2014: 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, even when old conflicts are rekindled and fought for the same reasons.
Was 2014 deadlier than 2013?
Some may answer in the affirmative, but as the previous years have shown, war and mass violence across the world are declining. Harvard psychologist Dr. Steve Pinker is correct. A variety of factors, from state power to economic growth, is keeping global anarchy at bay.
This shouldn’t diminish the horror of fresh conflicts erupting in peaceful societies. For the first time in a long while, two European countries–Ukraine and Russia–are openly at war without going through the motions of declaring one.
Our world is angry because old tensions persist, while teetering regimes with a legitimacy deficit are on the verge of oblivion. What made 2014 violent is renegade factions (i.e., rebels, terrorists, extremists) and weak governments clashed too often, creating predictable chaos.
Total peace, as always, is elusive.
Unlike previous entries, this year’s list is the most comprehensive on record. For the reader’s benefit, countries are arranged alphabetically rather than according to how severe the crisis is.
Say hello to the new war, same as the old war.
With the US commitment to Afghanistan ceremonially over on December 27 and NATO’s involvement done by January 1, a 13,000-strong multinational “Resolute Support Mission” will remain to keep the beleaguered Afghan government from falling apart.
The previous year saw a relatively smooth transition of power in Afghan leadership, with the distant Hamid Karzai, long disenchanted by the US’ occupation of his country, now replaced by a compliant President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Throughout 2014, two unstoppable forces menaced Afghanistan. The boom in the poppy industry has effectively turned it into a narco-state while the Taliban and the Haqqani Network are very much intact. Both are capable of undermining Kabul’s authority and plunging Afghanistan into another year of full-blown civil war.
Armenia vs. Azerbaijan
As with most territorial disputes, the longstanding cold war between these neighboring countries manages to claim lives on occasion. The crux of the matter is the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, with its majority Armenian population, located inside Azerbaijan.
Despite a tenuous 20-year peace, both countries are on a war footing. For much of the 2000s, Azerbaijan in particular spent the profits from its gas reserves importing military hardware from several countries, including Russia, Israel, Turkey, and South Africa.
In August and September small exchanges of gunfire killed soldiers from both countries. In November an Azerbaijani SAM shot down an Armenian helicopter, killing its crew. Neither country escalated and there were no pitched battles along their respective borders. Despite this restraint, any intent to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is beyond discussion by either side.
Another decrepit state has collapsed on itself.
After a quarter century of authoritarian rule a sudden popular uprising coincided with a revolt by disenchanted soldiers. (Or was it the other way around?) This forced Burkina Faso’s incumbent strongman Blaise Compaoré into exile.
The resulting unrest led to the destruction and seizure of government buildings, including parliament.
No civil war erupted in the resulting power vacuum and actual bloodshed was minimal. Historically a client state of France, which propped the Compaoré regime for decades, Burkina Faso is now transitioning to an undetermined election period.
In the meantime a de facto junta, together with civilian ministers, have taken over the government.
Central African Republic
Two years ago a mysterious rebel group calling themselves the Seleka chased the mentally ill President Francoi Bozize from office.
France, in typical fashion, arranged Bozize’s exile and deployed a token force to check the inevitable chaos that would grip the capital, Bangui.
The poorest country in the world is still reeling from intermittent clashes between small armed groups in the capital and beyond. These are sometimes portrayed as sectarian violence and political score settling, but the general consensus is, with the absence of centralized authority, mob rule has gripped segments of the population.
Owing to its non-existent economy, much of the CAR is underdeveloped and lawless. The small multinational effort to save the country doesn’t exactly inspire a credible vision for its future.
With the FARC and the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos nearing a historic peace deal in Havana, Cuba, hopes are high that Latin America’s longest civil war can finally end.
But no binding agreement was produced and a six-point agenda still needs to be ratified by either party. The meetings in Havana are the fourth attempt to compromise with the FARC’s revolutionary goals.
As the talks simmered, violence flared throughout 2014 as FARC guerrillas fought small battles against military personnel.
With the critical loss of its commanders in recent years, the 50-year-old FARC, whose membership is declining, now operate in sparsely populated jungle areas. Based on the analysis of multinational institutions like the United Nations (UN), the FARC sustains itself by participating in organized crime, from cocaine to extortion.
In November, FARC captured a Colombian Army general but freed their hostage the following month. On December 17, FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire, which the government rejected.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
With most fighting along its eastern frontier having ebbed, Congo is no longer at risk of a low-intensity civil war.
