get out and let their successors deal with the aftermath. Afghanistan has become another can foreign leaders are “kicking down the road.” The historical local strongmen have noticed and Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan and India are all trying to have some influence with their wild and erratic neighbor. The Taliban believed that the Afghan security forces would fall apart in 2015 because most of the foreign troops were gone and those that were left were not fighting. The expected Taliban victory did not happen but there was a lot more Taliban violence. The Afghan soldiers and police stood and fought, but took heavy casualties and many began to take the money and stand aside. The biggest losses are from so many young Afghans with some savings (and often education and useful skills) want to get out of Afghanistan and go to somewhere less lethal than where they grew up.
The 2011 Arab Spring made only a slight impact here and Islamic terrorists are few and very much on the defensive. Islamic terrorist violence declined again in 2017 as it had for the last few years and that continues. Most Algerians are more concerned with corruption and bad government. The popular rejection of Islamic terrorists was largely because many Algerians are still traumatized by the 1990s war against Islamic terrorists (that left over 200,000 dead). With so many civilians hostile to Islamic radicalism and willing to phone in a tip via the growing cell phone network, Algeria has become a very dangerous place for Islamic terrorists. Algerian 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 for an Islamic religious dictatorship. 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 was able insulate itself from this. Many expect another, and larger, Arab Spring in Algeria eventually but so far the geriatric government is making concessions and trying to reform itself. This is delaying another revolution rather than preventing it. Meanwhile Tunisia next door, the first Arab state to rebel in 2011, is so far the only one to do so successfully.
This area has become quieter since the peacekeeping efforts of the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections as needed. There is some Islamic terrorist activity there and the usual border disputes and crippling corruption. One ominous development is the growing number of mosques and religious schools being built and maintained by Saudi Arabia. These facilities teach a very hostile (to non-Moslems and any Moslems who do not agree) form of Islam that has been the source of so many Islamic terrorists since the 1980s. The locals are increasingly hostile to the Saudis for this and the Balkans did not become the Islamic terrorist sanctuary many feared.
This area has become quieter since the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly. There will still be coverage as needed. Efforts to get some serious Islamic terrorist activity going has failed so far. Most of the nations involved used to be part of the Soviet Union and still have effective secret police and local dictators to encourage ruthless suppression of any dissent. People are putting up with it so far but popular anger at the corruption and inefficient government is growing. The region has become an economic and diplomatic battleground for Russia and China and China is winning. This is something Russia doesn’t like to discuss, but among Russians the real threat is from the east, not the west.
This area has become quieter since 2010 and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. Chad has even become a major supplier of peacekeepers throughout Africa, especially in Nigeria against Boko Haram. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections or in its own section if unrest reappears inside Chad.
China continues its post-Cold War policy of aggressive territorial claims and risking war with its neighbors. This has more to do with internal politics (distracting an increasingly wealthy and concerned population from local problems with corruption, pollution and ineffective government). The corruption has created a lot of bad loans and these, plus a dysfunctional equities (stocks and bonds) market creates a threat that makes far fewer headlines than foreign adventures. The South China Sea has been declared, by China, to be part of China despite international agreements on such matters. Same situation in other coastal waters bordering South Korea and Japan. Old territorial claims on India have been revived, but are not pursued as aggressively because India has modern nukes, ballistic missiles to deliver them and a large military. China continues its long-range plan to become a military superpower. That means world class weapons designed and built in China require long-term efforts but the Chinese believe they will get there during the 2020s and 2030s.
Every year China offers new weapons to the world market that are visibly more advanced. The actual performance of Chinese military technology is suspect as much of it is based on Russian stuff. During the Cold War Russian weapons always seemed to be what the losers used. But China keeps trying to improve and is making more progress than the Soviets ever did. The world is seeing more Chinese in peacekeeping missions as well as growing Chinese threats to peace. The bottom line however is keeping the communist dictatorship in power and that may be the ultimate reason for China avoiding war, or at least one they are not certain they will win. Thus China pursues an ancient, and often quite successful, Chinese strategy that emphasizes high-risk policies and instead uses long range policies to wear down the opposition and eventually assume control of the objective with little risk to China.
