This is our twice-a-year summary of current war zones and an overview of where it is all heading. After the overview, there is the alphabetical list of the war zones and a quick summary of how the local mayhem has been proceeding. Since we have been covering this sort of thing for twenty years now there are some war zones that have gone quiet. We left most of those in summary, with a note that those wars had gone dormant, and may be extinct. History shows that dormant is more common than extinct.
Overall things are a lot more peaceful than the headlines or Internet chatter would have you believe. Like most major trends, world peace just kind of sneaked up on everyone and a lot of people have not noticed. Thanks to modern tech (ubiquitous access to cell phones and the Internet) any mayhem anywhere on the planet easily becomes available to everyone. The gives the impression of more violence when it is nothing more than general access to violence that until recently was never broadcast worldwide and accompanied by video. That gives a false impression. Historians, anthropologists and archeologists have found that centuries ago life was a lot more violent and we have long known that life spans were much shorter. This is still the case with surviving tribal and Stone Age cultures.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 overall deaths from wars and large scale civil disorder (which is often recorded as some kind of war) has led to a sharp (over 20 percent so far) drop in violence worldwide. This occurred despite increasingly active and lethal Islamic terror groups. While the terror attacks themselves were news, the current and historical causes of Islamic terrorism were not. Examining that would have revealed that Islamic radicalism has a large anti-technology component, which is why Islamic terrorist violence tends to be low tech and disorganized. Thus most war deaths are not caused by terrorists and even in 2014 (a peak year for Islamic death cults) terrorism-related deaths (mostly Islamic terrorism) accounted for 20 percent of all war-related deaths. Islamic terrorism gets the most publicity but less glamorous disputes do most of the killing.
Islamic terrorism no longer dominates the news now that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has been crushed (but not destroyed). Global Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014 when there were 35,000. Global deaths hit 19,000 in 2017 and under 14,000 for 2018. Since 2014 five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan) have accounted for most of these deaths. The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL, a more radical faction of al Qaeda that currently is where the most radical practitioners of Islamic terrorism are found. Islamic terrorists continue to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism-related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorist-related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorist-related deaths and are outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.
The Imperial Curse
Islamic terrorism is also a component of some efforts to revive ancient empires and dealing (peacekeeping) with all the mayhem that both of these malignant movements creates has been increasingly difficult. The number of refugees created by all this mayhem has reached numbers not seen since the aftermath of World War II. The motivation for all this violence is generally about religion, territorial claims or both. As a result of this trend reviving empires is a common theme with all the major troublemakers in the early 21st century (and most of the 20th). This is an ancient curse that has reappeared recently in multiple forms. Some of these efforts are more media friendly than others but all share the same characteristics; mobilizing popular support for rebuilding lost empires and, especially in the West, how to deal with all those refugees. Most Moslem majority nations refuse to accept refugees, especially Moslem refugees. This is connected to the reasons for the outbreaks of Islamic terrorism but that connection is understood better in Moslem nations than in the West, where many actively deny that there is a terrorism problem inherent with Islam.
The most obvious one example of all this (the Islamic caliphate) grabbed most of the headlines after 2014 because Islamic terrorism has been a common symptom of desperate, longshot efforts to restore the caliphate for over a thousand years. As a religion based empire (“Islam” literally means “submission”) that has been hostile to any kind of progress (especially technology, economic or religious) past revival efforts have been unsuccessful. Thus the quick and brutal demise of ISIL was largely because it also tried to use self-righteous fanaticism as its primary weapon and motivation in a world that was largely hostile to such a brutal and simplistic ideology. ISIL was one of the few Islamic radical movements that mobilized nearly all Moslems to jointly and violently oppose it. Yet even with ISIL suppressed there are plenty of other Islamic empire revivalists who all seek to not just make Islam great again but to do it on a global scale. ISIL is still around as are the religious beliefs that have kept Islamic terrorism flaring up periodically for over a thousand years.
ISIL was not the only major Moslem effort to revive a religion-based empire. There are two others underway and causing lots of problems because they are more about nationalism and ethnicity than religion. First, there is Iran, which has been a regional superpower for thousands of years but fell on hard times after the 7th century because of a succession of damaging visits by invaders. First came conquest by the Arab revival (the initial wars of conquest by newly converted Moslem Arabs). This was humiliating because Persians never thought such a thing possible. That was followed by a devastating visit by the Mongols after which came a series of exhausting wars with the Ottoman Turks and finally the Western nations and all their new tech and ideas. Even before the largely secular Iranian monarchy was replaced by a religious dictatorship in the 1980s Iranian imperial ambitions, financed by all that new and unexpected oil wealth, were seen as a growing problem. This may be a problem that resolves itself because since late 2017 nationwide anti-government protests broke out in Iran and continue in to 2019. Young (born after the 1980s) Iranians are now the majority and want an end to corruption, theocracy and expensive foreign misadventures. The operation in Syria was seen as particularly wasteful and expensive, especially with Israel threatening to use whatever it takes (including their nukes) to prevent Iran from creating a military presence on their northern border.
In another unexpected development, Turks got interested in religion and empire building again. In the 1990s the Turks, who had gone secular after their centuries old Ottoman Empire collapsed in the 1920s, decided to give Islam another chance as an elected ruler (Recep Erdogan) tries, with some success, to revive the Ottoman empire using a combination of Islam, technology and creative diplomacy to make Turkey great again. This comes into conflict (as it has in the past) with Iranian efforts to restore their imperial past. The new Turkish empire builder (called “Sultan Erdogan I” behind his back) is not that much interested in taking back lost real estate but is eager to regain the Turkish leadership of the Islamic world. That was lost a century ago when Turkish secular reformers renounced the title of caliph the Turkish Sultan (emperor) has long held. Sultan Erdogan has a lot of opposition at home and not much support in the region for an Ottoman revival. But Erdogan is a resourceful and ruthless politician and in early 2018 won re-election as president. This keeps him in power until 2023 as an elected official even though his political allies are doing much less well with the voters.
Meanwhile, Eurasia finds itself beset by several major imperial revival efforts. In the east, there is China, where the current dynasty is actually a bunch of communist party leaders trying to stay in power using the appeal of lost (centuries earlier) imperial glories. The neighbors and the rest of the world are more alarmed than inclined to submit. Two potential victims (Russia and India) have nukes. This was something earlier Chinese empire builders never had to face although the Mongols did a pretty impressive job of “killing everyone and burning everything” over a wide area. Like current nuclear powers, the Mongols preferred to use the application of massive violence more as a threat than as a regular practice.
