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 in 2015.
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.
During the previous 12 months the scale and intensity of different wars around the world reached unexpected levels. This proves US Army General George Casey‘s so-called “era of persistent conflict” correct. We are living in one. Huge investments in high tech weapons, the vulnerability of weak governments, and the constant subterfuge between countries have dashed any hope that global peace will arrive soon.
A perfect example is the maelstrom over Syria. Five years in and what began as a feeble attempt to win back liberty from a dictator is now an international conflict. Meanwhile, the ongoing wars in Yemen and Ukraine shows how governments are willing to fight out their differences with little regard for the consequences.
Most disconcerting about last year’s wars is, with few exceptions, the ones that erupted in the beginning of this decade still haven’t ended. At the same time multiple crises originating in the latter half of the 20th century are nowhere near resolved.
This is appalling in light of the diplomatic gestures, peacekeeping, economic largess, and democratic values our global civilization pretends to uphold. It begs the question: What is the international community good for?
But there are discernible patterns behind the phenomenon of mass violence. The absence of a centralized and functioning government puts a whole country at risk. Even worse is an incumbent and undemocratic leader willing to wage war on the populace to enforce the status quo. These symptoms are commonly found across Africa and the Middle East.
Another underlying cause of modern war is simpler to explain. When countries acquire a surplus of wealth and remain internally stable it becomes easier to strengthen their national armed forces. When this is achieved a government seeks to spread its power regionally. Our world has 211 countries and if this infernal logic applies to most of them then peace in our lifetime is certainly a myth.
2015 was incredibly violent. At the rate we’re going, so will the years that follow it.
For the reader’s benefit, countries and regions are arranged alphabetically rather than according to how severe the conflict is.
The country synonymous with terrorism and backwardness has been at war for four decades now. The just-concluded 2015 was particularly dreadful as Afghanistan’s inherent weaknesses like violence, corruption, and internecine strife ruined its chances at ever reaching a viable normalcy.
Even with a substantial garrison of US and multinational forces remaining to prop up the government, the Taliban acted with uncanny brazenness throughout the year. In September its fighters managed to capture the city of Kunduz and hold it against local and foreign troops for a month. This shattered the illusion that Afghanistan wouldn’t descend into another civil war.
A thriving narcotics industry and the arrival of militant groups like Islamic State are also looming problems undermining Afghanistan’s future prospects.
Even with a fragile peace reigning over much of the world vast armies are facing each other across disputed borders. This is what passes for a normal state of affairs in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory pitting Armenia against Azerbaijan.
The Lilliputian Cold War between them is another frozen conflict from the early 1990s that still simmers and claims lives. In 2015 successive clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, left dozens killed on both sides and inspired hateful rhetoric from the rival heads of state.
What makes this particular showdown so frightful is Azerbaijan is using its substantial oil money to build its war machine whose arsenal is bolstered by Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the US.
A generation ago a country that used to be called Upper Volta underwent a revolutionary transition that displeased its former colonial master. A 1987 coup d’etat instigated by France put Blaise Campaore in charge of Burkina Faso and he has clung to power until 2014 when a vigorous protest movement forced his exile.
The resulting power vacuum left Burkina Faso on the brink throughout 2015. Matters appeared to have taken a turn for the worst when an elite military unit launched a coup in September. But popular discontent and regional peacekeeping averted a civil war. A temporary head-of-state oversaw national elections that swept Roch Marc Kabore into office.
Burkina Faso’s recent experience is an important lesson in how countries fail.
A decade after its civil war ended the landlocked African state was almost consumed by fratricidal violence again. A controversial election win in July by incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and Hutu politician, ignited clashes between the government and opposition groups.
The rising body count in 2015, which has reached 400 killed, sparked concern in the region–all of Burundi’s neighbors are fragile countries prone to war–and stoked fears that an ethnic bloodbath could be underway. Burundi shares a common heritage with its neighbor Rwanda and is susceptible to a repeat of the 1994 genocide.
Burundi’s government has resisted calls for the deployment of African Union peacekeepers to restore order.