This area has become quieter since the peacekeeping efforts of the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage in other sections as needed. We were also covering neighboring Venezuela because the situation there was quite different. After more than a decade of corruption and inept government most Venezuelans were done with ideas of radical populist movement that promised to make everything better but instead made everything much worse. For a while it seemed there might be a civil war. That does not appear to be an option because Venezuela has the largest oil reserves on the planet. Because the failed socialist government borrowed a lot of money from China and also hired Cuba to provide some services, there are plenty of technical advisors available to show the Venezuelan socialists how to establish a long-term dictatorship. China, Cuba, Iran and Russia are all present in Venezuela and with all that oil as collateral the Venezuelan socialists can probably buy their way out of a bloody rebellion. If Venezuela does explode into widespread violence we will cover it regularly.
The UN and local church leaders tried to persuade the current president to stop trying to become president-for-life and return to the country to a one-party dictatorship based on corruption and exploiting ethnic divisions. The current president and his father had grown up opposing that sort of thing but here it was again. As of early 2018 the country is again facing widespread civil war that is made worse by all the corruption and exploitable ethnic divisions. Solutions have been sought since the 1960s and in 2013 the UN tried something novel, for the UN. To deal with all domestic and foreign rebel groups the UN finally authorized a special “combat brigade” of peacemakers. This brigade was given a license to kill, and kill as often as needed to eliminate the last few rogue militias operating in the east. This solved many of the peacekeeping problems out there temporarily. Despite that 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 21st century (about six million dead). There is similar, but less intense unrest in other parts of the country (especially the separatist minded southwest). The Congolese government finds it cannot (and to a certain extent, will not) cope with the continuing corruption and lack of order in the east and southwest. 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. Congo remains mired in deadly chaos. Elsewhere in Central Africa the Burundi civil war threatens to reignite because the current president is trying to defy the constitution and become president-for-life. In the Central African Republic years of chaos (following the overthrow of a corrupt and incompetent dictator) has evolved into another Moslem versus Christian (and non-Moslems in general) conflict.
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections, mainly Somalia. In 2016 there was more political unrest in Ethiopia which led to the withdrawal of some Ethiopian peacekeepers from Somalia.
India is largely at peace and prospering while neighboring Pakistan continues struggling with the Islamic terrorist groups it created and supported for so long. Pakistan also has a problem unique to the region; armed forces that have long (since the 1950s) dominated the political process. Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan has sharply declined since 2014 when public outrage forced the military to shut down the last sanctuary for Islamic terrorists that were not under the control of the military and actively seeking to take control of Pakistan. Islamic terrorist violence did not completely disappear in Pakistan and the military blamed that on outsiders (like India, Afghanistan and the United States) and continued sheltering and supporting Islamic terror groups that only attacked foreign nations (like Afghanistan and India). This contributed to growing hostility towards the military within Pakistan and growing international criticism. The U.S. began 2018 by calling Pakistan dishonest and unreliable (“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit…”). This backlash began in 2011 when a U.S. raid into Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden. This angered many Pakistanis because it showed that the generals had lied about their involvement with sheltering bin Laden. That raid also made it clear that the military was unable to detect or stop the "invading Americans", or stop local Islamic radicals from later carrying out "revenge attacks" that left hundreds of Pakistani civilians dead. Then came another series of confrontations between the Pakistani military and the civilian government which, by 2018, the military was winning. That was because old scams still worked. The generals created more confrontations with India and declared that Islamic terrorism was no longer (since 2013) the major threat to Pakistan. The main threat was once again India. This merely increased Indian (and American and Afghan) anger at Pakistani support of Islamic terrorism and the inability of the Pakistani politicians to control their generals. Meanwhile India further diminished the Pakistani military by continuing to consider China the main security threat to South Asia. India has to deal with some internal unrest, which does far less damage than what Pakistan has to deal with. In fact Islamic terrorist violence (mainly in Indian Kashmir) is less of a problem than tribal rebels in the northeast and Maoist (communist) ones in eastern India. Both these threats are being slowly diminished while Pakistan continues to make unofficial war on its neighbors. Another problem is that the Pakistani economy is becoming more dependent on Chinese investment, diplomatic support and arms exports. The Pakistani pro-Islamic terrorist attitudes have left it with few allies besides China, Iran and North Korea. Pakistan needs help, but mostly from Pakistanis as the ills that torment Pakistan can only be resolved from within.