To the west there is Russia, where former communist era secret police officers are trying to use imperial nostalgia and the more familiar (to these former KGB professionals) police state tactics to at least stay in power and, if possible, Make Russia Imperial Again. West of the Russian revival is the EU (European Union) that many Europeans see as an effort to revive a European empire that never really existed, although Charlemagne came close for a short time in the 9th century and a thousand years before that the Romans were a contender for a while. There isn’t much nostalgia for these traditional empires but many Europeans back a kinder and gentler empire that is based more on voluntary cooperation than coercion. The EU has run into problems because too many Europeans see the EU developing an unelected bureaucracy that can make all sorts of new rules and even foreign policy without any regard for what their constituents (and, technically, employers) the European voters think. A growing number of Europeans think this EU empire sucks and are demanding that their local politicians (who are still responsible to the voters, at least more so than the EU officials) fix this problem or get their country out of the EU. The imperial officials are not pleased with this ignorance and ingratitude by their subjects and are fighting back in an effort to Make Europe Great Again.
Meanwhile the United States, where millions of people fled to over the last four centuries trying to escape all these old world empires are now dealing with a movement by some of the descendants of these imperial refugees to revive imperial links with the rest of the world. But there are so many to choose from. The EU and Islam seem to be favorites although all the imperial revival movements have some fans in the United States. But many Americans don’t want to Make America Imperial. There are still a lot of new arrivals who have recent personal experience with this stuff and will tell anyone who will listen that all this empire building does not end well. Those painful memories tend to be forgotten after a few generations, with an assist by those who seek to reinterpret history to better serve their current goals rather than to rectify past mistakes. So Americans seek to Make Reality Great Again, at least once they agree on which interpretation of reality to use.
The Nuclear Peace Has A Dark Side
Despite the growing military power of China, and the saber-rattling from Russia, the major military powers continue the Great Nuclear Truce (GNT) that began in the 1950s, when Russia got nuclear weapons, and suddenly realized they could not afford to use them without risking more destruction than past foes like the Nazis, French or Mongols inflicted. As more countries got nukes, the "we can't afford to use them, but they're nice to have" attitude, and the unprecedented truce, persisted. There have been wars, but not between the big players (who have the largest and most destructive conventional forces). Because of the GNT a historical record was broken in 1986, as there had never before (since the modern state system developed in the 16th century) been so long a period without a war between a major powers (the kind that could afford, these days, to get nukes). Since the Cold War ended in 1991 there have been fewer wars, at least in the traditional sense, and the GNT holds. Not only have there been fewer wars since the 1950s but there has been a lot less poverty, especially since the Cold War, and so many communist governments, ended in 1990. At the end of the Cold War (late 1980s) 40 percent of the world population lived in destitution (extreme poverty) but three decades later that poverty rate is down to ten percent. Most of the remaining extreme poverty occur in badly governed areas of the Middle East (Syria, Yemen) and Africa (Libya, Congo, the Sudans) that are also the scene of wars or general disorder.
The downside is a lot more low-level conflicts (rebellions, civil wars) but overall a lot less death, destruction and extreme poverty. Most people are unaware of this situation because the mass media never made a lot of the GNT, it was something that was just there and not worth reporting. Besides, "nukes (bombs, power plants, medicine) are evil" sells if you are in the news business. Calling any incident, with a lot of gunfire and a few dead bodies, a "war" has also been misleading. The fact is, worldwide violence has been declining since the end of the Cold War and the elimination of Russian subsidies and encouragement for pro-communist (or simply pro-Russia or just anti-West) rebels and terrorists. The media also has a hard time keeping score. If you step back and take a look at all the wars going on, a more accurate picture emerges. So take sensational reporting of the “Chinese threat” with a bit of skepticism.
Most current wars are basically uprisings against inefficient, corrupt and oppressive police states or feudal societies which are seen as out-of-step with the modern world. The Internet and widespread adoption of smartphones made most people on the planet aware that a better life was not only a possibility but that many people (especially in the West) had lived the good life for generations. Yet many revolutions are led by radicals preaching failed dogmas (Islamic conservatism, Maoism and other forms of radical socialism) that still resonate among people who don't know about the dismal track records of these creeds. Iran has replaced some of the lost Soviet terrorist support effort. That keeps Hezbollah, Hamas, and a few smaller groups going, and that's it. Terrorists, in general, miss the Soviets, who really knew how to treat bad boys right. No one has yet replaced the Soviets in that respect, an accomplishment even most Russians would rather not dwell on.
Listed in alphabetical order. Text underneath briefly describes current status. Click on country name for more details.
While Pakistan is under increasing pressure to stop supporting Islamic terrorism and drug production in Afghanistan, that support is still intense and decisive. The drugs are winning as they usually do wherever they get established. There are not too many “narco-states” because they all follow the same script. Eventually, locals get fed up with the violence and the growing number of local addicts and the drug gangs get crushed. But “eventually” can take a long time and such is the case with Afghanistan. Look at how that worked in Colombia and Burma. The only thing that nearly everyone in Afghanistan can agree on is that the opium and heroin are bad. Nearly ten percent of the population is addicted to drugs (mostly opiates) and another ten percent (there is some overlap) make a better living or get rich from the drug trade. Most Afghans consider the biggest threat to be the drug gangs, which are largely run and staffed (like the Taliban) by Pushtun tribesmen. Pakistan backed Afghan Taliban want to create heroin producing Islamic terrorist and gangster sanctuary in Afghanistan. If you want to know how that works, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia or Yemen in the early 21st century. No one has come up with any cheap, fast or easy solution for that. Meanwhile, Afghanistan's core problem is that there is no Afghanistan, merely a collection of tribes more concerned with tribal issues than anything else.
Ten percent of the population, mostly living in the cities and often working with the foreigners, believes in Afghanistan the country. But beyond the city limits, it's a very different Afghanistan that is currently motivated by growing prosperity brought on by a decade relative peace and the persistent “traditional” violence. By Afghan standards, an unprecedented amount of cash has come into the country since late 2001. Between economic growth, growing heroin sales, and foreign aid, plus lower losses from violence, it's been something of a Golden Age. This despite decades of war since the 1970s. For example, it's often forgotten that the 1990s civil war was still active on September 11, 2001. The Taliban quickly collapsed in late 2001 and they have been trying to make a comeback ever since, mainly because of support from Pakistan. The key Taliban financial resource; heroin in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, remains the primary fuel to keep this war going. Even many Pushtuns do not like this development and more Taliban factions are negotiating some kind of settlement with the government. Pakistan is trying to prevent peace from breaking out, at least a peace that Pakistan does not control. In other words, everything is pretty normal by Afghan standards. Afghanistan has become politically unpopular in the West and the easiest way to deal with this (for Western politicians) is to get out and let their successors deal with the aftermath. Afghanistan has become another can foreign leaders are kicking down the road. The historical local strongmen have noticed and Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan and India are all trying to have some influence with their wild and erratic neighbor. There have been complications. The Afghan Taliban believed that the Afghan security forces would fall apart in 2015 because most of the foreign troops were gone and those that were left were not fighting. The expected Taliban victory did not happen but there was a lot more Taliban violence. The Afghan soldiers and police stood and fought, but took heavy casualties and many began to take the money and stand aside. The biggest losses are from so many young Afghans with some savings (and often education and useful skills) want to get out of Afghanistan and go to somewhere less lethal than where they grew up. For more and more Afghans Afghanistan isn’t a place you fight for but a place you fight to get out of.