But in the middle of 2014 small battles erupted between Congolese soldiers and their counterparts in Rwanda, whose government has been at odds with Congo for the last 20 years.
The tension between Congo and Rwanda dates to the latter’s collapse in 1994, a catastrophe that triggered a genocide on the minority Tutsis. Once order was restored by Tutsi rebels, fleeing Hutus–who perpetrated the genocide–crossed over to eastern Congo.
Rwanda has fought two wars in Congolese soil and was instrumental in fomenting the M23 Rebellion of 2013, which was crushed by joint UN and government forces.
Although the bloodshed and internal displacement has ebbed, Congo remains a fractious and underdeveloped country ruled by a strongman, President Laurant Kabila.
This fact is proven by a terrible irony. Although it isn’t bedeviled by unchecked Islamic terrorism like Iraq or Nigeria, Congo hosts the world’s largest international peacekeeping force maintained by the UN. The 23,000-strong MONUSCO is twice the size of the NATO-remnant staying in Afghanistan in 2015.
With another soldier elected to lead Egypt the military’s grip on the country is once more undisputed.
For this to have succeeded, however, subterfuge and investments by a foreign power were necessary. In Egypt’s case it was a combination of generous funding from Saudi Arabia and Israel’s tacit agreement to the regime change.
When the Muslim Brotherhood were thrown out of office in 2013, small cells of fighters launched a rebellion in the mountainous Sinai peninsula.
This led to a crackdown and the Sinai is now under de facto martial law. The harsh measures enacted by the military haven’t deterred the low key insurgents, whose organization and make up are a question mark, from waging unremitting war with bombings and ambushes.
Narendra Modi’s historic election win did little to change the balance of India’s external problems. With economic growth cooling India’s defense ministry and security forces are trying to create a sustainable road map for modernizing their capabilities.
But they also have to deal with multiple insurgencies and their nuclear-armed neighbor and Chinese ally Pakistan. Within India A festering Maoist rebellion in the east and southeast continues to claim lives. Another small-scale rebel movement persists in disputed Kashmir, where tension boiled over in October, resulting in a short battle that killed numerous civilians.
There has been no genuine rapprochement with Pakistan either. Hardly a day into the new year, on January 1, an exchange of fire along its border killed two Pakistani soldiers.
It’s the undisputed leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With the successful election of President Joko Widodo, Indonesia is poised to become a truly democratic Muslim country and a regional hub for commerce and investment.
But what is going on in West Papua?
West Papua, or the western half of New Guinea, was forcibly annexed by Indonesia 40 years ago. Since then, a dismal record of oppression and low-level warfare has marked the police and armed forces’ presence in the resource-rich territory, where the indigenous people are at odds with a local government run by Indonesians.
In 2014 multiple killings of activists and students proved once again that Indonesia’s grip on West Papua isn’t as tranquil as it seems.
More than a decade since the US invasion of Iraq and the country is still reeling from the aftermath.
2014 was the year when the civil wars in Syria and Iraq joined thanks to the ambitions of the Islamic State (IS), a revisionist fringe group that committed its vast resources to conquering new territory.
But IS were simply the latest horror to be visited upon Iraqis, be they Sunni, Shia, Turkoman, Christian, Kurd, or Yazidi. After years of misrule and vindictiveness, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had alienated his constituents. The whole of Sunni-dominated Anbar province rose against him at the beginning of the year and the Kurds were uneasy with Arab encroachment on Kirkuk.
It took the sudden fall of Mosul in June to shake the al-Maliki regime’s very foundations. Once IS began enlarging its territory, its blatant atrocities rallied the Middle East and the US against it. By August al-Maliki was out of office and over a dozen countries were fighting within Iraq.
With IS now on the defensive after more than 150 days of US intervention, Iraq’s fractured military and various militias could be the next antagonists in coming years of bloodshed.
Operation Protective Edge marked the fourth and latest war against Hamas, which is using its control of Gaza as a launchpad for attacks on Israel.
This time around it became abundantly clear that Israel has honed its tactics to inflict maximum damage on the militant group. Even if its combination of precision airstrikes and siege tactics caused alarming civilian casualties, the effect on Hamas was telling.
Not only were its rocket attacks curbed, but the organization lost key infrastructure like its smuggling tunnels, and casualties among the organization’s rank and file were significant.
But Hamas still stands, albeit weakened. How soon before another showdown?
If not for its oil, Libya is following the typical pattern of an African failed state. Localized feuds become small wars between militias, who then impose themselves on a powerless central government.
