2013: 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 the violent struggles that deepened the world’s insecurity.
The value of this annual report is for those who appreciate hindsight and the role war plays in shaping societies. It’s best if the lessons imparted by recent experience don’t go to waste.
An especially poignant insight from the previous year is the radical idea that War is on its way to obsolescence. It can’t be helped. Countries aren’t fighting each other anymore.
While diplomatic crises and subterfuge remain fixtures in rivalries between states, large armed confrontations–the wars that become history–were absent in 2013.
In its place is a convoluted morass of terrorism, insurgency, and chaos. While the United States still tries to maintain a semblance of global peace, bloody local convulsions continue in much of the world.
The anxious peace bubble we live in can’t be emphasized enough. Except for a dwindling number of civil wars, extremely dangerous places where combat is taking place are becoming rare. Why?
These are strange and interesting times.
For the reader’s benefit, countries are arranged alphabetically rather than according to how severe the crisis is.
With a complete US withdrawal scheduled this year, Afghanistan is expected to slip into a civil war as the corrupt regime of President Hamid Karzai is assailed by his rivals, most prominently the Taliban.
More than a decade of trying to nurture Afghanistan has failed. The country is now the world’s top heroin producer, with a poppy industry abetted by international troops and the local government. This has in turn fueled much of the terrorism that is tearing Afghanistan apart.
Much of the ensuing civil war will likely be fought in the country’s south and southwest, which is the drug trade’s epicenter.
Central African Republic (CAR)
It’s amazing to watch how the slow boil of one country’s problems erupts in spectacular fashion. This is what doomed the CAR. After years of stagnation under the mentally unstable President Francoise Bozize, a little known rebel group called the Seleka finally stormed the capital and overthrew him. Bozize fled into exile and the world’s poorest country was left with a power vacuum.
The inevitable leadership transition was pointless, as what little order prevailed in the capital Bangui soon collapsed in a matter of months. While reports of a humanitarian crisis and even genocide circulated in the Western press, the Swedish Defense Research Agency offers a better perspective on the situation: The CAR is in the throes of anarchy.
Hence, the French intervened.
Even with ongoing talks between President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Cuba, violence continues wherever the FARC have a substantial presence.
As protracted negotiations in Havana stretched for more than an entire year, the FARC’s attacks on military and police targets continued on a monthly basis. The left-wing group that controls the country’s illicit economy also targeted Colombia’s oil sector. The FARC carry out operations across a broad swathe of Colombia, with a particular emphasis on the country’s shared frontier with Venezuela.
While FARC’s attacks have been relentless, along with those of the equally left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN), the rebel group are struggling with their revolution thanks to billions of dollars in US military aid along with covert programs supporting the government.
The Eastern part of the country is once again a battle ground for competing factions who wish to control its resources and challenge the Kabila regime in Kinshasa.
This constant state of disorder fueled one of the world’s most heartbreaking refugee problems. It also proved an embarrassment for the United Nations, who have spent almost two decades trying to bring a sense of normalcy in Congo’s worst corners.
But the M23 rebellion that began in 2011 is on its last legs. Thanks to the joint intervention of the military aided by South African troops along with a large UN contingent, an offensive launched three months ago defeated M23 and pacified uneasy neighbors like Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. A fragile peace is now in place.
A relentless suicide bombing campaign has ruined Iraq’s chance to achieve a lasting peace.
With almost 8,000 killed during the past 12 months, higher than when US forces withdrew in 2011, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is nearing the brink.
This became apparent when the secession of Kurdistan was almost realized after a tense stand off in Kirkuk, which is claimed by the Kurds. An energy-sharing agreement also collapsed between Baghdad and the Kurds, scuttling Iraq’s latest attempt at harmonizing its disparate factions.
To make matters worse, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s ties with Iran, along with his vindictive crackdown on Sunni political rivals, has turned his country into a conduit for sustaining the war in Syria.
