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2019: The Year In War

January 5, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

In keeping with other trendy websites and their retrospective posts for the year that was here’s 21st Century Asian Arms Race’s own The Year In War. The value of this annual report is hindsight and insight for examining the role war plays in shaping societies. It’s a consequential task now that the world’s long peace has come to an end and what used to be known as “American Hegemony” is fading. Here are the three great crises leaving serious cracks on the global order explained in broad strokes.

Foremost is a cold war, best understood as a clash of high tech economies, now underway between the United States and China. Its origins can date to the early attempt at a “Pacific Pivot” by the Obama administration in 2011 although the trade dispute that commenced in 2018 may have launched it in earnest. The new cold war has multiple adversaries; a resurgent Russian Federation with its overpowered military and lesser challenges from Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups who are thriving in the world’s unsolved conflicts.

A secondary reason for the present disorder are so-called frozen conflicts. Nearly all of those leftover from the mid-20th century are unsolved: China and Taiwan; India and Pakistan; Israel and Palestine; North Korea and South Korea. New ones started this decade too, whether it’s the tangled contest for the waters of the South China Sea or the bitter stalemate in Ukraine’s eastern territory. Forceful and vibrant diplomacy appears to be absent on the cusp of the 2020s.

A third and final reason is the inability to revive failed states and establish a lasting peace. Afghanistan and Somalia continue to be plagued by terrorism. The whole of Central America is wracked by criminal violence. Libya and Venezuela are two recent examples of countries that are nowhere near recovering from their downfall. Regions such as Central Africa and Western Sahara are showing no signs of stabilizing soon even when global powers are intervening.

At this point in time people can take some comfort in the quality of their lives but this has no influence on the terrible things brewing on a global scale.


After muddling through a national election plagued by threats of violence President Ghani secured another five-year term in office. The civil war against the Taliban is unresolved but the US has made no commitment to leave and progress has been made versus the ISIS-K presence, which has been reduced.


External and internal crises have blighted Cameroon for some years now. Its shared border with Nigeria meant it was sucked into the fight against Boko Haram and then ISIS, whose recruiting activities spans Central Africa. The country’s peace was further shattered by a separatist rebellion in the north that has since dissipated after a heavy-handed response by the government.

Central African Republic

A token multinational force has the thankless task of keeping the peace. Their lack of a clear mission opened an opportunity for Russia to find a new African ally. The risk of violence between Christians and Muslims remains high and the internal refugee problem looks like it will last years.

Central America

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras remain plagued by violent crime with death tolls comparable to a civil war. All have pursued tougher militarized law enforcement versus criminal gangs. Meanwhile, a human rights crackdown is underway in Nicaragua as the Noriega government quashes dissent. The region’s problems are fueling a migrant crisis in North America.


Instability among its neighbors forced N’Djamena to send forces abroad. Chadian troops are assisting Nigeria against Boko Haram and ISIS while other contingents are in Mali battling extremists. President Deby’s regime has avoided another descent to civil war but the situation in Libya has drawn untold numbers of Chadian mercenaries. The country is in the center of a maelstrom.


Having won the peace against its longstanding Communist rebel group problems in its near abroad are posing difficulties for Bogota. At least 1.4 million refugees have moved in from Venezuela and the risk of an uprising against Caracas is very high, with severe humanitarian consequences. Besides the security risk posed by the extremist ELN militants, Colombia’s neighborhood is far from tranquil. Unrest brews in Ecuador and violent crime is plagues the Central American corridor.

D.R. Congo

New leadership has inspired some economic growth but the troubled country’s problems haven’t subsided. The FARDC continue to battle rebels in the northeast and a frightful Ebola outbreak spread in the country’s south. A new threat emerges in the form of Islamist militants who are threatening revolt.


Cairo’s influence is growing in North Africa. This is apparent in its support for the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. Yet security problems closer to home are straining President Sisi’s rule. The Islamist rebellion in the Sinai Peninsula is on its last legs but poses a residual threat and a territorial squabble is brewing with an assertive Turkey.


A full-blown war almost erupted with Pakistan in February after “surgical strikes” on terrorist camps across the Line of Control (LoC). Diplomacy prevailed then but India is no longer keen on grand bargains with its arch-rival. The government’s handling of Jammu and Kashmir, where de facto martial law prevails, shows how internal security is a work-in-progress.

Via Wikimedia Commons.


The Islamic Republic spent the year on a warpath. In June it downed a US drone in the Persian Gulf and three months later Saudi oil facilities were attacked by cruise missiles and a drone swarm, with spectacular results. Its proxies in Iraq have continued harassing American troops and matters took a turn for the worse before the New Year began when angry crowds almost breached the US embassy. An open war between Tehran and Washington, DC is now imminent.


Even with ISIS defeated the Iraqi armed forces stayed preoccupied with crushing terror cells in different provinces. A reported 5,000 US military personnel remain in the country as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. Towards year’s end tension between Shia militias and the US boiled over, leading to airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah’s infrastructure and a targeted assassination of the group’s leader together with Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020. Iraq has turned into a battleground for Tehran and Washington, DC.


Air warfare was the preferred strategy for rolling back Iran’s growing power in the Levant. Israeli strikes in Syria and beyond–at least one attack was carried out in Iraq–showed Tel Aviv’s commitment to national security. Another small-scale war over the Gaza Strip almost blew up in the summer as airstrikes pummeled Hamas again and again. In the absence of the US’ regional presence Israel would have gone ahead and dealt with Hezbollah and Iran’s proxies on its own.


