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2011: The Year In War

January 5, 2012
The Year In War

In the grand tradition of all those other websites posting ‘Best’ lists, here is 21st Century Asian Arms Race’s own The Year In War. Seen below are ten conflicts that dominated world headlines, generating historical narratives for future generations to contemplate.

For those who value hindsight and the role armed conflict plays  in shaping societies, it’s best that the lessons imparted by recent experience don’t go to waste. To this end, what this first The Year In War reveals is the prominence of low level campaigns in modern times. In most cases the brunt of the fighting is being carried out by irregular fighters/militia rather than trained professional armies. Also notable is how trained professional armies, no matter how well-equipped and supplied, are continuously frustrated battling low tech insurgencies.

Some theaters in the list aren’t even classified as war (what exactly is going on in Iran?) while an outstanding entry (Mexico) shows how criminal syndicates can possess enough clout to destabilize a nation-state. In summation, this might be the second decade of the 21st century, but war is still ubiquitous and peace is as elusive as ever.

For the reader’s benefit, countries and regions are arranged alphabetically rather than according to how severe the conflict is.


Non-stop drone strikes across the Pakistani frontier climaxing with a raid on Abottabad to snuff Osama bin Laden. NATO is itching for an exit, Karzai’s ‘allies’ are bracing for the next phase of the war, while the Taliban are launching coordinated large-scale attacks on various targets. The ISI remain untouchable and perhaps the most compulsive force in the region at a time when relations with the US have hit rock bottom. Meanwhile, a multi-billion dollar drug industry thrives—it’s the only viable economic engine in impoverished Afghanistan.


Iran is at war but is not fighting a war. Strange? Definitely. Amid the constant background noise of its nuclear ambitions, Iran has spent the past several years grappling with the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike while consolidating its power in the Middle East. The big symbolic event were the warships that crossed the Suez in the wake of Egypt’s revolution. But as 2011 drew to a close, Iran became embroiled in what can perhaps be construed as a tit-for-tat low intensity shadow conflict with its arch foes, the US and Israel. First was the fabricated ‘plot’ concocted by Washington, DC about a Quds Force assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador. Then Iranian missile sites started blowing up for no reason. Finally, a cutting edge US drone was captured, the latest in an extended series of provocations. To top everything off Iran hailed the new year with naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, scaring its neighbors and heightening its confrontation with the US Navy.


Owing to the fact that Iraq has been off the world radar since President Obama assumed office, there’s a palpable sense the war over there is now concluded. It isn’t and as the last American convoy departed the last American base (more like Soviets-in-Afghanistan than Saigon-in-’75), a battered country is left to grapple with terrorism, foreign interference (Iran), and a region wracked by violent change. At least Iraq has some sort of re-tooled and rebuilt standing army thanks to its reluctant occupiers.

Ivory Coast

Long story short, a botched election went downhill, pitting two longstanding rivals against each other. The resulting conflagration sucked in a UN intervention force plus auxiliary troops from several neighboring countries. This is also the second war France participated in this year. So while French jets bombed Gaddafi’s war machine to oblivion, additional firepower was deployed in Ivory Coast to hasten a messy regime change. Though the US often draws flack for its military actions abroad, France also remains deeply involved in a lot of its former colonies. Sucks for Ivory Coast though, since it used to be among the more progressive economies in Africa.


A theatrical air campaign saves a doomed uprising from brutal suppression. What followed was months of stalemate broken by timely interventions from foreign sponsors. While the mainstream media have provided excellent coverage of a “heroic struggle” this particular yarn loses its luster once the contributions of NATO (emphasis on France, whose aircraft blitzed besieged Benghazi at the 11th hour) and a few Gulf states becomes apparent. In the end, Gaddafi died as he lived: violently. ‘Tis the fate of all tyrants.


As mentioned earlier, events in Mexico these last few years are quite exceptional. Several large drug cartels who operate in territories the size of small provinces are battling it out against each other, the federal government, and anyone who gets in their way. What sets the Mexican theater apart—as compared to Colombia, for example—is the cartels involved are fighting for their multi-billion dollar business and not for a vague ideology.

Southern Philippines

Arguably the world’s most underreported proxy war. On paper, the protracted struggle in Mindanao (most of it being waged in the western tip of the island) is a secessionist rebellion by a disenfranchised Muslim minority. This is on paper. In reality, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are a determined armed group whose ultimate goal it to re-draw the map of the Philippines. After surprise talks in Japan stalled, a rash of minor skirmishes between the MILF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reinvigorated the on-again-off-again struggle. The fighting has since died down until the next bitter round…sometime this year.


The failed state nobody wants to care about still figured in world affairs last year. Other than being a hotbed for piracy, Somalia is a battleground between an Islamist militia, a transition government, and whoever else has a stake in its future. Somalia is still a theater for US black ops but this year the latest foreign incursion was from Kenya in retaliation for terrorist attacks by Al Shabaab. To highlight the obvious, Somalia’s future doesn’t look very bright.The Horn of Africa should really be a poignant lesson to other countries on the brink–this is what happens when it all falls apart and no one has the balls to fix it.

South Sudan

Because inventing new countries is a tricky business it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that South Sudan would have growing pains. In a nutshell, the patchwork of tribes who are the fledgling country’s rural population are settling scores on a grand scale. This often leads to sizable pitched battles that are a headache for the token UN forces available to contain the inter-ethnic violence. It’s not really a war but anarchy writ large. If big Sudan in the north invades, however, now that’s a WAR.


Nobody is sure how the Syrian tragedy is going to end. At first it was shaping up to be another Egypt, but President Assad took after his father and sent in the tanks. As 2011 drew to a close a foreign-based opposition group finally emerged along with a “credible” rebel force—in short, a textbook exercise in setting up regime change. (But who’s pulling the strings?) Syria was supposed to be another Lybian exercise for the West, except China and Russia finally asserted themselves in the UN Security Council. Salvation postponed, then.