The only reason Lebanon joined this list is because of Syria’s civil war. Owing to its location and the presence of Hezbollah, Beirut and several other cities have become minor battlegrounds for settling scores between different factions in Syria.
While most of the violence involves car bombing and targeted assassinations, pitched battles also occurred in cities like Tripoli and Sidon.
Lebanon is basically a sideshow for its neighbor’s current problems, hosting 800,000 refugees and an endless source of participants–be they pro-regime or anti–who transit to the Syrian maelstrom.
Two years since the end of its civil war, Libya is struggling to reinvent itself. What was once a single autocratic state is now three separate regions that each insist on their own sovereignty as “federal provinces.”
The country’s fracturing is worsened by leftover militias who participated in overthrowing Gaddafi. Although the threat of terrorism from and within Libya is almost nil, the various militia who comprise a de facto military have eroded the new government’s efforts to function.
Unwilling to unite as a legitimate military, the unpredictable and sometimes criminal behavior of the militias has pushed the European Union’s (EU) hand. Trainers and funding have now entered Libya to create a viable security apparatus for its weak government.
Mali should never have been embroiled in turmoil hadn’t resurgent Tuareg separatists tried to carve out a homeland in the country’s Saharan north.
The problem was France quickly intervened and crushed the rebellion under the guise of fighting Al Qaeda. The fighting in Mali was mostly conducted by French troops together with Malian forces they helped boost.
Since then, the adventure in Mali has served as a springboard for France to re-assert itself as the benevolent guardian of its former colonies in Africa.
A study in contrasts, Mexico’s emergence as an economic miracle is marred by its pointless drug war. The extent of the violence under either President Felipe Calderon and Enrique Peña Nieto’s watch has reached an uncontrollable level, peaking in 2011-2012 with record-breaking homicide statistics compiled by the government.
Owing to a long-term crackdown and the arrest of high-profile drug kingpins, cartel-related deaths this year are believed to be lower. The silver lining is much of the cartels’ excesses are done in specific cities like Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey. This doesn’t remove the fact that the drug war’s worst consequences are unseen anywhere else in the Americas.
Yet Mexico’s internal problems often overshadow the related crime epidemic that has all but crippled its neighbors El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala–all are countries with long histories of societal conflict and repression.
It might be reinventing itself after years of the ruling military junta’s excesses, but Myanmar’s struggle against its restive ethnic groups continued.
Reports of combat between the government and rebel armies trickled from the outlying border enclaves where various minorities have resisted Naypyidaw’s authority. The Kachin have been on the defensive since the beginning of 2013, for example, and there’s creeping evidence that Chinese arms trafficking is beefing up the arsenals of other factions like the Wa.
Religious tensions have flared up in the country’s south as well where rioting Buddhists and Muslims compelled a tough crackdown. This flies in the face of a years-long attempt to reduce the country’s internal conflicts with multiple ceasefires brokered by the Thein Sein administration.
But the new democratic government composed of former generals are determined to exhaust their options for peace, or at least a semblance of it. On November, negotiations with 11 different ethnic groups produced a consensus to integrate their fighters with the Tatmadaw; the country’s regular armed forces.
The colorful African energy giant is once again racked by violence. It all began when Boko Haram, an inward looking Islamist grass-roots movement, was suppressed. Rather than disappear, the movement became a rebellion that has relentlessly targeted the Nigerian state.
Owing to their localized origins, Boko Haram’s reach is mostly in Nigeria’s northeast. The surprising spread of their movement and the massacres they perpetrated against Christians and Muslims alike forced the government’s hand. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is now in the process of crushing Boko Haram, who are proving tenacious adversaries.
Like most countries on this list, Pakistan is not at war. It does have a festering problem with its militants, however, many of whom were cultivated by its powerful military establishment.
Even if US drone operations are winding down along its Afghan frontier, their indiscriminate nature feeds Pakistan’s sense of being under constant threat.