The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings made a slight impact here initially. Islamic terrorists are few and very much on the defensive. Despite a slight increase right after 2011 Islamic terrorist violence has declined since 2014. By 2019 Islamic terror incidents were quite rare. Most Algerians are more concerned with corruption and bad government. That led to the half century old but very corrupt government falling in April 2019. Now the problem is trying to install a working democracy. That has been tried before in the early 1990s but Islamic parties won and the corrupt secular government refused to accept that. This led to the popular rejection of Islamic radicalism because many Algerians are still traumatized by the 1990s war against Islamic terrorists that left over 200,000 dead. With so many civilians hostile to Islamic radicalism and willing to phone in a tip via the growing cell phone network, Algeria has become a very dangerous place for Islamic terrorists. Most Algerians attracted to Islamic terrorism have been killed, fled the country or accepted amnesty as a result of the 1990s war. Algerian Islamic radicals tried to capitalize on the 2011 Arab Spring unrest in neighboring Tunisia and Libya. But in both those countries, the popular uprising was against the local dictators and for democracy, not for an Islamic religious dictatorship. Islamic political parties were popular, but not Islamic radicals. The uprisings in Tunisia and Libya weakened the local security forces and made it easier for Islamic radicals to move around and recruit. Algeria was able to insulate itself from this. Many expected another, and larger, Arab Spring in Algeria eventually and it came quickly in early 2019 with massive protests against the geriatric government that made concessions and tried, without success to reform itself. That both delayed another revolution and eventually prevented one. Meanwhile, Tunisia next door, the first Arab state to rebel in 2011, is so far the only one to do so successfully and has done it despite all the Islamic terror groups that thrived in Libya after 2011. Now Algeria has chance to should how it should be done.
This area has become quieter since the peacekeeping efforts of the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections. There is some Islamic terrorist activity there and the usual border disputes and crippling corruption. One ominous development is the growing number of mosques and religious schools being built and maintained by Saudi Arabia. These facilities teach a very hostile (to non-Moslems and any Moslems who do not agree) form of Islam that has been the source of so many Islamic terrorists since the 1980s. The locals are increasingly hostile to the Saudis for this and the Balkans did not become the Islamic terrorist sanctuary many feared.
This area has become quieter since the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly. There will still be coverage as needed and that led to a recent update on efforts to get some serious Islamic terrorist activity going and why they have failed.
Islamic terrorism is popular in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). The thousands of young men who sought to join Islamic terror groups didn’t do it in Central Asia. The vast majority travel somewhere else to act on their impulse to be an active Islamic terrorists. Many Central Asian men joined ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), but not in Central Asia. With the elimination of the ISIL caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2018, there were lots of documents and survivors (families of ISIL men, some ISIL members and local civilians) who could be questioned and lots of data analyzed. The result was some accurate numbers about Central Asian participation in ISIL through the end of 2018. Over 3,000 (but less than 5,000) Central Asians made it to Syria. Over half survived and got out. More worrisome was the fact that for every Central Asian who tried to get into Syria, two or three were stopped at the Syrian border (in Turkey) and turned back or, in a few cases, arrested. The Turks collected data on those turned away and some of those were later captured or killed in Syria. Some of those turned back eventually made it in, but few returned home to become active Islamic terrorists. That is the pattern; many get radicalized, leave and never return. The result is that during the last decade there were only 19 Islamic terror attacks, which left 140 dead in Central Asia. After each of these, the response was swift and usually led to the capture of those responsible and others who were among the usual suspects but not known to be active. This effective counterterror response motivated many radicalized young men to seek a more vulnerable nation in which to defend Islam with extreme violence.
Most of the nations involved here used to be part of the Soviet Union and still had effective secret police and local dictators to encourage ruthless suppression of any dissent. People are putting up with it so far but popular anger at the corruption and inefficient government is growing. The region has become an economic and diplomatic battleground for Russia and China and China is winning. This is something Russia doesn’t like to discuss, but among Russians, the real threat is from the east, not the west.
This area has become quieter since 2010 and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. Chad has even become a major supplier of peacekeepers throughout Africa, especially in Nigeria against Boko Haram. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections or in its own section if unrest reappears inside Chad.
China continues its post-Cold War policy of aggressive territorial claims and risking (but not going to) war with its neighbors. This has more to do with internal politics and the need to distract an increasingly wealthy and concerned population from local problems with corruption, pollution and ineffective government. The corruption has created a lot of bad loans and these, plus a dysfunctional equities (stocks and bonds) market creates a threat that makes far fewer headlines than foreign adventures. China also got away with a lot of unfair (according to international agreements) trade practices. This included massive theft of foreign commercial and government data, mainly to give Chinese companies an edge. There was also currency manipulation and monopolistic practices. This finally led to a trade war with the United States that the Americans appear to be winning. China, because of its own internal corruption and mismanagement, is vulnerable economically and is finding it difficult trying to bluff and bully its way out of making overdue changes in the way it deals with foreign trade and IP (intellectual property) protections. China has been helpful in persuading North Korea to give up its nukes and engage in some needed economic reforms. This is more self-interest than anything else because a nuclear North Korea has become a threat to China more than anyone else (except South Korea). China insists that the South China Sea is now part of China despite international agreements that prohibit such claims. Same situation in other coastal waters bordering South Korea and Japan. Old territorial claims on India have been revived, but are not pursued as aggressively because India has modern nukes, ballistic missiles to deliver them and a large military. China continues its long-range plan to become a military superpower. That means world-class weapons designed and built in China require long-term efforts but the Chinese believe they will get there during the 2020s and 2030s.
Every year China offers new weapons to the world market that are visibly more advanced. The actual performance of Chinese military technology is suspect as much of it is based on Russian stuff. During the Cold War Russian weapons always seemed to be what the losers used. But China keeps trying to improve and is making more progress than the Soviets ever did. The world is seeing more Chinese troops in peacekeeping missions as well as growing Chinese threats to peace. The bottom line, however, is keeping the communist dictatorship in power and that may be the ultimate reason for China avoiding war, or at least one they are not certain they will win. Thus China pursues an ancient, and often quite successful, Chinese strategy that emphasizes what appear to be high-risk policies but is actually long-range efforts to wear down the opposition and eventually assume control of the objective with little risk or cost to China. Or so China believed until the Americans, and many other victims fought back.