With Boko Haram driven from their enclaves in Eastern Nigeria the group have begun targeting neighboring countries. Their clandestine skills are now so effective suicide bombers attack with impunity. Cameroon in particular has suffered a great deal as relentless cross-border attacks killed thousands of its citizens.
The government’s response has been erratic and heavy handed. This is why multinational forces, mainly from Chad and the US, are deploying there to assist in the war against Boko Haram. But years of brutal combat have left the militant organization with a hard core of veteran fighters and an intimidating arsenal that’s more than a match for regional militaries.
The fight is far from over and is shaping to be a long one.
Central African Republic
The rest of the world pretty much ignored the civil war raging in CAR since 2013. In circumstances that echo ongoing conflicts embroiling its neighbors, a power vacuum left by a deposed tyrant led to “communal violence” between Muslim and Christian armed groups.
The scale of this tragedy can’t be emphasized enough since warfare along ethnic, tribal, and religious lines is a common feature in CAR’s vicinity. i.e. Cameroon, South Sudan, Congo, Uganda…places blighted by an endless cycle of strife.
A peace treaty brokered in faraway Kenya and a papal visit in November did give Africa’s newest failed state a semblance of hope. It’s small relief in a region where the absence of political and economic freedom destroys whole countries.
It’s hard to describe the turmoil among the collection of small countries beneath Mexico. The sheer volume of deaths and homicides made El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala the most dangerous places in the world for two years running.
But there’s no war in these countries. What they’re suffering from appears to be a phenomenon of mass violence that can’t be blamed on the drug trade, poverty, or injustice. It appears social and historical problems forced a renewed confrontation between governments and their militarized police forces versus organized crime, leaving a horrific body count.
It’s understandable for El Salvador and Guatemala, since both are post-civil war states. Honduras’ agony is perplexing given the relative peace of its neighbors Nicaragua and Belize.
Like several countries on this list Colombia is stuck with an ongoing civil war–the longest in South America–even when its economy flourishes thanks to exports and globalization. Peace talks with the leftist rebel group FARC are now in their fifth year and it’s uncertain how soon Bogota buries the hatchet with its nemesis that fields a guerrilla army several thousands-strong.
This doesn’t mean Colombia was spared from violence as battles still took place throughout the year between the rebels and government forces. Any breakthrough and reconciliation in the Havana negotiations with FARC leads to another conundrum: What to do with the other leftist terrorist group the ELN who have shown no willingness for compromise and only negotiate halfheartedly.
Congo, Democratic Republic of
It’s nothing short of a miracle how the DRC remains a cohesive state despite its frightening problems. The country’s east is a lawless frontier that’s a tinderbox should ethnic tensions in neighboring Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi boil over, which it has in the past. Should this happen there is little the Kabila regime can do since the armed forces are in disarray.
The incumbent strongman Joseph Kabila is another liability in a region where overstaying presidents are the norm. With little to show for after almost 20 years in power and a total unwillingness to leave office, his country’s future is an uncertain one. It just happens to be fortunate that the UN maintains its own peacekeeping garrison in Congo.
The Egyptian military is busier than ever as it tries to eliminate terrorist threats in the country’s frontiers. A full-blown state of rebellion reigns over the Sinai Peninsula as militants allied with ISIS relentlessly attack the army and conduct terrorism. The combat is fueled by arms trafficking and the questionable prowess of Egypt’s soldiers who, like their Iraqi and Syrian counterparts, abandon their weapons and equipment when routed.
The nature of the Sinai threat changed completely when evidence emerged that a Russian passenger jet was downed by a bomb planted in its cabin. But Cairo is undeterred by its life-or-death struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist offshoots and plays a serious role in Libya while assisting the Saudis in Yemen.
The fiercely independent soldier state on the Horn of Africa is falling apart 25 years after attaining its hard-earned freedom from Ethiopia.The two countries warred again at the turn of the century and have since remained bitter enemies. But it appears prosperity, or the lack thereof, and not brute force is what will decide Eritrea’s fate.