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly. There will still be coverage as needed, mostly about counter-terrorism efforts (quite successful so far). Islamic radicals remain active and the government apparently does not want to provoke them. So the Islamic terrorist threat remains.
The New Year began badly for Iran as there is another popular outburst against the religious dictatorship running the country. There was one in 2009 that called for fair elections. It was put down with force. Now the protestors are calling for the corrupt religious rulers to be removed, killed if necessary. Some protestors call for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s (after first promising true democracy). Even more disturbing is that some of the protestors are calling for Islam to be banned and replaced with something else (like Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that Islam replaced (of violently and sometimes incompletely) in the 7th and 8th century. A month earlier the religious rulers saw Iran on the way to some major victories in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The optimism turned out to be premature. The good times were supposed to begin in the wake of a July 2015 treaty that would lift the many sanctions Iran operated under. That did not, as many financial experts pointed out, solve the immediate current cash crises because first Saudi Arabia refusing to cut production and the continued use of fracking triggered a massive (more than 70 percent) drop of the price of oil in 2013. Iran is busy trying to comply with the 2015 treaty to get most of the sanctions lifted and for a while that seemed to be working. But foreign economists believe the Iranian economy won’t get moving again until the 2020s. Still unresolved are the other problem that bothers Iranians; an Islamic conservative minority with veto power over any attempts at reform from within. Independent reformers are considered enemies of the state by the ruling clerics. Most Iranians just want a better life. There are some more complications. Half the population consists of ethnic minorities (mainly Turks, Kurds 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 and addressing the corruption within their ranks. Expensive efforts to aid pro-Iran groups in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon have worked but have to be presented as examples of the ancient Iranian empire being reborn. The government sees these foreign adventures as a way to distract an unhappy population. The nukes are still important because Iran has been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe that having nukes would motivate the Arabs to bow down. The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. That has led to a major reform effort in Saudi Arabia with a new generation of leaders willing to take on corruption and which alliances really benefit the Saudis. That has resulted in openly working with Israel to deal with Iranian aggression. It has also led to another major uprising in Iran as unrest spreads throughout the country and the government is unsure that the security forces are willing to use sufficient violence to shut it down.
On December 11 the government declared ISIL was defeated in Iraq. In effect it took four years, several hundred billion dollars (military expenses, battle damage, economic losses) and over 100,000 Iraqi lives (plus over 20,000 foreign Islamic terrorists) to drive ISIL out of Iraq. That effort created other problems, and opportunities. Iran offered help and was allowed to organize, train and often lead in combat over a 100,000 Iraqi Shia militiamen. Most Iraqis, including most Iraqi Shia (about 60 percent of the population) feared an Iran inspired coup but by the end of 2017 senior Shia clerics in Iraq and Iran agreed that the militias should stay out of politics. Now the issue is which militias are allowed to stay on the government payroll and in what capacity. In an effort to prove their usefulness the Shia militias took on dangerous, or just daring missions. That left a lot of ISIL dead and it contributed to a government recovery (using force) of Kirkuk province from the Iraqi Kurds in late 2017. ISIL is a passing problem while the major woes remain in the form of widespread corruption and mismanagement. The root cause of the continuing terrorist violence is diehard Sunni Arabs who refuse to accept democracy and Shia domination (60 percent of Iraqis are Shia and 20 percent Kurd). Despite all that there has been enough unity to push back ISIL and keep the Iranians from getting too ambitious. Yet radical Sunnis, separatist Kurds and meddling Iranians remain a problem, along with corruption and unstable neighbors.
Finally, after more than a century of increasing anti-Semitism, most of Israel’s Arab neighbors are realizing that Israel would be a valuable economic, diplomatic and military ally against common enemies like Shia Iran and Islamic terrorism. Israel is also the only one in the region with nukes and reliable ballistic missiles (also used to put Israeli spy satellites into orbit). The nukes are important because Iran has been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe that having nukes would motivate the Arabs to bow down. The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. That has led to a major reform effort in Saudi Arabia with a new generation of leaders willing to take on corruption and which alliances really benefit the Saudis. That has resulted in Gulf Arab states openly working with Israel to deal with Iranian aggression. That, plus a more pro-Israel American government and growing dissatisfaction (in the West and the Middle East) with the Palestinian leadership corruption has created a radical change in Middle Eastern politics. That played a role in the outbreak of popular unrests throughout Iran at the end of 2017. Young Iranians have also noted the success of Israel (a former ally, before the current religious dictatorship took over in the 1980s) and are now demanding changes that involve less foreign trouble making. The cost, in terms of money (billions) and Iranian lives (thousands) of operations in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, South America, Africa and elsewhere does most Iranians no good at all and make the people on the receiving end hostile to Iran. Closer to home Israel has growing problems with Jewish conservatives and Palestinians who are convinced that Israel has no right to exist and pretending to negotiate a peace deal is useful for obtaining foreign aid and not much else.
