2016: 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 in 2016.
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.
There was no shortage of grim lessons from the previous year.
Conflict and mass violence persisted in five continents, with terrorism in the Middle East still on the rise. Specific actors on the global stage orchestrated much of the world’s mayhem; the US, Russia, Iran, NATO, and (surprisingly) the Islamic State. This is ultimate proof that as our century gets underway, modern countries have neither the will nor the foresight to work together and end war.
The sole exception was the recent peace deal in Colombia, which book ended a struggle that has lasted 50 years. Even if Colombians voted against the peace deal’s terms during a referendum in October neither their government nor the FARC appear willing to resume the showdown.
On a positive note, the incidence of warfare around the world subsided with fewer countries listed for 2016.
But still too many frozen conflicts carried on, with little effort spent resolving them at a time when dangerous new technology–including nuclear weapons–is costing less and less. A bleaker assessment of the times must acknowledge how the recent US elections furthered the possibility of a Great Power showdown in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
It’s a state of reality that forces us to think if we live in the best of times and the worst of times. An age of wisdom and foolishness. Of perpetual peace and endless war. For the reader’s benefit, countries and regions are arranged alphabetically rather than according to how severe the conflict is.
The US military’s greatest debacle is still going strong. Despite a lighter footprint on the ground, with less than 15,000 American and NATO forces left in Afghanistan, the war is intensifying. It isn’t far-fetched to claim at least half the country is outside government control and the Taliban, together with other extremist groups, are resurgent. With the economy in shambles and public institutions weakening, failed statehood is the new normal–as usual.
A short and brutal war, spanning just four days, erupted in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave last April. The ensuing battles pitting Armenians and Azeris were the largest fought since the 1990s and it remains unclear what either side accomplished. The disenchantment over the outcome of hostilities led to protests and domestic terrorism. Armenian gunmen seized a police station in July, taking multiple hostages, to discredit President Serj Sargsyan’s regime.
One of the world’s poorest countries was gripped by tension throughout 2016. With President Joseph Kabila’s last term set to expire the D.R. Congo’s citizens were anxious about their head of state not relinquishing his office; a common enough malady in Africa. Nationwide protests at year’s end contrasted the general lawlessness in eastern Congo, where multiple insurgencies are still brewing.
A low level insurgency in the Sinai is thriving and appears more entrenched than ever. Though its scale doesn’t appear to have grown the Egyptian military and police were targeted again and again in brazen attacks that diminished their credibility. Given the size and lawlessness of the Sinai Peninsula, the Islamist presence there could persist for years to come.
Africa’s saddest country almost went to war again in 2016. Plagued by a population drain and a failed economy, fighting erupted along Eritrea’s shared border with Ethiopia in June, reportedly killing hundreds. The clashes subsided within days but left relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa as hateful as ever. Ethiopia isn’t doing too well either and is once again at risk from rebel groups opposed to the EPRDF regime.
Poised to assume world power status in the coming years, the South Asian giant remains haunted by its rivalry with Pakistan. The two countries came to blows again in the latter half of 2016. Following a terrorist attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir, New Delhi retaliated with “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control. Weeks of skirmishing followed but a full-blown conflict never materialized. A deadly arms race involving fighter jets, submarines, and ballistic missiles is ongoing.
Wracked by terrorism and a corrupt government the embattled country undertook a Herculean task in the waning months of 2016. Mustering the better part of its armed forces and allies, a grueling campaign was launched to retake Mosul–lost to ISIS in 2014–and restore Iraq’s borders. But worse problems lay ahead. A confrontation with a resurgent Turkey looms. The Kurdish question is ignored. Iran’s influence is growing and growing.
The Jewish state is bothered by the usual agents of its insecurity. Hezbollah’s political clout and arsenal are expanding in Lebanon. Hamas are unmolested in the Gaza Strip. Settlements in the West Bank are fueling resentment among local Palestinians. Aside form its clandestine role in the Syrian civil war, Israel is grappling with low level domestic terrorism at the hands of fanatics and militants. It’s an un-solvable problem no matter how many police are involved.
A terrorist attack in Aktobe that left nine soldiers dead shattered the Central Asian state’s relative peace. Vast and underpopulated, with a benevolent dictator calling the shots since independence, Kazakhstan is almost a role model for its neighbors. But the threat posed by hundreds of Kazakh volunteers who’ve joined ISIS and the subtle fissures in the present regime could ruin everything this young country has accomplished.
It’s an ordeal being under persistent threat from radical Islamists who want to take over your country. This is the bind Lebanon is caught in. As a staging ground for Hezbollah’s activities it’s already in the cross hairs of Israel. On the other hand, its plural society and weak government makes it a juicy target for terrorists based in Syria. Dependent on military aid and lukewarm allies, Lebanon’s current misfortunes are overflowing.
The fiercest hope of the Arab Spring is now an embarrassment in its region. Libya is a dusty battleground for the Western-backed Khalifa Haftar and the local ISIS branch. Underneath this mortal struggle for the country’s future is a powerless government lodged in Tripoli and a patchwork of militias who want to plunder Libya’s oil wealth. With or without terrorism, Libya is in very bad shape.