For the past several years Eritreans have been leaving their drought-stricken country, which is run like a police state by the autocratic and paranoid Afwerki regime, to escape its oppressive draft and the near-total absence of economic growth. The situation is so dire that a rebel group sponsored by Asmara fought itself out of its base and sought refuge in war-torn Sudan.
The Horn of Africa’s largest country is enjoying spectacular economic growth but is threatened by the very same forces that triggered a civil war in the 1990s. This is the underlying risk of the ruling EPDRF’s governance–a political party antagonistic to democratic values, transparency, accountable conduct, and journalists–that’s now focused on attracting foreign investment.
2015 was mostly stable for Ethiopia, whose armed forces are still battling rebel groups in the north and keeping the peace in Somalia, until soldiers and police suppressed a protest movement outside the capital as the year drew to a close. This happened as relations with Eritrea remained frozen and a horrific drought battered agricultural production and left a humanitarian crisis in its wake.
Western Europe’s long peace remains very much intact but this didn’t spare the citizens of Paris from terrorism. In January and November last year jihadis affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State slaughtered hundreds of innocent people. This didn’t push France to all-out war but it did raise the tempo of its military deployments abroad.
Since late last year the French military has been preparing a coalition-style assault on Libya. This upcoming intervention is part of a huge deployment in North Africa, where 3,000 French soldiers are now based in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.
France is also playing an active role in Syria and Iraq while balancing its ambitions with Russia and Iran.
Asia’s quiet giant has no shortage of threats to its peace. India is arms racing with two of its neighbors, Pakistan and China, who both have nuclear arsenals and territorial ambitions. But while New Delhi can be cordial with Beijing the old feud with Pakistan is the one that still erupts in fighting and kills people.
India’s own domestic security environment is less threatening as terrorism and insurgency, though ever-present, have nosedived. There are no immediate localized threats to the government as well. The Pax Indica is a viable peace bubble in a corner of the world that isn’t very secure. Bear in mind how each of India’s large neighbors–Myanmar, Pakistan, and Iran–are entrants in this annual list.
Almost two decades after the Suharto regime unraveled Indonesia has proved to the world it’s a functioning democracy, albeit one with lingering internal problems. More than alarming reports of smog from its annual man-made forest fires a forgotten war in West Papua continues to this day.
There are actually insignificant levels of violence in the resource-rich territory that was annexed 47 years ago. Poor and nearly inaccessible, Papuan resistance against the Indonesian police and armed forces has been erratic at best. But a nationalist movement is very much alive and Jakarta only lifted a ban on journalists traveling to East Papua last year.
This shows how sensitive previous administrations were to accusations that its security forces were suppressing the Papuans.
The Islamic Republic shares a lot in common with its adversaries the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. While not at war the Iranian military and its proxies are fighting in several theaters. 2015 marked the fifth year of steadfast support for the embattled Assad regime. At this stage in the civil war Iranian officers and Hezbollah are running the Syrian Arab Army.
The diplomatic breakthrough in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program had little effect on Iranian operations in Iraq against ISIS. But inside Iran a festering Kurdish rebellion is keeping local security forces occupied as well. Saudi Arabia’s meddling in Yemen has added pressure on Iran’s leaders, who are now being threatened by the military clout of belligerent Gulf states.
Does Iraq qualify as a rump state? If so then at least it’s a wealthy one. A fourth of its territory is occupied by ISIS. A smaller enclave in the north belongs to the Kurds who now maintain a sizable, if ill-equipped, armed forces. Baghdad’s own military is a paper tiger easily dwarfed by the Shia militias equipped by Iran.
Meanwhile advisers and trainers from the US, NATO, Iran, and perhaps Russia are on the ground. It’s a bizarre state of affairs where world leaders are hoping intervention on the sly can solve the self-inflicted problems caused by the Iraqi government. Too many cooks spoil the broth?
At least Baghdad is willing to fight and pay for a longer war.
Despite its unnerving proximity to Damascus, Israel is untouched by the Syria’s troubles while launching air strikes against its enemies there. It’s a remarkable achievement but isn’t surprising given how Israel is an enormous armed camp after 68 years of bad relations with its neighbors.