North Korea insists on keeping its nuclear weapons program, corrupt communist police state and the murderous Kim dynasty that has a foreign policy based on threats and extortion. Nevertheless the North Korean leader gave a somber New Year speech offering to negotiate. That may be the result of China demonstrating it had lost patience with its unruly neighbor. This is very important because China is, literally, North Korea’s economic lifeline. China is the primary or only source for essentials like petroleum, food and all sorts of smuggled (past a long list of international sanctions) goods. China will tolerate a lot of bad behavior in return for obedience and maintaining order. North Korea is doing neither and South Korea also should pay more attention (according to China) to what China wants. That would be fewer problems with North Korea, which is already sending thousands of illegal visitors a year to China, some of them armed and dangerous. Most of those illegals just want out of North Korea but as the economic situation in North Korea gets worse the possibility of government collapse increases. That would be disastrous for China because their border with North Korea is relatively open while the border with South Korea is heavily fortified. In early 2016 China did the unthinkable and began enforcing the many trade sanctions North Korea is under. This caused an economic crisis in North Korea but so far the North Korean leadership has not changed its mind about its nukes and openly boasts that they will have combat ready (reliable ballistic missiles and warheads) nukes in 2017. That did not happen and is unlikely to happen any time soon given the North Korean track record. Then again the North Koreans continue to make progress, which pleases the mass media worldwide and continues to annoy all the neighbors. Yet everyone defers to China because Korea has traditionally been a Chinese responsibility and, for centuries, a difficult one. The traditional solution has been for China to quietly (as possible) support a change of government inside North Korea. That sort of thing can be expensive and messy and the Chinese would prefer to wait for the right moment to act. China does not publicize plans for this sort of thing but it is obvious, from what China has done openly (including allowing Chinese Internet users to freely express their criticisms of North Korean misbehavior) North Korean leaders should pay attention. All this is being noted by the North Korean leaders.
This area had become quieter after 2003 and we no longer cover it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections like Iraq, Israel and Syria. The 2011 Arab Spring movement shook things up a bit and the Kurds are once more at war with Turkey, Syria and Iran. Turkey is particularly outraged at the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and the impact that is having on Kurdish minorities in Syria (where an autonomous region is already a reality), Turkey (where there is again continuous violence by Kurdish separatists) and Iran. The Kurds remain under attack in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran while also suffering from internal feuds.
The past has caught up with Libya and the “country” is still torn apart by the aftereffects of the 2011 uprising. In 2015 that violence went from a two way (Islamic radical groups versus more moderate ones) to three way (with the addition of the ultra-radical ISIL). By the end of 2015 the UN had gotten the two (Tripoli and Tobruk) major coalitions to agree to a merger that was supposed to take place in early 2016. That merger has been delayed by continuing factional infighting and the more pressing need to shut down the ISIL presence. That was accomplished in late 2016 but the rival Tripoli (UN approved) and Tobruk (popular in eastern Libya) governments are still trying to work out how to create a unified government. Through all this oil exports have shrunk and then recovered while the Central Bank cash reserves did not and are nearly gone. If peace and unity are not achieved soon the government will no longer be able to import food and other essentials. Even by Middle Eastern standards Libya is setting a new records in self-destructive behavior. By 2017 more Libyans were agreeing that the situation was indeed becoming desperate and more compromise was the only solution. But tribal and religious differences (Islamic radicals versus everyone else) plus epic levels of corruption and entitlement keep peace and prosperity out of reach.