This area has become quieter since the peacekeeping efforts of the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage in other sections as needed. We were also covering neighboring Venezuela because the situation there was quite different. After more than a decade of corruption and inept government, most Venezuelans were done with ideas of the radical populist socialist movement that promised to make everything better but instead made everything much worse. For a while it seemed there might be a civil war. That does not appear to be an option because Venezuela has the largest oil reserves on the planet and if the current socialist government can pump enough oil it can finance its continued existence if nothing else. China, Russia, Cuba and Iran have been helping with maintaining the current police state and reviving the oil industry. The failed socialist government borrowed a lot of money from China and Russia. In addition, the government hired Cuba to provide technical advisors available to show the Venezuelan socialists how to establish and maintain a long-term dictatorship. Cuba also provides health care, but only to those seen as loyal to the socialist government. China, Cuba, Iran and Russia are all present in Venezuela because with all that oil as collateral the Venezuelan socialists can probably mortgage that oil to try and buy their way out of a bloody rebellion. Foreign help is desperately needed because the inept socialist government mismanaged their oil industry to the extent that production is falling rapidly and the country is literally bankrupt and unable to pump and ship enough oil to pay for food and other essential imports. Chinese experts are slowly repairing all that damage and Cuban police state expertise is keeping the opposition from exercising their legal rights. About 12 percent of the population has left the country and it is more common for rural communities to have no electrical service or anything else the government is supposed to maintain and protect. The oil is found in the north, near the coast. The government really only needs the capital and the oil fields and that is what the Chinese and Cubans concentrate on. The rest of the nation is considered expendable, or at least that’s how the foreign allies are acting.
The UN and local church leaders managed to eventually persuade the incumbent (since 2001) president (Kabila) to stop trying to become president-for-life. Kabila tried to revive the one-party dictatorship based on corruption and exploiting ethnic divisions. The current (since 2001) president and his father (president from 1997 until his assassination in 2001) had grown up opposing that sort of thing but here it was again. Kabila was supposed to leave office after the 2016 elections selected a new president. He could not run again and was unable to get the constitution changed. He was forced to allow elections at the end of 2018 but was able to rig the vote to get someone willing to cooperate with corrupt system Kabila wanted to keep going. Félix Tshisekedi, the new president, would presumably benefit if went along. It is unclear yet if Tshisekedi has gone into business with Kabila, who still runs a powerful parliamentary coalition. Tshisekedi has benefitted from Kabila’s corrupt activities in parliament and the courts. If such cooperation is more extensive the country is again facing widespread chaos and civil war that is made worse by the ongoing corruption and exploitable ethnic divisions. Solutions have been sought since the 1960s and in 2013 the UN tried something novel, for the UN. To deal with all domestic and foreign rebel groups the UN finally authorized a special “combat brigade” of peacemakers. This brigade was given a license to kill and kill as often as needed to eliminate the last few rogue militias operating in the east. This solved many of the peacekeeping problems in eastern Congo, at least temporarily. Despite that multiple tribal and political militias, plus an increasing number of bandits, continue to roam the eastern border area, perpetuating the bloodiest (and least reported) war of the 21st century (about six million dead). There is similar, but less intense unrest in other parts of the country (especially the separatist minded southwest). The Congolese government finds it cannot (and to a certain extent, will not) cope with the continuing corruption and lack of order in the east and southwest. The reason is money, the millions of dollars available each year to whoever has gunmen controlling the mines that extract valuable ores and allow the stuff out of the country. Congo remains mired in deadly chaos. Elsewhere in Central Africa the Burundi civil war threatens to reignite because the current president is trying to defy the constitution and become president-for-life. In the Central African Republic years of chaos (following the overthrow of a corrupt and incompetent dictator) has evolved into another Moslem versus Christian (and non-Moslems in general) conflict.
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections, mainly Somalia. In 2016 there was more political unrest in Ethiopia which led to the withdrawal of some Ethiopian peacekeepers from Somalia.
India is largely at peace and prospering while neighboring Pakistan continues struggling with the Islamic terror groups it created and supported for so long and the internal corruption and mayhem that policy has sustained. Pakistan also has a problem unique to the region; armed forces that have long (since the 1950s) dominated the political process and become very wealthy and corrupt as a result. Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan has sharply declined since 2014 when public outrage forced the military to shut down the last sanctuary (North Waziristan) for Islamic terrorists that were not under the control of the military. The rogue Islamic terrorists in North Waziristan were seeking to turn Pakistan into an Islamic dictatorship. That would have threatened the Pakistani military and could not be tolerated. Islamic terrorist violence did not completely disappear in Pakistan after 2014 and the military blamed that on outsiders (like India, Afghanistan and the United States). At the same time, the Pakistani generals continued sheltering and supporting Islamic terror groups that only attacked foreign nations (like Afghanistan and India). This contributed to growing hostility towards the military within Pakistan and escalating international criticism. In 2018 the U.S. became more public about the fact that Pakistan was dishonest and unreliable. The Americans pointed out that they had foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and Pakistan gave back nothing but lies and deceit. This backlash began in 2011 when a U.S. raid into Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden. This angered many Pakistanis because it showed that the generals had lied about their involvement with sheltering bin Laden. That raid also made it clear that the military was unable to detect or stop the "invading Americans", or stop local Islamic radicals from later carrying out "revenge attacks" that left hundreds of Pakistani civilians dead. Then came another series of confrontations between the Pakistani military and the civilian government which, by 2018, the military had clearly won (by gaining control of key judges and a newly elected president). That was because old scams still worked. The generals created more confrontations with India and declared that Islamic terrorism was no longer (since 2013) the major threat to Pakistan. The main threat was once again India. This merely increased Indian (and American and Afghan) anger at Pakistani support of Islamic terrorism and the inability of the Pakistani politicians to control their generals. Meanwhile, India further diminished the Pakistani military by continuing to consider China the main security threat to South Asia. India has to deal with some internal unrest, which does far less damage than what Pakistan has to deal with. In fact, Islamic terrorist violence (mainly in Indian Kashmir) is less of a problem than tribal rebels in the northeast and Maoist (communist) ones in eastern India. Both these threats are being slowly diminished while Pakistan continues to make unofficial war on its neighbors. Another problem is that the Pakistani economy is becoming more dependent on Chinese investment as well as Chinese diplomatic support and arms exports. The Pakistani pro-Islamic terrorist attitudes have left it with few allies besides China, Iran and North Korea. Pakistan needs help, but mostly from Pakistanis as the ills that torment Pakistan can only be resolved from within. That is happening despite opposition from the military because the defense budget is unusually high and a lot of it goes to support the lavish lifestyles and foreign bank accounts of senior officers. That has caused a financial crisis that other nations (Arab oil states, the United States and international lenders like the IMF and World Bank) have kept from becoming a catastrophe. But now the financial problems are so great that all the usual sources of emergency cash are insisting that defense spending be curbed or there will be no more financial aid. The house of cards the Pakistani generals had built and maintained since the 1970s was collapsing, not because of religious or military issues but because the nation the generals had plundered for so long was bankrupt and no one was willing to bail them out this time.
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly. There will still be coverage as needed, mostly about counter-terrorism efforts (quite successful so far). Islamic radicals remain active and the government apparently does not want to provoke them. So the Islamic terrorist threat remains as does ethnic unrest, even though it both problems continue to be contained rather than addressed.