On March a small army laid siege to the interim government in Tripoli, prompting the ouster of Prime Minister al-Zaidan, who transited through Malta before seeking refuge in Europe.
Libya further unraveled in the following months, with the incessant battles among militias akin to the dissolution of Somalia during the early 1990s. The patchwork of violence is difficult to comprehend but humanitarian organizations have tallied the costs–a broken civil society and almost 400,000 people driven from their homes.
It’s unfortunate that while the same militias who believe in restoring order can’t get along, none are susceptible to influence from either NATO or the EU.
Libya’s chronic destabilization four years after the Arab Spring erupted has compelled Egypt and Algeria to intervene on a limited basis. These were justified as minor interventions to strike at groups that may be affiliated with Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
How far down does the resource-rich country tumble into the abyss is anyone’s guess.
Cursed by its geography, tranquil but anxious Lebanon can’t seem to rid itself of its Syrian burden.
When in previous generations much of the country was occupied by Hafez al-Assad’s troops, today Lebanon bears the brunt of a Syrian diaspora which it reluctantly feeds and houses.
Worse still, the fighting in Syria has trickled to Lebanon’s teeming slums and the notorious Bekaa Valley. In separate battles with government forces, like in the border town of Arsal and scenic Tripoli, militants were defeated but remained defiant.
But having to confront a quiet Islamist invasion, especially from groups affiliated with the dreaded IS, has compelled Lebanon to seek aid abroad.
In another blatant show of generosity Saudi Arabia offered to pay at least $3 billion for weapons needed by the Lebanese armed forces. The inevitable supplier, of course, was France.
It’s not clear what France seeks to achieve in Mali. Its sudden intervention in late 2012 did save the fragile North African state from a civil war but only led to another long-term campaign against Tuareg and Arab terrorists.
Two years in, however, and French troops have only deepened their presence. This is indicative of a growing trend in French foreign policy.
There has been and is a serious redeployment in former colonial territories often done under the guise of combating terrorists or maintaining order. In Mali as in Chad and the Central African Republic.
In Mali, however, the scale of French operations has increased dramatically to combat Islamic militants who are crossing over from neighboring countries. Reported casualty figures are minimal but the recent Operation Tudelle marked an uncharacteristic show of force by France.
As its genuine and visceral Drug War rages, 41,000 people have been killed as a result of cartel violence since 2012. The civil war-like level of carnage is much worse if the body count from the previous Mexican government under Vicente Fox is included.
But it took a fresh atrocity for the federal government under President Enrique Peña Nieto to be shaken.
The slaughter of student activists and faculty from Iguala in October triggered a wave of national protests. There is now a strong clamor to end the unsavory connection between the narcos and their patrons in government.
A bitter irony is as the fallout from the militarized campaign to quash the drug trade tears its social fabric apart, certain parts of Mexico’s legal economy flourish.
It may have gone unnoticed but this year impoverished Mozambique was on the verge of civil war. But good sense and compromise won the day and further bloodshed was avoided.
A contested election result from 2012 triggered a dispute between the two main political parties, RENAMO and FRELIMO. Both movements trace their origins to their country’s independence struggle in the 1960s and 1970s.
Neither faction appears to have any appetite to form a ruling coalition. To protest its election loss, RENAMO mobilized and prepared for a guerrilla war. Its leader even retreated to a mountain stronghold, anticipating a government crackdown.
Luckily, a peace deal was signed and a semblance of normality has returned.
The ongoing wave of modernization transforming its economy has done little to bring peace between Naypyidaw and the country’s minorities.
Judging by online news coverage, the national armed forces–the Tatmadaw–continued operations in areas controlled by the Wa and the Kachin rebel groups.
Activities of this nature have been going on since a 17-year-old truce collapsed in 2011. The intensity of these petty wars is at odds with the government’s efforts to rehabilitate its image. Unfortunately, a heritage of distrust has doomed the slow and inconclusive peace talks, as the minorities have struggled with government offers to accommodate them into the mainstream while fending off attacks on their people.
Accurate casualty figures for 2014 are difficult to verify but it deserves mention that Myanmar’s junta has been at war with national minorities since the 1950s and methodical ethnic cleansing is a tried and proven modus for dealing with state enemies.
On an encouraging note, overall violence in 2014, when compared to recent years, has statistically declined.
The depredations of the Islamic cult Boko Haram served to reinforce how dysfunctional the Nigerian government is.
In May another brazen attack on civilians resulted in the abduction of 300 girls. The resulting international attention prompted a tough crackdown by President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, with mixed results.