A final peace deal with the rebellious Tuareg in the north was signed in early 2015 and is largely holding through 2017. Despite that Islamic terrorism is spreading to the more populous south but not to the extent that it threatens government control. The Tuareg peace deal was stalled for over a year because the black majority in the south did not want to grant as much autonomy as the Tuaregs demanded. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French in the 19th century. Like most African countries, dividing the nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The current mess began when France took swift action in January 2013 by leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this operation is expected to continue for years. The French acted because 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 Mali army mutinied (because of lack of support from the corrupt government) down south and took control of the capital. The army soon 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 over a year of violence there has halted tourism (a major source of income, especially in the three major cities up there) and the movement of many goods. Mali still has internal problems (mainly corruption) and continued unrest in the north. A lot depends on whether the majority in the south can reduce corruption and deal fairly with the Tuareg and other minorities (like Arabs) in the north. The elected Mali government is back in power but appears to be as corrupt as ever and under growing pressure from donor nations to either clean up the corruption or see most of the aid disappear. The neighbors of Mali have formed a five nation anti-terrorism alliance that will provide 5,000 troops that can be sent to any of the five member nations. Western money and trainers will help equip and improve the skills of the 5,000 troops.
This area has become quieter since the peacekeeping efforts of the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections as needed.
The expected big changes because of the return of democracy in 2010 are slow to appear and have caused some problems that are generating a lot of anti-Burma headlines worldwide. The first nationwide elections since 1990 (when the generals refused to accept the results and banned any more voting) were held in late 2015. The anti-military coalition won enough votes to change the constitution and the military said it would accept the vote. Despite the return to democracy the most corrupt institution in Burma is still the military and that can be seen in how the 2010 constitution that returned democracy explicitly granted military leaders (including all the retired officers) immunity from prosecution for past crimes. The military was also given control of the defense ministry and a fixed number (25 percent) of seats in parliament. In effect, the military leaders who once ran the country are still in charge of the defense budget and immune from prosecution for all the crimes they committed in the past. The 2015 elections meant that real reform, like changing this pro-military constitution, was a possibility. Even before the late 2015 elections reforms were slowly being made despite the fact that the 2010 elections replaced the military dictatorship with many of the same people, out of uniform and trying to hide the fact that they rigged the vote. Since 2016 these reforms have been sidetracked by internal unrest. Part of this is the continuing rebellions of the rural tribes along the borders, especially in the north. Since 2015 China has been threatening to intervene if Chinese investments in the tribal north were not protected and allowed to resume operating. In response Burma began depending more on India to help with security in the north and some protection from Chinese threats. Temporary peace deals were made but the tribal rebels are still producing major quantities of methamphetamine, and increasing amounts of heroin, to support continued fighting. China is not happy with many of these drugs (particularly heroin and meth) coming into China. That is difficult to change because the tribes are poor and the drug money is very attractive. China is also concerned with the popular opposition to major Chinese economic projects (dams and pipeline) in the north but the fundamentals remain the same. To the outside world the major problem is anti-Moslem violence. The government has not been able to completely suppress a 2013 outbreak in anti-Moslem violence. For decades the military dictatorship had suppressed potential anti-Moslem violence. But once democracy returned the radical Buddhist clergy led a campaign to terrorize the Bengali (Rohingya) Moslems. This problem has not been solved. Overall, economic and political progress is slow but there has been regular progress despite the continued problems with the military.
By late 2016 the outbreak of Islamic terrorism in the north was largely extinguished, but not before several years of fighting had destroyed the economy in much of northeastern Nigeria. All this was caused by group of Taliban wannabes (Boko Haram) in the north whose activity grew rapidly for a decade until in 2014 it was unstoppable. It took over a year for the government to finally muster sufficient military strength to cripple but not destroy the Boko Haram threat. This did not get much media attention outside Africa, even though in 2014 Boko Haram killed more people than ISIL did in Syria and Iraq. The main cause of Boko Haram gains in 2014 and 2015 was corruption in the army, which severely crippled army effectiveness. By itself Boko Haram was too small to have much impact on a national scale but the inability to deal with this problem puts a spotlight on the corruption that has hobbled all progress in Nigeria for decades. A new president (a former general who is Moslem) was elected in early 2015 and is trying to change the corrupt army culture but it is slow going. More bad news is expected because of too many tribal divisions, not enough oil money and too much corruption create growing unrest throughout the country. This is especially bad down south in the oil producing region (the Niger River Delta). There a 2009 amnesty deal that reduced violence against oil facilities has fallen apart and in early 2016 the violence returned. Worse, local politicians and business leaders had taken over the oil theft business from the disarmed tribal rebels, and the former rebels wanted that business back. 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.