Since late 2017 Iran suffered continuing nationwide outbursts against the religious dictatorship running the country. There was similar activity in 2009 to protest the lack of fair elections. The 2009 protests were put down with force. What started in late 2017 was different, with the protestors calling for the corrupt religious rulers to be removed, even killed if necessary. Some protestors called for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s (after first promising true democracy). Even more disturbing was that some of the protestors are calling for Islam to be banned and replaced with something else, like Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that Islam replaced, violently and sometimes incompletely in the 7th and 8th centuries. Right before the late 2017 unrest, the religious rulers saw Iran on the way to some major victories in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The optimism turned out to be premature. The good times were supposed to begin in the wake of a July 2015 treaty that would lift the many sanctions Iran operated under. That did not, as many financial experts pointed out, solve the immediate cash crises because oil prices were still low. This was because Saudi Arabia refused to cut production to keep oil prices high. This was made worse by the continued use of fracking in North America which triggered a massive (more than 70 percent) drop of the price of oil in 2013. Iran made their situation worse by trying to avoid complying with the 2015 treaty while still getting most of the sanctions lifted and for a while, that seemed to be working. That deception turned out badly as the U.S. accused Iran of violating the 2015 deal and by the terms of that agreement the American could and did withdraw. That meant many of the sanctions returned in 2018. Even before the American action foreign economists believed the Iranian economy wouldn’t get moving again until the 2020s. Now it is going to take even longer and Iranians, in general, are not pleased with that at all. The 2017 protests are continuing and intensifying. The senior clerics are worried and openly seeking a solution that does not include them losing their power. Few Iranians are willing to accept that kind of compromise. The religious dictatorship is not only hated but also seen as corrupt and untrustworthy.
The popular protests continue because there are so many unresolved problems that anger Iranians. At the core of all this is an Islamic conservative minority with veto power over any attempts at reform from within. Independent reformers are considered enemies of the state. Most Iranians just want a better life. There are some more complications. Half the population consists of ethnic minorities (mainly Turks, Kurds and Arabs), and some of these groups (Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis) are getting more restive and violent (for different reasons). Yet the Islamic conservatives are determined to support terrorism overseas and build nuclear weapons at home, rather than concentrating on improving the economy and living standards and addressing the corruption within their ranks.
Expensive efforts to aid pro-Iran groups in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon made some progress and are presented as examples of the ancient Iranian empire being reborn. The government sees these foreign adventures as a way to distract an unhappy population. This ultimately had the opposite effect as Iranians did the math and realized their poverty was the result of all the billions spent on these overseas adventures. At home, the nukes are still important because Iranian religious leaders have been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians understand that having nukes would motivate the Arabs, and many others, to bow down. But at what cost to Iran and Iranians in general? The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. That has led to a major reform effort in Saudi Arabia with a new generation of leaders willing to take on corruption and which alliances really benefit the Saudis. That has resulted in openly working with Israel to deal with Iranian aggression. It has also led to another major uprising in Iran as unrest spreads throughout the country and the government is unsure that the security forces are willing to use sufficient violence to shut it down.
Despite the late 2017 Iraqi declaration that ISIL was defeated, the Islamic terror group remains active in northern Iraq. ISIL no longer controls large areas of Iraq but is a problem (violence, extortion, and disorder) in several provinces north of Baghdad. In effect, it took four years, several hundred billion dollars (military expenses, battle damage, economic losses) and over 100,000 Iraqi lives (plus over 20,000 foreign Islamic terrorists) to eliminate ISIL control of Iraqi territory. That effort created other problems, and opportunities. Iran offered help and was allowed to organize, train and often lead in combat over 100,000 Iraqi (largely Shia) militiamen in what was and still is the PMF
(Peoples Mobilization Forces)
. Most Iraqis, including most Iraqi Shia (about 60 percent of the population) feared an Iran inspired coup but by early 2018 senior Shia clerics in Iraq and Iran agreed that the militias should stay out of politics. Iran was not consulted on this decision and a minority of pro-Iran Iraqis still wanted an Iran style religious dictatorship. In an effort to prove their usefulness the pro-Iran PMF militias took on dangerous, or just daring missions during 2016-17. That left a lot of ISIL dead and it contributed to a government recovery (using force) of Kirkuk province from the Iraqi Kurds in late 2017. ISIL is still a problem as terrorists but the major woes are widespread corruption and mismanagement plus continued Iranian efforts to turn Iraq into a compliant neighbor. The Iraqis are resisting. The root cause of the continuing terrorist violence is diehard Sunni Arabs who refuse to accept democracy and Shia domination (60 percent of Iraqis are Shia and 20 percent Kurd). Despite all that, there was enough unity to push back ISIL and keep the Iranians from getting too ambitious. Yet radical Sunnis, separatist Kurds and meddling Iranians remain a problem, along with corruption and unstable neighbors.
It is the best of times (Israel now has Arab allies against Iran) and the worst of times (Iran has personnel operating on Israeli borders). After more than a century of increasing anti-Semitism, most of Israel’s Arab neighbors are realizing that Israel would be a valuable economic, diplomatic and military ally against common enemies like Shia Iran and Islamic terrorism in general. Israel is also the only nation in the region with nukes and reliable ballistic missiles, which are also used to put Israeli spy satellites into orbit. The nukes are important because Iran has been increasingly vocal about how it should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe that having nukes would motivate the Arabs to comply. That threat has led to Gulf Arab states openly working with Israel to deal with Iranian aggression. That, plus a more pro-Israel American government and growing dissatisfaction (in the West and the Middle East) with the Palestinian leadership failures and rampant corruption, has created a radical change in Middle Eastern politics. That played a role in the outbreak of popular unrests throughout Iran at the end of 2017. Young Iranians have also noted the success of Israel (a former ally, before the current religious dictatorship, took over in the 1980s) and are now demanding changes that involve less foreign troublemaking. The cost, in terms of money (billions) and Iranian lives (thousands) of operations in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, South America, Africa and elsewhere does most Iranians no good at all and make the people on the receiving end hostile to Iran. Closer to home Israel has growing problems with Palestinians who are convinced that Israel has no right to exist and pretending to negotiate a peace deal is useful for obtaining foreign aid and not much else. Arabs, in general, are now telling the Palestinians to take whatever peace deal they can because cash and other aid from Arab nations have been, and will remain, sharply reduced until the Palestinians shape up. The Palestinians refuse to change as do the righteous and corrupt rulers of Iran.
North Korea is falling apart economically and politically and that has led North Koreans to do the unthinkable, which includes openly criticizing the government, putting anti-government graffiti in public places and even attacking corrupt government officials, including the police. North Korea is broke and not getting better. Something had to happen. In mid-2018 North Korea agreed to negotiate the continued existence of its nuclear weapons program in return for economic benefits. This would keep the corrupt communist police state and the murderous Kim dynasty in power but only if North Korea dropped its foreign policy based on threats and extortion. This change began at the end of 2017 when the North Korean leader decided to give a somber New Year speech on TV offering to negotiate. That may have been the result of China demonstrating it had lost patience with its unruly neighbor. This was very important because China is, literally, North Korea’s economic lifeline. China is the primary or only source for essentials like petroleum, food and all sorts of smuggled (past a long list of international sanctions) goods. China will tolerate a lot of bad behavior in return for obedience and maintaining. North Korea is doing neither and China also wants South Korea to pay more attention to Chinese needs.