The country’s civil war picked up again after years of disorder. The feud between a “UN backed” government in the capital Tripoli and the breakaway Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar led to protracted fighting since April. Now Tripoli is under siege and Turkey is preparing an armed intervention to prop up its ally.


The landlocked desert country bears the brunt of a raging Islamist revolt. Years of French support with further assistance by its neighbors in the Sahel have achieved little in the way of stability. The brazen attacks by a local ISIS franchise and a government starved of resources leaves Mali on the brink for years to come.


There’s no clear solution to the criminal violence in Mexico. The leadership of President Lopez Obrador has proven inadequate to stem the appalling loss of life in the country’s crime-ridden states. In October the government embarrassed itself when the police caved to the Sinaloa Cartel after a short battle in the city of Culiacán. With no solution at hand, the struggle between the state and the drug cartels is now entering its third decade.


The East African country saw its problems multiply in 2019. A fraught national election saw an alarming rise in arson and other forms of political violence; a negative indicator in a struggling post-civil war country. Adding to its woes, a small-scale Islamist rebellion linked to ISIS is now underway in the country’s north.


The enigmatic Southeast Asian country has turned back on its promise at the start of the decade. New revolts erupted in Rakhine State where Arakanese separatists are fighting against Nyaypidaw’s abuses. Another coalition of rebel groups calling itself the Northern Alliance is putting up a serious fight against the ruthless Tatmadaw. Government control in the north of the country has waned as the Chinese-backed Wa ethnic army marked its de facto independence.


No other country is at high a risk of falling to terrorists at Niger, which is now the site of Africa’s largest ongoing conflict. The problem stems from long simmering rebellions that have metastasized into Islamist militancy. Factions loyal to Al Qaeda and ISIS are rolling back Nyamey’s power and, save for the G5 Sahel alliance, almost nothing is in place to contain the brewing disorder.


Africa’s most populous country is now mired in a regional war not of its own making. The threat posed by Boko Haram may have subsided but Nigeria’s military is part of a multinational fight against extremism in the Sahel, where its neighbors Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger are also involved. The Niger Delta is another flashpoint that Abuja is trying to contain.

Via Wikimedia Commons.


Prime Minister Imran Khan found himself in quite a pinch this year. A roadside bomb that killed dozens of Indian security forces in Pulwama on February 14 almost launched a war with India. When diplomacy prevailed the precarious state of the government’s finances became his next concern. The border with Afghanistan was also problematic and it seems another long-term dispute over it is in the making.


As the country flourishes under the rule of President Duterte marginal threats to national security remain. A lasting peace accord with Muslim separatists in Mindanao under the Bangsamoro framework is now in place. Yet local ISIS sympathizers remain at large and committed to acts of terror; a suicide bombing outside an army base in Sulu shows the group’s reach and how ill-prepared the government is. Manila also shunned renewing peace talks with Communist rebels and is reluctant to criticize China’s behavior in the West Philippine Sea.


Moscow now boasts having the strongest military in Eurasia and has grand ambitions to secure its claims over the Arctic Circle. In the wake of the US’ growing strategic decline the Russian military established a permanent hold on Syria where it’s assisting the offensives to crush the rebels in Idlib. Another far-reaching strategy is also underway in Africa where advisors and mercenaries have visited a dozen countries to help them with internal problems. The ongoing Libyan civil war is one more flashpoint where Russia is trying to decide matters.


A decade ago it was hard to characterize Al Shabaab as a powerful terrorist group. But these Islamists showed their mettle time and time again. Steadfast support from multiple partners, whether it’s AMISOM or Turkey’s unfailing friendship, hasn’t strengthened the Somali state enough. Somalia enters the 2020s plagued by terrorism–Mogadishu was rocked by another horrific bombing on December 28–and at risk of splitting apart as Puntland and Somaliland insist on autonomy.


With the dictator Omar al-Bashir removed from office the long-suffering country turned a new page. But the economy is in tatters and its internal problems are far from resolved; the rebellions in Darfur and South Kordofan haven’t settled. Sudan and Sudanese citizens are also mired in several other conflicts, notably Libya and Yemen.

South Sudan

After years of ruinous civil war the country is now on the path to reconciliation. But a definite peace deal is in limbo and an internal humanitarian crisis may persist for years. A particular risk is harm inflicted on vulnerable civilians by armed groups who have yet to demobilize.


Eight years of an unpredictable civil war has broken the country into pieces. While the Assad regime is intact thanks to Iran and Russia the northwest is a rebel stronghold that refuses to submit. A surprise victory for Damascus occured when US forces abandoned their SDF allies in September, opening a vacuum the regime’s forces were quick to fill.


2019 marked the near total collapse of an enduring alliance between Ankara and Washington, DC as Erdogan made good on his threats to re-arrange his country’s border with Syria in September. The Turkish military is now active in three campaigns: defeating the Syrian Kurds; protecting the Syrian rebels in Idlib; and, with few qualms, providing material aid to the Tripoli government in Libya.


Last year saw Kyiv become the center of a political scandal threatening to unravel the Trump presidency. Aside from embarrassing President Zelensky, the neophyte leader accomplished very little on the national security front. “Separatists” remain in control of Donetsk and Luhansk and no formal end to the conflict has been settled with Russia.


An ugly stalemate has settle in the battered country. With Ansar Allah failing to seize the port city of Hodeidah from the Saudi coalition it maintained a busy schedule filled with border raids and rocket attacks. Sanaa also tried to claim responsibility for the Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities in September. A hyper local secessionist movement is brewing in Aden and terrorist groups have carved enclaves deep in the country.

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