The desert country that almost fell to pieces three years ago is whole again, albeit with the unfailing assistance of French and UN peacekeepers. Mali can now be categorized as a post-civil war state with a final and permanent peace underway. But armed tension and occasional violence haven’t disappeared. The threat posed by Tuareg separatists, Islamist terrorists, and disgruntled factions within the government remains high.
For a decade now Mexico has suffered the world’s greatest crime wave. An out-of-control narcotics industry prompted a brutal government crackdown that pitted drug cartels against the police and the armed forces. 2016 saw homicide statistics surging upward after a two year decline. Each month had an average of 1,500 murders with much of the violence occurring in Guerrero state. The rest of Central America is suffering as well, with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala plagued by gang-related killings.
Southeast Asia’s misfit hasn’t shed all its problems. Underneath the veneer of democracy and civilian leadership Myanmar remains a divided and xenophobic country. A state-sponsored campaign to displace the Rohingya carried on with little interference other than media outrage. Fighting erupted again and again in the country’s highlands between the military and ethnic armed groups who refuse to integrate under a comprehensive peace deal. Myanmar’s civil war simply won’t end soon.
As the war against Boko Haram entered its fourth year Nigeria could boast serious gains even when a separate rebellion in the Niger Delta flared up once more. A combination of foreign assistance and superb planning led to the strategic defeat of Boko Haram but a smaller insurgency is a constant headache for overstretched security forces. A humanitarian crisis is now the greatest burden on the people who survived the terrorist group’s worst atrocities.
India’s arch-nemesis is far from reformed as civilian leadership has done little to solve its internal problems. Pakistan in its current state is burdened by several minor crises. There’s the longstanding showdown in Kashmir, where clashes with India erupted last year, and the troubling preoccupation with the Afghan question–to meddle or not to meddle? The situation is far from quiet within its borders when two lingering insurgencies, among militant Pashtuns and Balochs, are constant headaches for the state.
Riding the crest of economic growth has done little to stabilize the domestic security situation. Islamist terrorism and piracy in Mindanao has marred the Duterte government’s law and order platform. Ongoing negotiations with Leftist rebels are fruitless and endangered by sporadic fighting. The country as a whole is gripped by a homicide epidemic sanctioned by the state and several thousands of citizens have been assassinated.
The scope of Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions now reaches far beyond his country’s borders. Moscow is orchestrating daring adventures in Syria and Ukraine. It’s also planting the seeds of discord across Europe while on an endless search for lucrative arms deals in four continents. Chechnya and Dagestan remain the soft underbelly of fortress Russia where Islamist rebels are dangerous enough to warrant endless counter-terrorist operations.
A quarter century since it collapsed into permanent civil war the Horn of Africa’s worst country is inching its way back to sovereign statehood. This is a generous assessment of Somalia’s progress in recent years thanks to a dedicated UN presence and regional peacekeeping efforts. But chronic warfare is ongoing between multinational forces and the Al Shabaab terrorist group, who are bent on taking over the country.
The world’s youngest country is gripped by a pitiless civil war that could make it Central Africa’s latest basket case. Having clung to power against frightening odds President Salva Kiir is now more determined than ever when punishing his enemies. With former rival Riek Machar fleeing the capital, the Kiir regime attempted to divide the country into smaller provinces. This triggered a new rebellion that has coalesced under the flag of the South Sudan Revolutionary Movement or SSRM.
One of Africa’s most violent countries maintained its reputation as a miserable place to live in. The cash-starved economy is stagnant with little hope for improvement. Fighting continued in South Kordofan, where Khartoum has tried to crush an ethnic rebellion that’s been raging for the past six years. The threat of war hangs over Darfur and President Omar Al Bashir’s regime has made few overtures toward reconciliation with civil society and the world.
It’s the largest active war zone in the world today involving at least 15 countries. As Russia took on a greater role at the operational level Iran furnished the necessary manpower–estimates are from 80,000 to 100,000 fighters–to deliver a crushing defeat on the rebels. This produced the victory in Aleppo, which left much of the city ruined. Besieged by endless airstrikes and Kurds, ISIS stood firm, however, and are a potent fighting force.
The regional giant straddling Europe and Asia is in quite a pickle. Turkey almost descended into civil war after parts of the armed forces staged attempted a coup d’etat to overthrow President Erdogan. Besides the political shitstorm it triggered, with Erdogan purging the government as a result, his government is mired in Syria, Iraq, and the struggle against the Kurdish PKK. How Turkey remains intact at this point is a miracle.
Fighting continued throughout the year in the country’s east. Daily exchanges of gunfire between the military and Russian forces nullified the Minsk 2 treaty from February 2015. Though Moscow has played down its role in the conflict, dozens of fatalities and widespread destruction attest to its efforts at undermining President Petro Poroshenko’s hold on power.
Two years of airstrikes and battles have accomplished nil. The country known as Yemen has ceased to exist, with much of it controlled by Houthis while GCC forces prop its own mini-state in Aden. Saudi Arabia’s conduct has been outrageous and contributed to the thousands of civilian deaths counted by humanitarian organizations. There remains dim chances of peace in Yemen and the conflict might draw even more participants.