While decades of effort have finally reduced the internal threat of leftist and religious rebellions, most Filipinos are more concerned about endemic corruption and the resulting economic stagnation. There is also the Chinese threat, with more Chinese warships showing up in what had been, until recently, unquestionably Filipino coastal waters. Most Filipinos see China as a threat but not as large as the internal problems with corruption, Islamic terrorism and unemployment. A new president (Rodrigo Duterte) took power in mid-2016 pledging to do what most Filipinos wanted, not what the politicians wanted. Duterte had been doing this locally (as mayor of a major city) since the 1990s and was ready to try and make it happen nationally. This has led to condoning vigilante tactics by the police to suppress the drug gangs as well as an unexpected adoption of an anti-American foreign policy and a willingness to make deals with China. This weakened the coalition with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the United States to oppose the Chinese threat. Duterte told the Americans he would not risk war with China over it. Duterte told the Islamic minority in the south (led by MILF) that he would get behind the 2015 peace deal (that gave it more autonomy but not its own country and the expulsion of non-Moslems) and help get it approved by the legislature if MILF helped destroy Abu Sayyaf (the ultra-radical Islamic terrorist group in the south that is responsible for most of the kidnappings and terror bombings down there) and MILF factions that refused to accept the peace deal and had, along with Abu Sayyaf, aligned themselves with ISIL. Abu Sayyaf has integrated itself with the clan culture down there and become very difficult to eliminate. The Moslems have, as always, lots of clan feuds and internal violence which will survive the autonomy deal with the government. A major ISIL effort to take over a southern city in late 2017 failed spectacularly and by the end of the year the various Islamic terror groups in the south were trying to rebuild and avoid extinction. Duterte may not be the solution to the many problems the country faces but he is the most radical, and promising, one to come along in decades.
Since 2014 Russia has been making a lot of headlines but not much else. The economy is a mess, the country has fewer allies and the future looks dim. Invading Ukraine and Syria has not helped solve any of the fundamental problems but have made for great propaganda. What went wrong? Russia entered the 21st century with a new elected government dominated by former secret police (KGB) officers who promised to restore economic and civil order. They did so but in the process are turning Russia into a police state with less political and economic freedom. A growing number of Russians opposed this and the government responded by appealing to nationalism. 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 that characterized the last czarist government of a century ago. 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 has been derailed by astute propaganda depicting Russia as under siege by the West. Yet opinion polls that show wide popular support for this paranoid fantasy has left enough Russians with democratic impulses to continue leading the struggle for better government and needed reforms. For now most Russians want economic and personal security and are willing to tolerate a police state to get it. That atmosphere, plus the anxiety generated by having troops fighting in Syria and Ukraine has scared away a lot of foreign investors and many Russian ones as well. Russia can downplay this in the state controlled media but without all that foreign and Russian capital the economy cannot grow. Meanwhile China, the only real threat to Russia, quietly makes progress in the east. There China has claims on much of the Russian Far East and is openly replacing Russia as the primary economic, military and political force in Central Asia.
RWANDA & BURUNDI
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in the CONGO section when there are details of the new civil wars brewing here.
Al Shabaab, a local Islamic radical group, has been crushed but not completely destroyed. Now the main threat is the corruption and factionalism that have always defined and defiled Somali culture. Since 2013 Al Shabaab has been driven out of most of the territory it controlled for years but remnants fought on in thinly populated areas of central Somalia, the far north (Puntland border) and far south (Kenyan border). The defeated al Shabaab split into factions and most of the international (pro-al Qaeda) group has seized control of what was left. Al Shabaab remnants will linger for a while. An elected Somali government, propped up by foreign aid (most of which gets stolen) has been around since 2012. Despite all that Somalia is still a failed state that defies every attempt at nation building. The situation is worse than it appears because 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. The pirates became a major problem after 2006 and in response the major trading nations launched a counter-piracy effort which since 2012 reduced pirate success (captured ships) considerably. In fact, no large ships have been captured in since early 2012. The northern statelet of Puntland was persuaded (and subsidized) by wealthy seafaring nations to attack the pirate bases. There are not many pirate groups left because of the lack of multi-million dollar ransoms. In the far south (where the second major port, Kismayo is) a third statelet (after Puntland and Somaliland in the north) is trying to exist as Jubaland. The UN backed government in the center is trying to prevent this but the problem remains the independent minded clans. There is not a lot of enthusiasm among local leaders for a national government.