China wants fewer problems with North Korea, which has long been sending thousands of legal and illegal visitors a year to China, some of them armed and dangerous. Most of those illegals just want out of North Korea but as the economic situation in North Korea gets worse the possibility of North Korean government collapse increases. That would be disastrous for China because their border with North Korea is relatively open while the border with South Korea is heavily fortified. In early 2016 China showed it was out of patience and did the unthinkable and began enforcing the many international trade sanctions North Korea is subject to. That caused an economic crisis in North Korea but the North Korean leadership boasted that they will have combat ready (reliable ballistic missiles and warheads) nukes in 2017. That did not happen and still has not, which makes sense given the North Korean track record. Then again the North Koreans continue to say the right things like “we want peace and Korean unification”) which pleases the mass media worldwide and continues to annoy all the neighbors. At the same time, North Korea has not actually done anything in response to its public pledges to support denuclearization. At this point, everyone looks to China because Korea has traditionally been a Chinese responsibility and, most of the time, a difficult one. The traditional solution has been for China to quietly (as possible) support a change of government inside a troublesome Korea. That sort of thing can be expensive and messy and the Chinese would prefer to wait for the right moment to act. China does not publicize plans for this sort of thing but it is obvious, from what China has done openly (including allowing Chinese Internet users to freely express their criticisms of North Korean misbehavior) North Korean leaders should pay attention. These Chinese hints were noted by the North Korean leaders and leader Kim Jong Un has obediently gone to China several times since 2018 to receive advice. Kim also met with the leaders of South Korea and the United States. So far lots of the right words but little action. China and everyone else fears that North Korea is going to try and scam its way out of another tight situation and risk the very real wrath of China while doing it.
This area had become quieter after 2003 and we no longer cover it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections like Iraq, Israel and Syria. The 2011 Arab Spring movement shook things up a bit and by 2015 the Kurds were once more at war with Turkey, Syria and Iran. Turkey was always outraged at the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and the impact that had on Kurdish minorities in Syria (where an autonomous region is already a reality, for the moment), Turkey (where there is again continuous violence by Kurdish separatists) and Iran. The Kurds remain under attack in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran while also suffering from internal feuds between those who are willing to fight for a unified Kurdish state and those who are willing to make deals with local governments to obtain benefits for local Kurds (like less economic and cultural discrimination and persecution). The Syrian Kurds thought the Americans might stick around after ISIL was defeated and take on Turkish and Iranian forces in Syria to guarantee Syrian Kurds their autonomy. The U.S. was not interested as Iranian forces in Syria are an Israeli and Arab problem while Turkey is still a NATO ally. Yet the Americans remain in eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
UN efforts to arrange elections and then form a unified government have failed, for years, and now the other solution, a local military leader with a locally recruited army of trained and disciplined soldiers is doing what UN diplomacy and threats could not. The eastern force, the LNA (Libyan National Army) has been around since 2015 (when it was formed in eastern Libya) and proceeded to eliminate rivals, especially Islamic radical groups) throughout the country. By early 2019 all that was left was the traditional capital (Tripoli) and the nearby (to the east) coastal city of Misrata. Both cities are dominated by dozens of rival militias, many of them seeking an Islamic government but mainly looking out for themselves. The LNA attacked Tripoli in April, from two sides and slowly pushed backed the desperate militias, who would lose their independence and lucrative criminal enterprises if the LNA. So far the LNA is prevailing. The UN is condemning that and Turkey is shipping in weapons and military advisors to assist some of the more loyal (to the UN approved government) militias. The Turkish support violates the UN arms embargo on Libya, as does the support Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and a few other countries have provided for the LNA.
Since 2015 there have been two rival governments and they must merge and rebuild the country and its infrastructure. Until that happens there will be no end to the chaos Libya has endured as it was torn apart by the aftereffects of the 2011 revolution. The problem, as always, was the extreme factionalism Libya suffered after their dictatorial government was overthrown in 2011. In 2015 that violence went from a two way (Islamic radical groups versus more moderate ones) to three way (with the addition of the ultra-radical ISIL). By the end of 2015, the UN had gotten the two (Tripoli and Tobruk) major coalitions to agree to a merger that was supposed to take place in early 2016. That merger has been delayed by continuing factional infighting and the more pressing need to shut down the ISIL presence. That was accomplished in late 2016 but the rival Tripoli (UN approved but ineffective) and Tobruk (more effective and based in eastern Libya) governments were still trying to work out how to create a unified government. Through all this oil exports have shrunk and then recovered while the Central Bank cash reserves did not and are nearly gone. If peace and unity was not achieved soon it would no longer be possible to pay for and import food and other essentials. That is persuading more factions to make peace. Even by Middle Eastern standards, Libya is setting new records in self-destructive behavior. By 2017 more Libyans were agreeing that the situation was indeed becoming desperate and more compromise was the only solution. But tribal and religious differences (Islamic radicals versus everyone else) plus epic levels of corruption and entitlement keep peace and prosperity out of reach. Finally, in 2019, the eastern faction found that its rebuilt LNA had gained control over most of the country, including most of the oil facilities. That effort was not UN approved and neither is the current LNA effort to take control of Tripoli and the last part of Libya (in the northwest) that it does not control. This will settle matters because if not, a nationwide famine and economic collapse comes next.
Since 2012, when the separatist rebellion in the north was defeated, continued high levels of corruption, ethnic rivalries and Islamic terrorism have kept Mali from achieving peace and prosperity. An example of how this works can be seen in the north, where a final peace deal with the rebellious Tuareg tribes was signed in early 2015 and is largely holding through 2019. This is despite the government refusing to do what is agreed to. Islamic terrorism is spreading to the more populous south but not to the extent that it threatens government control. The Tuareg peace deal was stalled for over a year because the black majority in the south did not want to grant as much autonomy as the Tuareg demanded. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French in the 19th century. Like most African countries, dividing the nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The current mess began when France took swift action in January 2013 by leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and several other African peacekeeping contingents, this operation is still at work and is expected to continue for years. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg dominated Islamic state. The Mali army mutinied (because of lack of support from the corrupt government) down south and took control of the capital. The army soon backed off when neighboring nations threatened to intervene. T
he thinly populated northern two-thirds of the country has a population of less than two million, out of 15 million for all of Mali. The north was very poor in the best of times, and over a year of violence, there has halted tourism, a major source of income, especially in the three major cities up there, and the movement of many goods. Mali still has internal problems; mainly corruption and ethnic conflicts, as well as continued unrest in the north. A lot depends on whether the majority in the south can reduce corruption and deal fairly with the Tuareg and other minorities (like Arabs) in the north. There is not much progress with this. The elected Mali government is back in control but appears to be as corrupt as ever and under growing pressure from donor nations to either clean up the corruption or see most of the aid disappear. The neighbors of Mali have formed a five nation anti-terrorism alliance (The G5) that has provided 5,000 troops that can be sent to any of the five member nations. Western money and military advisors help equip and improve the skills of the 5,000 troops. Because Mali is part of a lucrative route for smugglers (of illegal drugs, weapons, people) Islamic terror groups can afford to remain in northern Mali. These groups (including an ISIL affiliate) divide their time between smuggling and Islamic radical activities.