What used to be a revisionist fringe group is now Africa’s latest Islamist scourge. Boko Haram’s sheer audacity, attacking villages and military bases in rapid succession, coupled with the incompetent response of Nigeria’s security forces earned it multiple victories.
A full-blown rebellion is now underway, threatening to spread even farther. Localized militias and grass-roots opposition to Al-Shabab is growing.
Unlike Iraq, Nigeria is hardly at the receiving end of massive financial aid to quell its terrorist problem. Al-Shabab’s disregard for national borders has drawn neighboring countries like Niger, Chad, and Cameroon into the war.
In 2014, the nuclear-armed Muslim state paid dearly for allowing terrorist groups to flourish within its borders.
A renewed military response to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pashtun extremist group based in Waziristan province, invited retaliation.
On June 8, gunmen launched a spectacular suicide attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport. This prompted the beginning of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a military endeavor to quash the TTP for good.
But like previous efforts to rid itself of terrorism, the TTP’s resilience allowed it to avenge its losses on December 17 when it took over a school and butchered hundreds of students.
Now Pakistan is continuing its fight with the TTP, a struggle that will preoccupy it for much of 2015.
As the country enjoys relative peace and economic growth, civil unrest boils at its fringes.
The Philippines being a country where social and economic divisions run deep, violence persists in the margins of the republic.
For decades now a permanent military garrison was needed in the isolated southern island of Basilan, the sanctuary of the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf.
Like in previous years, small battles erupted on a frequent basis resulting in casualties for both the Abu Sayyaf and government forces.
Meanwhile, peace talks between the Aquino administration and a leading Muslim rebel group, the MILF, are closer than ever to a binding accord that could end decades of hostilities.
Try as they might regional and multinational efforts for the restoration of Somalia as a functioning country are futile.
A quarter century of unrest and civil war has left its society fragmented and entire provinces are controlled by squabbling militias. The battered capital Mogadishu remains under the tenuous control of a government whose actual powers are non-existent beyond city limits.
This ineffective government spent much of 2014 recapturing territory from the militant group Al Shabaab. Prosecuting the war required substantial aid from an enormous pan-African force and unknown numbers of military contractors.
In October, floods ravaged large swathes of south and central Somalia, affecting 50,000 people. The following month, the UN published a sobering report on the humanitarian situation in Somalia. By its own count, a million Somalis are affected by their country’s perpetual civil war and 218,000 children under the age of five are malnourished.
For lack of a tangible peace Somalia maintains its reputation as the most failed among failed states.
The regime of Omar al-Bashir, bolstered by a ruthless military, is still embroiled in crushing a rebellion in the country’s south.
The present conflict began in 2011 when Sudan lost its vast oil reserves after South Sudan gained independence. Since then, a leftover rebel faction in the Nuba Mountains continued to defy Khartoum, prompting a brutal response reminiscent of the previous civil war
Much of the fighting in 2014 took place in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Nuba Mountains between the Sudanese military and rebel groups. The former’s substantial firepower and air assets allows it to indiscriminately bomb communities on a daily basis.
In many ways, the ongoing crisis in Sudan is just as violent as Syria’s. But unlike the Middle East, apathy and scant awareness has insulated it from the interference of world powers.
An estimated two million people are directly affected by Sudan’s endless civil war.
A round of peace talks in November was inconclusive and there’s little indication neighboring countries wish to resolve the current war peacefully.
What began as a personal disagreement between the President and Vice President of the ruling political party exploded into a year-long civil war that has ruined the oil rich country’s future.
When mediation and peace talks sponsored by Ethiopia proved useless, fighting continued across South Sudan, which only gained independence in 2011. Some estimates suggest at least 50,000 have been killed, mostly civilians.
With the national economy in disarray, South Sudan’s warring factions manage to import arms from China and Eastern Europe, thereby increasing the lethality of their dispute.
To alleviate the dire situation, a quiet multinational effort is now underway. China, of all countries, is sending a battalion of peacekeepers. It’s an interesting diplomatic move since China is also the main exporter of small arms and munitions to the war-torn region.
As the civil war grinds on it’s now apparent Syria can never be put back together again.
Not even selective US airstrikes can alter the merciless balance of forces within the battered country. Or motivate some 9 million refugees, or almost 1/2 of the Syrian population, to go back home.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is no longer a cohesive resistance movement and is unable to defeat al-Assad’s war machine. The rise of jihadis has served a terrible blow to the FSA’s legitimacy as well, forcing a two-front war that the rebels can’t win without outside help.