But the environment surrounding Jerusalem is awash in threats it never faced before. Hezbollah remains entrenched in Southern Lebanon. The Egyptian Sinai is riven by a guerrilla war between Cairo and Islamist militants. The Russians are out in force over Syria while ISIS is largely intact. Iran is now poised to strengthen its economy and carve up Iraq.
Little wonder how Israel’s defense budget has grown to a point where the government can’t afford it.
The chaotic trajectory of the Syrian Civil War has drawn all its neighbors into the fight to either topple or preserve the teetering Assad regime. Scenic Lebanon, a country preoccupied with overcoming its paralyzed governance while in mortal danger from Israel, is a reluctant participant in the grinding conflict.
Not only must it support millions of Syrian refugees but its homegrown terrorist group Hezbollah plays a major role propping Damascus. Lebanon itself is under siege from ISIS–the group launched a devastating attack on Beirut in November–and its eastern border is a pitiless war zone. This has motivated deliveries of US military aid and Saudi Arabian money for a French arms deal to equip the country’s struggling armed forces.
The world’s best example of a post-civil war failed state remained in turmoil throughout 2015. The situation in Libya today is so dire that multiple countries are intervening to save it. But the reality on the ground suggests this won’t be an easy task. “Libya” has fractured into six territories where numerous small wars are being fought by militias.
On one level there’s the longstanding rivalry between two separate interim governments in Tobruk and Tripoli. Then there are the remnants of the former armed forces led by the US-backed Khalifa Haftar whose goal is to defeat the growing menace of localized Al Qaeda and ISIS branches.
Libya’s current state is a painful remainder of regime change gone awry.
The specter of violence and intrigue continues to haunt the Balkans. An inexplicable turn of events this year almost sparked another civil war in the former Yugoslavia when gunmen occupied a Macedonian police station.
The resulting showdown in Kumanovo last May left 22 dead and revealed the existence of a shadowy Albanian militant group dedicated to overthrowing Macedonia’s government. The origins of this particular conflict are murky but it does go back to the 1990s when Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians fought for independence from Belgrade.
The nationalism that fueled the last war is alive and well with dreams of a “Greater Albania.” It festers at a time when the Balkans is a nexus for illegal immigration, espionage, and lucrative arms deals.
If not for a timely intervention by the French two years ago Mali would have fallen apart like Somalia. With Tuareg separatists and jihadis kept at bay the parched North African state is playing host to an enormous multinational force consisting of soldiers from 38 countries.
Together with the French military, who are deploying in what used to be the Francophone colonial territories, international troops are taking an active part combating rebels and helping reorganize Mali’s fledgling domestic security apparatus. It’s obvious the Malian conflict is a far-sighted nation building project.
But Mali isn’t Afghanistan in the Sahara. The mission to save it from the clutches of civil war, however, suggests a long engagement for the armies involved.
If official statistics are to be believed Mexico is a far more violent country than war-torn Iraq. Nearly 200,000 people have died since 2007, the year after a major crackdown on drug cartels began. This absurd factoid comes from a decade of undeclared civil war between the military, police, and rival narcos.
What ails Mexico is hard to explain in a few sentences. It’s a phenomenon that defies the patterns of societal decline so common among failed states. Drug cartels are able to amass fortunes and bankroll small armies who then fight each other when not battling the government for control of entire towns, cities, and states.
This is happening in a prosperous country that’s a magnet for foreign investment.
Southeast Asia’s most fractious state had a rough year. It began with a long campaign to suppress the Kokang rebellion in the country’s northern regions bordering China.
It was against this backdrop that a Myanmar air force jet mistakenly bombed a Chinese village. The incident forced Beijing to mobilize troops and aircraft in Yunnan Province, a reaction that strained ties between two supposedly longstanding allies.
The violence directed at the Rohingya further tarnished Myanmar’s reputation as an entire population suddenly became stateless migrants. A breakthrough agreement between Naypyidaw and 20 rebel groups to cease hostilities didn’t prevent renewed clashes with Karen and Rakhine rebels.