This area has become quieter since the peacekeeping efforts of the 1990s and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections as needed. Mexico is still at war with the drug cartels.
The expected big changes after the return of democracy in 2010 are slow to appear and have caused some problems that are generating a lot of anti-Burma headlines worldwide. The most obvious of these calamities is the 2012 outbreak of Buddhist nationalism and anti-Moslem violence. The government has not been able to completely suppress a 2013 outbreak of this violence that has driven over a million Rohingya Moslems into Bangladesh. For decades the military dictatorship had suppressed potential anti-Moslem violence. But once democracy returned the radical Buddhist clergy led a campaign to terrorize the Bengali (Rohingya) Moslems. This problem has not been solved. Nor has the problem with the political power the generals retained despite the return of democracy. In late 2015 the first nationwide elections since 1990 (when the generals refused to accept the results and banned any more voting) were held. The anti-military coalition won enough votes to change the constitution and the military said it would accept the vote, maybe. Despite the return to democracy the most corrupt institution in Burma is still the military and that can be seen in how the 2010 constitution that returned democracy also explicitly granted military leaders (including all the retired officers) immunity from prosecution for past crimes. The military was also given control of the defense ministry and a fixed number (25 percent) of seats in parliament. In effect, the military leaders who once ran the country are still in charge of the defense budget and immune from prosecution for all the crimes they committed in the past. The 2015 elections meant that real reform, like changing this pro-military constitution, was a possibility but not a certainty. Even before the late 2015 elections reforms were slowly being made despite the fact that the 2010 elections replaced the military dictatorship with many of the same people, out of uniform and trying to hide the fact that they rigged the vote. Since 2016 these reforms have been sidetracked by internal unrest. Part of this is the continuing rebellions of the rural tribes along the borders, especially in the north. Since 2015 China has been threatening to intervene if Chinese investments in the tribal north were not protected and allowed to resume operating. In response, Burma began depending more on India to help with security in the north and some protection from Chinese threats. Temporary peace deals were made but the tribal rebels are still producing major quantities of methamphetamine, and increasing amounts of heroin, to support continued fighting. China is not happy with many of these drugs (particularly heroin and meth) coming into China. That is difficult to change because the tribes are poor and the drug money is very attractive. China is also concerned with the popular opposition to major Chinese economic projects (dams and pipeline) in the north but the fundamentals remain the same. Overall, economic and political progress is slow but there has been regular progress despite the continued problems with the military.
After fifteen years of Islamic terrorist violence in the northeast, the aftereffects, like millions of refugees and substantial economic damage in Borno State, continue to cause misery and there seems to be no end in sight. By late 2016 the outbreak of Islamic terrorism in the northeast was greatly diminished but not extinguished. That took several years of fighting that destroyed the economy in much of northeast (Borno State). That has caused lingering Islamic terrorism problems ever since. All this was caused by a group of Taliban wannabes (Boko Haram) in Borno whose activity grew rapidly for a decade until in 2014 it seemed unstoppable. It took over a year for the government to finally muster sufficient military strength to cripple but not destroy Boko Haram. This did not get much media attention outside Africa, even though in 2014 Boko Haram killed more people than ISIL did in Syria and Iraq. The main cause of Boko Haram gains in 2014 and 2015 was corruption in the army, which severely crippled army effectiveness. By itself, Boko Haram was too small to have much impact on a national scale but the inability to deal with this problem put a spotlight on the corruption that has hobbled all progress in Nigeria for decades. A new president (a former general who is Moslem) was elected in early 2015 and made progress in changing the corrupt army culture but that is still a work in progress even though he was reelected in early 2019. More bad news is expected because of too many tribal feuds, not enough oil money and too much corruption create growing unrest throughout the country. This is especially bad down south in the oil producing region (the Niger River Delta). There was a 2009 amnesty deal that reduced violence against oil facilities but has fallen apart and since 2016 the violence has returned. Worse, local politicians and business leaders had taken over the oil theft business from the disarmed tribal rebels, and the former rebels wanted that business back. A new peace deal was arranged and that calmed things down for the moment. Meanwhile, the northern Moslems want more control over the federal government (and the oil money). In central Nigeria, you have increasing violence as nomadic Moslem herders move south and clash with largely Christian farmers over land use and water supplies. The situation is still capable of sliding into regional civil wars, over money and political power. Corruption and ethnic/tribal/religious rivalries threaten to trigger, at worse, another civil war and, at least, more street violence and public anger.
POTENTIAL HOT SPOTS
Various places where the local situation is warming up and might turn into a war. Like Venezuela, Central Asia or Mexico.
Decades of effort have finally reduced the internal threat of leftist and religious rebellions. So now most Filipinos are more concerned about endemic corruption, the widespread drug addiction and the resulting economic stagnation. There is also the Chinese threat, with more Chinese warships showing up in what had been, until recently, unquestionably Filipino territorial waters. Most Filipinos see China as a threat but not as crucial as the internal problems with drugs, corruption, Islamic terrorism and unemployment. A new president (Rodrigo Duterte) took power in mid-2016 pledging to do what most Filipinos wanted, not what the local politicians or foreign critics wanted. Duterte had been doing this locally (as mayor of a major southern city) since the 1990s and was ready to try and make it happen nationally. This has led to condoning vigilante tactics by the police to suppress the drug gangs as well as an unexpected adoption of an anti-American foreign policy and a willingness to make deals with China. This weakened the existing coalition with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the United States to oppose the Chinese threat. Duterte told the Americans he would not risk war with China over it but by 2018 was more willing to agree that the Chinese could not be trusted and now is calling for increased regional cooperation against China. Duterte told the Islamic minority in the south (led by MILF) that he would get the 2015 peace deal (that gave it more autonomy but not its own country and the expulsion of non-Moslems) approved by the legislature if MILF helped destroy Abu Sayyaf (the ultra-radical Islamic terrorist group in the south that is responsible for most of the kidnappings and terror bombings down there) and MILF factions that refused to accept the peace deal and had, along with Abu Sayyaf, aligned themselves with ISIL. Abu Sayyaf has integrated itself with the clan culture down there and become very difficult to eliminate. The Moslems have, as always, lots of clan feuds and internal violence which will survive the autonomy deal with the government. A major ISIL effort to take over a southern city in late 2017 failed spectacularly and by the end of the year, the various Islamic terror groups in the south were trying to rebuild and avoid extinction. MILF cooperated with the government in suppressing the Islamic terrorism and the MILF autonomy deal was approved and now being implemented. Duterte may not be the solution to the many problems the country faces but he is the most radical, and promising, one to come along in decades.
