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 2017.
The value of this annual report is for those who appreciate hindsight and the role war plays in shaping societies. It’s better if the lessons imparted by recent experience don’t go to waste when the very structure of global order causes barely contained mayhem. So an informed perspective is needed to avoid the worst that history can throw at us.
After the stress and tumult of 2016 the past twelve months have been a revelation. The world’s largest terrorist army was finally defeated while its attempts at local revivals in North Africa and Southeast Asia are stymied. No major wars broke out, but the risk of destructive conflict remains–North Korea’s possession of a nuclear missile arsenal is one example. In the wake of ISIS, supercharged trans-national terrorism does pose a threat to peace everywhere.
A bitter confrontation between the Russian Federation and the US hangs over Europe. Another pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran is casting a shadow across the Middle East, where the Syrian maelstrom still burns. A grand alliance is forming across the “Indo-Pacific” to deter China’s expansion. Meanwhile, the relative peace of Africa and Latin America can barely mask the risks faced by unstable countries in these continents.
All these theaters have the potential of erupting, but they haven’t. Maybe the world today is best described as a troubled landscape rather than a patchwork of conflict, because mass violence isn’t that great a threat to humanity anymore. But its terrible specter remains and many wars, albeit small ones, are still being fought in dark places.
The countries presented are arranged alphabetically.
The imperial project to save Central Asia’s most blighted country has run aground. The Taliban are resurgent and Kabul’s own security forces suffered appalling losses as they desperately battled for towns and cities. By the end of 2017, the government’s territorial control was reduced to little more than half the country. An opium poppy bumper crop and the spread of ISIS are diminishing prospects for healthy development. While NATO’s footprint has lightened, the US is steadfast in propping up its worst “ally” even if it means squandering more wealth in a pointless foreign adventure.
Central African Republic
Africa’s poorest and least developed country slid back into chaos in 2017 as communal violence spread outside the capital. The Central African Republic (CAR) has been in a state of near total anarchy since 2013, when its corrupt ruler Francois Bozize was overthrown by rebels. The best efforts by UN peacekeepers to diffuse the fighting between the Muslim Seleka militia, whose ranks have splintered, and their rivals the Christian Anti-Balaka brought few tangible results. One fifth of the population are estimated to be internally displaced and there’s damning evidence of widespread atrocities on civilians.
The countries that form the”Northern Triangle”–El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras–are experiencing the long-term effects of a law and order breakdown. For several years now unrestricted urban gang violence among the three has killed as many people as a civil war. Going by estimates since 2011, almost 800,000 people living in the triangle have fled their homes. Honduras is in acute risk since its unbelievable homicide rate, which receded a bit in 2017, is the backdrop to a political crisis that’s stoking civil conflict. Homicides in El Salvador reached a few hundred people a month, while Guatemala has made steady progress reducing its astronomical murder epidemic.
Instability is a permanent feature in the bigger Congo–its neighbor the Republic of Congo is problematic too–and 2017 exposed its faults more than ever. With President Joseph Kabila refusing to step down from power a popular revolt erupted mid-year while violence spread in the southeast and reportedly killed hundreds. The D.R. Congo’s northeast, on the other hand, has changed little and remains a lawless frontier kept intact by a powerful UN peacekeeping army. Although the country isn’t gripped by civil war, economic and political woes have dimmed its future prospects.
Rather than ebb after years spent battling the government, the Islamist insurgency in Sinai is growing stronger and spreading. Just like in the previous year, ISIS-linked terrorist cells tried their best to provoke societal discord. A brutal attack on Christian pilgrims in May was eclipsed by an even worse attack on a Sufi mosque filled with worshipers that killed nearly 200 people and left a hundred more injured. Aside from shows of force and boots on the ground, it’s apparent Egypt’s soldiers and police have no clear strategy for ending this war.
Always troubled by ethnic unrest, Ethiopia failed to avoid being sucked into turmoil in 2017 when anarchy spread in its eastern provinces. The violence was triggered by petty disputes between the Oromo and Amhara populations. Pogroms targeting entire villages caused nearly 500,000 to flee their homes. For communal hatreds to boil over worsens Ethiopia’s cohesion as the government recovers from a recent popular revolt. Without the constant threat of a minor civil war among its people, Ethiopia can enjoy its status as a rapidly developing economy–nominal GDP growth in 2017 reached 7%.