Contrasting its hard-won economic development, Myanmar is still a country where civil war is normalized.
One of the most brutal wars in Africa appears to be winding down. With the hamstrung armed forces driving back Boko Haram from their enclaves–pressure that also caused them to attack neighboring countries–a semblance of normalcy has returned.
The peace is elusive in Africa’s richest country, however, as fighting continues and Abuja tries to resettle huge numbers of refugees. Even in defeat Boko Haram’s notoriety peaked last year when the group was recognized by press agencies as the deadliest terrorist organization in the world, responsible for killing an estimated 20,000 people since 2013 and causing the displacement of millions.
Despite their losses Boko Haram are proving resilient and the group’s activities have diversified into trafficking and arms production.
Always defined by its stark contrasts, Pakistan maintains its fierce reputation as a nation constantly battling enemies from within and without. Long accused of coddling terrorists for “strategic depth,” no other country has done more to literally wipe out militants in its restive tribal areas.
What began as a crackdown on a localized Taliban branch in 2014 continued well into the following year. It also signaled the start of a long war where Pakistan’s military needs to garrison its shared border with Afghanistan.
But Pakistan kept its eye on India too and quietly expanded its nuclear arsenal without the hassle of interference from the West. Ongoing military transactions with China and the US are reminders of its perpetual war footing.
With national elections looming it’s unlikely the Philippine government’s problems with Muslim rebels in Mindanao will disappear for good. On January 26 a botched wetwork in a hamlet called Mamasapano killed 44 policemen and derailed peace talks between Manila and a large Muslim rebel group.
The fallout from the incident, which targeted a Malaysian terrorist wanted by the FBI, embarrassed President Aquino and triggered a fresh round of combat involving the military and Muslim rebels. Violence persisted in the far-flung island of Basilan where terrorists known for kidnapping foreigners declared its allegiance to ISIS and continued fighting government forces.
As 2015 neared its end Muslim rebels launched attacks on local communities, which further dampened hopes for a tranquil new year.
Moscow is not at war anywhere but the Russian armed forces do happen to be deployed in several theaters. After orchestrating a rebellion that carved up Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putin turned his attention to Syria this year and oversaw the arrival of troops and aircraft there.
The Syrian intervention did have consequences, however. In November hundreds of Russian tourists were killed after their plane exploded in midair over the Sinai. Weeks later a Russian Su-24 was shot down by Turkish F-16’s, triggering another diplomatic row with a neighboring country.
This was a very aggressive year for the rich desert kingdom. The beginning of 2015 saw the transition from one reign to another as King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud ascended the throne and marked the occasion by rewarding his subjects. It became apparent in the ensuing months it was his son Prince Muhammad bin Salman who was actually calling the shots and steering a hawkish foreign policy.
In late March Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition to launch airstrikes against Yemen that would stop the Houthis, whom it believes are proxies of its arch-rival Iran. The kingdom took a less direct role in other conflicts, showering Lebanon with cash for new weapons and trying to reorganize the battered Syrian opposition.
The Horn of Africa remained an unfriendly place given Somalia’s perpetual conflict. Although a modicum of stability has emerged in regions like Puntland and Somaliland the war-torn country’s southern half saw continuous battles between regional forces and the Al Shabaab militant group.
Aside from Al Shabaab the rest of the country appears to be stabilizing as a functional, albeit weak, government is being assembled in Mogadishu. But this doesn’t mean Somalia’s woes are coming to an end. Conditions for its citizens, the free press, and the local economy remain dire and environmental problems put millions at risk.
But whatever breakthroughs happen in Somalia would only be possible thanks to large multinational armies deployed by the UN and the African Union.
Sudan and South Sudan
The most violent corner of Central Africa remained true to its heritage of endless civil war and dispossession. With Omar al-Bashir’s regime secured by a loyal military the ongoing wars in Darfur and Kordofan continued. The scale of the violence heightened in April when rebels launched an attack on the capital Khartoum.