An unofficial state of war developed after the south became an independent "South Sudan" in 2011. Although Sudan officially accepted the results of the vote that created South Sudan the battles over disputed border areas continued. Sudan quietly sent troops and pro-government militias to seize disputed border areas. That fighting continues and has been complicated by a 2014 outbreak of civil war between the two major tribal factions in South Sudan. That conflict apparently ended in early 2016 but the tribal rivalries continued tearing South Sudan apart and the unrest and distrust continues. Moslems in Sudan tried for decades to suppress separatist tendencies among Christians in the south while also dealing with Moslem rebels along the eastern coast and western (non-Arab Darfur) deserts. The oil money in South Sudan is a major cause of the current civil strife there and continuing conflict with Sudan and within South Sudan. Meanwhile, battles over land in western Sudan (Darfur) 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 was also an ally of Iran and recipient of Iranian weapons for a while. That aid included useful 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 to halt the violence. So far, the government has been proven right, but keeps losing control of Sudan, bit by bit. South Sudan is falling into the same cycle of internal disorder and fragmentation.
The rebellion of the Sunni majority against the Shia minority Assad dictatorship has been going on since 2011 is just about over at the end of 2017. The rebels lost because of factionalism. Meanwhile the Assads received massive assistance from Iran (starting in 2012), Russia (2015) and Turkey (2016). The civil war also morphed into a proxy war between Iran and the Sunni Arab states (and their Western allies). The major factor in the rebel defeat was ISIL which began as one of many Sunni Arab Islamic terror groups (mainly al Qaeda and ISIL) who wanted to turn Syria into a religious dictatorship while most Syrians just wanted peace and some prosperity. The Islamic terror groups, as is their custom, put a priority on determining which of them was the true savior of Islam. ISIL was definitely the most ruthless and best organized and many groups submitted to ISIL, if only temporarily, but that weakened the rebel effort sufficiently for the Assads to hang on and become part of a larger anti-ISIL coalition. One thing everyone could agree on was that ISIL had to be destroyed first. After two years the anti-ISIL coalition did that, but at the cost of destroying any chance of the Syrian rebels overthrowing the Assads. While Assad allies like Iran, Russia and Turkey did fight ISIL, most of the damage to ISIL was done by the pro-rebel foreign powers (led by Saudi Arabia and the United States). Meanwhile the Assads and their allies concentrated on non-ISIL rebels. By late 2017, when ISIL had lost nearly all its territory in Syria the remaining rebels were still not united. While the rebels controlled about a third of the country they are outnumbered by the Assad forces and most Syrians are war weary. Since 2011 the violence has left over 400,000 people dead and most died after 2013. The killing diminished a bit in 2015 because of sheer exhaustion and picked up again in 2016 because of the Russian air (and other) support. The stubborn Assad dictatorship, because of reinforcements supplied by Iran (mainly in the form of over 40,000 Shia mercenaries from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia volunteers from all over) and Russia had a chance to win after early 2016, something some Western nations saw as preferable to Islamic terrorists taking over and requiring a Western invasion to remove such a threat. Russia and Iran are quite pleased with the way they have played the situation, especially the 2014 deal to remove Syrian chemical weapons (which the Syrians can rebuild later). The only rebels getting air support were the Syrian Kurds because, like their Iraqi kinsmen, they can be trusted. Western warplanes were over Syria since late 2014, but they are bombing Islamic terrorist rebels, not Assad forces. In August 2016 Turkish ground forces entered northern Syria to seal the border (to ISIL and Turkish separatist PKK Kurds) and weaken the Syrian Kurds. The Turks were basically helping the Assads and hurting ISIL and all that made an Assad victory more likely. Before the Assads can resume control of the country they have to deal with the fact that Israel, Jordan and the Sunni Arab oil states are opposed to the Iranian effort to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. Turkey is opposed to any autonomous Syrian Kurdish area in the north. Turkey and Russia are technically allies of Iran in Syria but the reality is that no one trusts Iran. The Russians have quietly made it clear they would side with Israel. The Turks are NATO members and traditional foes of Russia and Iran. But the current Turkish government is unstable and increasingly unpopular with Turks as well as the neighbors. At the end of 2017 many Iranians took to the streets to demand a withdrawal from Syria and using the billions saved to fix the crippled Iranian economy. If Iran withdraws from Syria Russia is too broke to pick up the slack and the Turks are only interested in the Kurds and don’t really care if the Assads stay or go. So the Syrian rebellion is not over yet and may not end in 2018.