The South Asian giant is on track to become a world power by the 2020s but the prestige comes with a lot of baggage. A war almost broke out with China over a remote strip of territory near Bhutan. Occupied Kashmir was far form tranquil in 2017 as militants continued attacking Indian troops, including a suicide mission on an army barracks in December. As the long confrontation with Pakistan nears its eighth decade, it’s apparent India will have to fashion a tough foreign policy for itself. No wonder New Delhi is cozying to Kabul.
The Islamic Republic is the most aggressive player in the Middle East right now. Even with its economy battered by low oil prices and sanctions Tehran’s proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are actively engaged in shaping a new order that would cement Iran’s control over the world’s most vital energy resources. It isn’t surprising how a new Arab alliance is taking shape to confront Iran, whose deft foreign policy impacted every major Middle Eastern crisis in the past year, from Kurdistan to Qatar.
An embarrassment of oil riches is keeping the country afloat as it grapples with so many problems. Having finally crushed ISIS and reclaimed the territory it lost in 2014 and 2015 another war almost started over Kurdish aspirations for independence. A show of force by the Iraqi army and Shia militias in Kirkuk averted the worst. Even with ISIS’ “caliphate” defeated, the threat posed by terrorist cells along with sectarian tensions won’t subside immediately. At least economic growth is on an upward trend.
For years now Lebanon has put up a brave fight against ISIS’ encroachment on the Bekaa Valley. Of course, the manner this campaign was run did raise eyebrows in the Middle East. Without a staunch ally to guide it, the Lebanese army fought side by side with Hezbollah in pitched battles against ISIS. In a shocking twist, a ceasefire in August allowed the militants safe passage by bus to Deir Ezzor in Syria but this was condemned by the US, whose fighter jets launched airstrikes on the retreating convoy.
What used to be one of Africa’s wealthiest countries just seven short years ago is an irredeemable basket case torn apart by irreconcilable factions. Libya’s civil war continued unabated pitting the General Khalifa Haftar’s “national army” against rebel factions who control the country’s east. But the absence of a functioning government means Libya is now a breeding ground for violent extremism and a conduit in the global slave trade. The threat posed by the former probably led to the deployment of Russian special forces in early 2017.
The impoverished desert nation has been at war for six years running. Ever since France intervened in 2012 to crush a Tuareg secessionist revolt the fighting has dragged and destabilized North Africa. This year saw the launch of the G5 Sahel Counter-terrorism Force, a military alliance led by France and supported by the US, to help restore peace in the Sahel. Poor and landlocked, Mali is burdened with a multifaceted rebellion involving jihadists and a near total break down of law and order. Even with generous help from the West and the UN, recovering from its disarray won’t be easy.
It’s been 10 years since Mexico launched its war on drugs and the consequences remain dreadful. The past year saw a rise in homicides after years of consistent decline. By December more than 21,000 murders were recorded by authorities, making 2017 the most violent on record. There really isn’t much the government can do to solve a problem it created, where rampant criminality in specific states is leaving a death toll surpassing an active war zone. The convoluted struggle between the cartels, the police, and the military since 2007 has killed 200,000 people, most of them civilians.
Southeast Asia’s most troubled country sank to new depths this year. Government forces continued to brutalize the Muslim Rohingya population in Rakhine state, causing an exodus of 600,000 men, women, and children who poured into neighboring Bangladesh. The resulting backlash from the international community did little to uplift the Rohingya’s plight and revived Myanmar’s penchant for isolationism. Meanwhile, a handful of ethnic armed groups are once again battling the military in the north and east. This is the clearest proof yet that Myanmar’s house is in disorder.
The hot African state got sucked into the regional war brought about by the rise of Boko Haram five years ago and is now hosting a multinational force to help preserve its sovereignty. But Niger’s low profile evaporated in October when four US commandos were killed in an ambush near the border with Mali. The fallout and scrutiny that ensued revealed the scale of the conflict gripping North Africa–Radical Islamists have learned how to spread their influence among weak states. This created a vortex that’s drawing more world powers like France and the US into the fray.
Africa’s largest economy seems to be always on the verge of internal collapse. Although Boko Haram has been successfully defeated from a military perspective, the group remains active and keeps the northeast unstable. This is bad news for the millions displaced by the fighting and the corruption plagued armed forces tasked with crushing the Islamists. To the south, in the Niger Delta, an old rebellion over oil reserves has flared up again. The country’s domestic politics is far from stable and the next few years are going to be rough for this troubled democracy.