After six decades of continuous fighting Sudan’s military is so well-regarded that Sudanese soldiers were deployed in Yemen to support the Saudi coalition there.
Meanwhile the war in South Sudan winded down after the two main factions signed a peace deal last August. But this hasn’t ended the conflict which directly or indirectly involved the US, Israel, China, Russia, and Uganda to play individual roles in the conflict.
Syria’s brutal civil war is now a Great Power showdown that has drawn all the large militaries in Europe and the Middle East. The year began with the baffling problem of ISIS, whose mini-state spanning Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq remains intact despite a prolonged US-led air campaign. Its only counter-balance is an emerging Kurdish enclave called the Rojava.
Assad’s regime fared badly throughout the year as its ground control was reduced to Damascus and an embattled pocket along the Mediterranean coast. It was Russia who turned the tables as Putin’s warplanes began rolling back the opposition while Iranian advisers took command of what was left of the Syrian military. As things stand a sensible end to Syria’s misery remains elusive.
One of the more obscure Central Asian republics experienced its own homegrown violence in 2015. Tajikistan is mountainous low-income country tucked between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and China. It was engulfed by a civil war after it gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed–its economy today runs on cotton, remittances, and drug smuggling.
A quarter century later a veteran of the civil war who became a general and local tycoon took up arms against the government. This led to battles around Dushanbe involving the local police and military against Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda‘s followers. By mid-September Nazarzoda was killed after an intense manhunt. This particular episode was proof that former enemies in Tajikistan’s domestic politics have old scores to settle.
Compared to the storm and stress of 2014, this was a tranquil year for the Southeast Asian giant. But the relative peace across the kingdom terminated in its three Muslim provinces bordering Malaysia. Since 2004 persistent attacks on Buddhists and security forces by unnamed rebels have left several thousand dead.
With Thailand ruled by a civilianized junta peace and order are now national priorities. This left the Thai armed forces with the thankless task of rooting out an invisible secessionist movement called Mara Patani whose cloak and dagger tactics have undermined Bangkok’s authority. After a decade of unrest Thai authorities now appear willing to dangle a carrot at their adversaries for a little breathing room and a much-deserved peace.
Ever since the ISIS threat mobilized the Kurds in Syria and Iraq Turkey has been exercising its hard power with impunity. With its clandestine project to arm and equip Syrian rebels faltering, the air force took to pounding ISIS and the Kurdish PKK. This delivered counter-productive results as both groups launched attacks on their common foe.
Turkey’s newfound aggression eventually begat the bombings in Ankara on October 10 that killed more than a hundred people and led to a greater Turkish presence over Syria’s airspace. In November Turkish planes shot down a Russian bomber, an incident that sparked a harsh diplomatic spat. Meanwhile, Turkmen militias are active within Syria and the Turkish army maintains a strong, albeit low key, presence in Iraq.
Even with the February 15 diplomatic breakthrough in Minsk fighting continued along Eastern Ukraine’s battle lines. The reality of the situation was, as international attention shifted away from the crisis, Russia’s slow invasion of its neighbor continued on an insidious scale.
When the Ukrainian military and the so-called separatists agreed to limit the deployment of heavy weapons combat persisted in Debaltseve and Mariupol, killing scores from either side. The fallout of the conflict is grim. The impoverished Donbass is devastated and an estimated 50,000 have been killed since hostilities began in mid-2014.
The sanctions hurting Russia didn’t spare Ukraine from its own social ills and both countries are now locked in a territorial dispute–the kind that lingers for generations.
The year marked the complete breakdown of the Republic of Yemen, a modern state founded 25 years ago, as the Houthi revolution pressed southward. This compelled Saudi Arabia to assemble a regional coalition among Sunni Arab states and intervene on behalf of ousted former President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The resulting conflict was an indecisive one as the Saudi-led Coalition’s air power accomplished little except demolish a poor country’s economic base. The resulting chaos has even enabled the slow expansion of militant groups loyal to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But the Houthis together with their local allies are undeterred and fighting back. Yemen is now caught in another civil war overlapping a conventional land war with Saudi Arabia.