Not surprisingly, it’s IS who grabbed much of the world’s attention in Syria. Having blitzed northern Iraq, IS wasted no time consolidating their hold on the city of Raqqa within Syria, making it their de facto capital.
IS shored up their gains to lay the groundwork for local government based on its own principles. Yet the pressure of US airstrikes and a counter-offensive in Iraq is stretching their resources. Further attempts to seize objectives, like the Kurdish town of Kobane, have been frustrated.
Meanwhile, the al-Assad regime holds fast, possessing enough firepower to keep its enemies at bay…and outside of Damascus.
Months of political gridlock and violent protests led to a coup d’etat in May. The deeper context behind this unilateral decision by powerful Thai generals was a social divide between Thailand’s urban elites and the populist Red Shirts who support a previous administration.
Bangkok was under curfew until mid-June and life returned to a semblance of normalcy, albeit with the visible presence of soldiers. The fact remains a junta has effectively taken control of the government. It appears this same junta plans to stay in power until late 2015 when fresh national elections are possibly held.
Less severe but worth taking note of is a small-scale Muslim insurgency in the country’s south. Impoverished and marginalized, a segment of Thailand’s Muslim minority seem to be gripped by nationalist sentiment. Inter-religious and inter-ethnic bloodshed has occured on a limited scale. One estimate puts the number of resulting deaths at over 6,000.
Since 2000 a substantial police and military garrison has locked down the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, areas close to the Malaysian frontier. This is where a shadowy separatist movement is challenging the cohesion of the Thai state with a protracted uprising.
There doesn’t seem to be any other African country at the moment with the same vim and vigor as Uganda.
Currently fighting a handful of small wars in its near abroad Uganda’s own discord came alive once more this year. In two separate attacks resurgent Islamist militants crossed over to neighboring Congo and butchered innocent people.
Calling themselves the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) and operating from unspecified enclaves in the Uganda-Congo frontier, the ADF are another headache forYoweri Museveni’s almost 30-year-old regime. The national strongman’s rule is far from peaceful and his country has grappled with one insurgency after another since the 1980s.
The ADF’s tactics might be aimed at Congolese villagers but they are a big enough menace to the region with their uncompromising brutality. Uganda also participated in current wars this year, like South Sudan, where a battalion sized force is believed to be fighting on behalf of the government.
It’s an epic story fit for the history books.
In late 2013 a protest movement in Kiev became a popular revolt against President Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime. Meanwhile, in Russia, the coming Sochi Olympics was being anticipated as a crowning endorsement of Putin’s longstanding presidency.
As street battles in Kiev’s EuroMaidan between protesters and policemen turned violent it was only a matter of time before Yanukovych was removed from office and an interim government established.
Having lost a client head of state, the Kremlin’s response was swift and calculated. A massive operation was launched to annex the Crimean peninsula, securing Russia’s naval presence in the Black Sea.
To keep Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence, from March until the year’s end a separatist movement was cultivated in the country’s east, with rebel enclaves established in Donetsk and Luhansk. At first the “separatists” functioned as a mob to cover the activities of Russian special forces.
When Kiev sent in its own ill-equipped soldiers to pacify the restive provinces Russia began arming and assisting the separatists with larger and larger amounts of hardware. In many instances the separatists were Russian soldiers in sanitized uniform fighting small actions.
The turning point of the whole spectacle was the unfortunate shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by a separatist Buk mobile SAM. The diplomatic fallout and forthcoming sanctions have made a pariah of Russia, whose economy is now in recession.
The fighting continues in Eastern Ukraine and the separatists are now on the defensive.
What happened in Sanaa in September 21 brings the number of governments toppled by civil unrest last year to six. Long a theater for the US “War on Terror,” the emphasis on fighting Al Qaeda’s lingering presence in Yemen stole attention away from Yemen’s political fissures.
Essentially two countries until its forceful unification in 1994, the present crisis is another tragic offshoot of the Arab Spring. Unlike Syria and Libya, however, the mass protests in Yemen four years ago only brought it to the brink of civil war. Neighboring countries brokered a transition of power and Yemen avoided collapse.
Since then, a lack of representative government and heavily armed political factions like the Houthis set the stage for the current maelstrom. It took stalled negotiations for federalism–the National Dialogue Conference (NDC)–and rampant social ills to drive the Houthis into revolt and seize the capital.
But once again, a last minute UN truce averted an inevitable civil war.
This hasn’t ended the violence in other parts of the country, where the military, terrorists, and tribal militias seek either to fortify government control or secure local fiefdoms.