Adding to its problems, the separatist movement in Balochistan has reared its head once more. Owing to the heavy-handed presence of soldiers in the restive province, as well as the Baloch’s blatant marginalization, sporadic fighting is now common place over the resource-rich domain.
It must be understood that the country is at peace. On two separate occasions, however, the restive provinces in Mindanao were endangered by sudden outbreaks of fighting.
The first such occurrence happened, oddly enough, in neighboring Sabah, Malaysia, where Muslim fighters from the Philippines loyal to an ageing Sultan claimed sovereignty over the region. They were promptly suppressed by the Malaysian police and military.
In September, the city of Zamboanga was rocked by heavy fighting between the military and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Nur Misuari who declared the secession of Mindanao from the republic in August. The fighting in Zamboanga destroyed entire neighborhoods, killed 160 MNLF fighters, and led to the displacement of 120,000 residents.
Both occurrences were meant to derail an ongoing peace agreement between President Benigno Aquino’s government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), another Muslim separatist group.
With the Muslim Brotherhood toppled from power and suppressed, the Sinai peninsula became the only viable place to challenge the new military government.
Unidentified terrorists originating from Gaza began attacking soldiers as early as 2012. Reports of continued violence persisted throughout 2013 as Egyptian society buckled from endless protests by feuding political parties.
Many of the attacks on Egyptian soldiers were blamed on fighters connected with Hamas as well as various low-key Jihadi groups, who have been left out in the cold after President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were overthrown.
This has turned the Sinai into a battlefield, forcing Cairo to rely on an ever-growing military presence there to discourage further violence.
The world’s most visible failed state is actually less violent compared to previous years. A regionally-backed transition government even exerts some influence on domestic affairs. Even the scourge of piracy along its coast is now almost gone. As further proof of its redemption, the de facto mini-state Somaliland in the north is free from turmoil and is thriving.
This hasn’t discouraged Al Shabaab, the Islamist militant group that is struggling to conquer Somalia, whose agents launched a spectacular assault inside a Kenyan mall on September, killing dozens. Al-Shabab, which emerged from the quashed Islamist Courts Union, has fought a protracted guerrilla war against US proxies such as Ethiopia and the African Union (AU) in their country. The militia are now close to defeat, having been reduced to finding safe havens in outlying provinces.
Thanks to them, Somalia registers in this year’s list.
Sudan and South Sudan
In hindsight, South Sudan’s spiral out of control was inevitable.
Ever since it gained independence, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)-led country has been unable to build a functioning state that uses its energy wealth for its own benefit.
It has instead come apart from constant infighting and a simmering dispute with Sudan, which is girding for war with its former province while President Omar Al-Bashir suppressed a popular revolt and continues to field his military against a coalition of rebel groups.
As 2013 came to a close, a falling out between South Sudan’s Vice President Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir resulted in pitched battles and foreign intervention. A thousand deaths later, peace talks are now underway. At this point, South Sudan’s prospects are darker than ever.
As the struggle against Bashar Al-Assad entered its third year, the regime’s setbacks appeared to multiply. Tacit foreign support for the rebellion grew while Israel launched airstrikes on sensitive targets. The opportunity for US intervention fizzled when a response to chemical attacks in Damascus last August led to a diplomatic compromise instead.
The tide has since turned against the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who have lost territory and some of their valuable foreign sponsors in the last few months. The presence of jihadis fighting for an Islamic state, as well as the unraveling of Syrian society, has turned the war into an irreparable quagmire for those involved.
Having weathered the Arab Spring, a leadership change, and a revolt within its military, Yemen remains a hot spot thanks to its lack of cohesion.
Whether it’s militants, Houthi rebels, or citizens wracked by discontent, Yemen’s problems mean it’s the only country in the Arabian peninsula always on the verge of a major crisis.
The presence of US drones over its skies, as well as Al Qaeda cells actively resisting the government, has turned the water-starved country into a holdout in the bygone War on Terror.