South Asia is far from a tranquil region and Pakistan is one of the primary reasons why. The long and dreary war in Afghanistan means both sides of the Durand Line are havens for terrorists. This is creating a lot of friction and 2017 saw occasional clashes between Afghan and Pakistani troops over an ambiguous border. There’s also the lingering problem of the homegrown Tehreek-e-Taliban who consistently attack civilian targets and the much smaller but equally stubborn Baloch separatist movement. The Line of Control with India was also the site of multiple engagements last year. In short, Pakistan is always unstable.
Beyond the shocking headlines about the government’s brutal crackdown on drug users, the Southeast Asian archipelago is enjoying an unprecedented economic resurgence. But the fragile security of Mindanao undermined the country’s peace. From May until October the brunt of the Philippine military was locked in a showdown against the Maute Group, an ISIS franchise that had seized Marawi. The year also ended with the collapse of peace talks between Manila and hardcore Communist guerrillas.
The Horn of Africa’s most dysfunctional country remains in limbo. As multinational efforts to rebuild Somalia have made steady, if uneven, progress over the years a persistent Islamist insurgency is getting in the way of genuine peace. One of the worst terrorist acts in 2017 took place in the capital Mogadishu. More than 300 were killed by a suicide truck bomb that detonated outside a hotel. But the involvement of China, Turkey, and AMISOM peacekeepers in nurturing a new Somali state makes its near future a little optimistic. Luckily, Somalia does have a lot of friends helping it succeed.
Africa’s former oil giant was still bedeviled by internal strife in 2017. The Sudanese military fought with rebels in war-torn Darfur throughout the year. But the fighting was no longer as intense compared to before, when a permanent garrison of peacekeepers were based in the region. A separate conflict in South Kordofan has subsided and a ceasefire is intact after so many months. Having endured decades of pitiless civil war, it looks as if Sudan is drifting toward a remarkable peace.
The carnage engulfing Africa’s newest state is every bit as terrible as what’s happening in Syria. But the fall of South Sudan doesn’t resonate as much with the international community, nor does its strategic value compel serious multinational intervention, although the UN has maintained a small footprint for several years with little to show for it. The civil war that began in 2013 is now being fought along ethnic lines and civilians are indiscriminately targeted. There aren’t any serious efforts to find a peaceful solution for South Sudan’s woes.
The world’s deadliest conflict entered a new phase in 2017 when conventional battles tipped the scales in favor of Assad. With Aleppo retaken from the opposition, the combination of Russian airpower and Iranian proxies fighting focused their attention on the remaining pockets controlled by anti-regime rebels in the country’s northwest around Idlib. Meanwhile, consistent US and NATO support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allowed them to roll back ISIS and eventually take Raqqa. The battered city fell to the SDF in October after the surviving terrorists vacated their self-declared capital.
The most important country in the Levant still hasn’t come to grips with its status as a regional power. Despite having entered Syria on a handful of occasions, the Turkish military contributed little to the battle for Raqqa. Another war almost broke out in the middle of the year when Kurdistan tried seceding from Iraq, provoking a stern warning from Ankara. Even if it has cozied up to Iran and Russia, Turkey can’t manage to quell the micro civil war against its own Kurdish citizens, which has claimed more than 3,000 lives.
Russian provocations marked the beginning of the war’s fourth year. While actual combat hasn’t reached levels comparable to before the Minsk II ceasefire, Ukrainian forces still clashed with Russian-speaking “separatists” each week. According to some journalists, daily exchanges of gunfire are common. The war over Eastern Ukraine that has displaced nearly three million people since 2014 now appears doomed to persist for years without a definitive solution. Since both NATO and the EU are unable to resolve the conflict, the US has stepped in as a steadfast would-be ally that’s preparing to send Kyiv a lot of new weapons.
With the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) having splintered it’s remarkable how both Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their proxies still managed to prosecute their crusade in Yemen, whose battered population are struggling with a cholera epidemic. Owing to uncontested air superiority and more advanced weapons, Arab coalition troops reclaimed more territory from the Houthis. But the militia’s tactics have taken a huge leap forward. Constant missile attacks against Saudi cities, including the capital Riyadh, are a testament to their resilience. Yemen’s former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, tried to break from his temporary allies but the resulting clash ended with his death.