Islamic terrorism in the south and continuing struggles between democrats and royalists nationwide continue to hamper economic growth and much else. The years of civil disorder in the capital triggered yet another military coup in 2014 and the aftereffects of that are still being felt. The 2014 coup ended the low level civil war over military control of the government. The anti-democracy minority (royalists and many educated urbanites) had used large demonstrations and persuasive appeals to the military to stage another coup. The new military government now keeps delaying new elections because opinion polls indicate military rule is unpopular with most Thais and, as in the past, there will be reprisals against the military once elections are held (apparently in late 2018). Meanwhile ethnic Malay Moslems in the south (three percent of the population) continue to cause problems. Since 2013 the government has had someone down there to negotiate with and these talks were soon stalled and remain so. Most Thais are ethnic Thais and Buddhist while the southerners are Moslem and ethnic Malays. In the south Islamic radicalism arrived after 2001 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 made progress in identifying and rounding up the most active terrorists. But there is no quick victory in sight. Even the death of the beloved Thai king in late 2016 (October) did not change anything and his much younger successor will be a work-in-progress for a while.
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections (mostly Congo and Somalia) because of Ugandan participation in a growing number of peacekeeping operations in Africa.
Until late 2017 there was not much progress here, a development that favored Iran. But by the end of 2017 the Shia rebels were at war with each other and Iran suddenly had its own domestic uprising to deal with. Worse, the U.S. government had changed in early 2017 and was much more aggressive dealing with Iran. Moreover there was a radical (for Arabia) new government in Saudi Arabia with a young Crown Prince in charge and organizing more effective resistance to Iranian aggression. That played a role Yemen unrest becoming a full scale civil war in 2015 when Shia rebels sought to take control of the entire country. Neighboring Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, quickly formed a military coalition to halt that. The Arab coalition appears to be succeeding because by 2016 pro-government forces were close enough to launch a major assault on the rebel-held capital. As the fighting intensified in early 2015 Iran admitted it had been quietly supporting the Shia rebels for a long time but now was doing so openly, or at least trying. The Arabs, with U.S. support, blockaded air and sea access to Yemen. The U.S. refused to send in ground troops but the Arabs eventually did. The Arab troops made a big difference despite suffering some embarrassing defeats along the way. This was an impressive display of Arab military capabilities, which benefitted from all the money spent on high-tech weapons since the 1990s. Meanwhile the basic problem, that Yemen has been a mess for decades, is unresolved. Because of the 2015 war Yemen is truly broke, disorganized and desperate. 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. The country is fragmented again, just like it has always been. Many Yemenis trace the current crisis 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 ever since. 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 20th century was wealthier coastal city states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both) plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. 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 secular dictatorship.) For a long time the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They have always wanted 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 AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Now there is ISIL and an invading army composed of troops from oil-rich neighbors. By late 2017 the rebels were slowly losing ground to government forces who, despite Arab coalition air support and about five thousand ground troops, are still dependent on Yemeni Sunni tribal militias to fight the Shia tribes. While the Shia are only a third of the population they are united while the Sunni tribes are divided over the issue of again splitting the country in two (with no agreement on who would get the few oil fields in central Yemen). Many of the Sunni tribes tolerate or even support AQAP and ISIL. Then came the break. For former president (Saleh) deposed in 2012, was killed by the rebels when he tried to make peace with the Arab coalition. Saleh had made the Shia rebellion a success by organizing his remaining loyalists, especially those in the army, to get many Sunnis to join the rebels. But that did not last once Iranian involvement increased and it was made known that Iran has been quietly encouraging the Shia rebels for a long time.