Since 2014 Russia has been making a lot of headlines but not much else. The economy is a mess (stagnant and shrinking), the country has fewer allies and the future looks dim. Invading Ukraine and Syria has not helped solve any of the fundamental problems but have made for great propaganda. What went wrong? Russia entered the 21st century with a newly elected government dominated by former secret police (KGB) officers who promised to restore economic and civil order. They did so but in the process turned Russia into a police state with less political and economic freedom. Many Russians opposed this and the government responded by appealing to nationalism. Russia has returned to police state ways and the traditional threatening attitude towards neighbors. Rather than being run by corrupt communist bureaucrats, the country is now dominated by corrupt businessmen, gangsters and self-serving government officials that characterized the last czarist government of a century ago. The semi-free economy is more productive than the centrally controlled communist one but that just provides more money to steal. A rebellion against the new dictatorship has been derailed by astute propaganda depicting Russia as under siege by the West and NATO. Yet opinion polls that show wide popular support for this paranoid fantasy has left enough Russians with democratic impulses to continue leading the struggle for better government and beneficial reforms. That paid off by late 2018 as opinion polls turned against the former KGB officials running things and that is just one of several bits of bad news. For now, most Russians want economic and personal security and are willing to tolerate a police state to get it. But the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions did more damage than the ruling politicians expected. That atmosphere, plus the anxiety generated by having troops fighting in Syria and Ukraine has scared away a lot of foreign investors and many Russian ones as well. Russia can downplay this in the state controlled media but without all that foreign and Russian capital the economy cannot grow. Five years later most Russians can see daily that they are worse off than before. Meanwhile China, the only real threat to Russia, quietly makes progress in the east. There China has claims on much of the Russian Far East and is openly replacing Russia as the primary economic, military and political force in Central Asia.
RWANDA & BURUNDI
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in the CONGO section when there are details of the new civil wars brewing here.
Al Shabaab, a local Islamic radical group, was defeated and driven from cities and towns in 2011 but is still around. So is the traditional clan (tribal) violence, organized crime and banditry. All these are ancient Somali traditions and al Shabaab survives by reverting to that and becoming the major criminal organizations in some parts of the country. Extortion, smuggling, ransoms and so on have sustained the Islamic terror group. Another factor in the survival of al Shabaab is the corruption and factionalism that have always defined and defiled Somali culture. While Al Shabaab had, by 2013, been driven out of most of the territory it controlled for years the al Shabaab remnants fought on in thinly populated areas of central Somalia, the far north (Puntland border) and far south (Kenyan border). Despite the organizational and financial resourcefulness of the Islamic terror group it also fell prey to another Somali custom; factionalism. Initially, this was between those who wanted al Shabaab to remain a local (Somali) group versus those who wanted be go international (pro-al Qaeda) and accept foreigners. After 2014 there was, and still is, an ISIL faction. Currently, the al Qaeda faction is dominant with a small but persistent ISIL faction. One of the most lucrative sources of plunder is the elected Somali government, propped up by foreign aid (most of which gets stolen) that showed up after 2012. Despite all that Somalia is still a failed state that defies every attempt at nation-building. The situation is worse than it appears because Somalia was never a country, but a collection of clans and tribes that fight each other constantly over economic issues (land and water). The country remains an economic and political mess, a black hole on the map. Not much hope in sight. The pirates became a major problem after 2006 and in response, the major trading nations launched a counter-piracy effort that, by 2012 reduced pirate success (captured ships) considerably. In fact, no large ships have been captured in since early 2012. The northern statelet of Puntland was persuaded (and subsidized) by wealthy seafaring nations to attack the pirate bases. There are not many pirate gangs left because of the lack of multi-million dollar ransoms (from large ships). In the far south (where the second major port, Kismayo is) a third statelet (after Puntland and Somaliland in the north) is trying to exist as Jubaland. The UN backed government in the center is trying to regain these statelets but the problem remains the independent minded clans. There is not a lot of enthusiasm among local leaders for a national government, but all that foreign aid is welcome because it can be taken without risking another clan feud. Somali smolders as it always has and not a lot has changed.
After the south became an independent "South Sudan" in 2011 an unofficial border war continued. Although Sudan officially accepted the creation of South Sudan the battles over disputed border areas continued. Sudan quietly sent troops and pro-government militias to seize disputed border areas. That fighting continues and has been complicated after 2014 by the outbreak of civil war between the two major tribal factions in South Sudan. That conflict appeared to end in early 2016 but the tribal rivalries continued tearing South Sudan apart until the UN, foreign aid groups and major foreign donors all told both Sudans to make peace or else aid and peacekeepers would be withdrawn and sent to other parts of the world where they could do more good. This threat seemed to work in South Sudan because by the end of 2018 both factions agreed to another peace deal with the understanding the failure would have catastrophic consequences. This peace deal appears to be holding, despite continued violence.
Meanwhile long time Sudan dictator Omar al Bashir was forced out of power in April and it is uncertain if there will be another “president for life” or real elections. There still remains the ancient problems of Moslems in Sudan continuing to suppress separatist tendencies among Christians in the south while also dealing with Moslem rebels along the eastern coast and western (non-Arab Darfur) deserts. The oil money in South Sudan will remain a major cause of the current civil strife along with the continuing conflict with Sudan because the oil fields are near the border with Sudan. Battles over land in western Sudan (Darfur) continue to pit Arab herders against black Sudanese farmers. Both sides are Moslem, but the government has long backed the Arabs. The Bashir government used Arab nationalism and economic ties with Russia and China to defy the world and get away with driving non-Arab tribes from Darfur. Sudan was also an ally of Iran and recipient of Iranian weapons for a while. That aid included useful advice on how to best terrorize a population into submission. The Sudan government was correct in assuming that the West would never try anything bold and effective to halt the violence. Bashir and his generals were proven right but kept losing control of Sudan, bit by bit. That cost Bashir his job and whoever or whatever follows him will have the same problem. South Sudan is falling into the same cycle of internal disorder and fragmentation.
The rebellion of the Sunni majority against the Shia minority Assad dictatorship that began in 2011 was just about over by late 2018. But the fighting persists into 2019 because the main participants (Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Assad government and several remaining rebel factions) cannot agree on how to end it. The fighting and haggling will apparently persist into 2020 and beyond. Initially considered likely to win, the rebels lost because of factionalism. So far over 500,000 have died and a third of the population has fled (mainly to Turkey and Lebanon). Meanwhile, the Assads received massive assistance from Iran (over $16 billion worth since 2012), Russia (2015) and Turkey (2016). The civil war also morphed into a proxy war between Iran and the Sunni Arab states (and their Western allies). The major factor in the rebel defeat was ISIL which began as one of many Sunni Arab Islamic terror groups (mainly al Qaeda and ISIL) who wanted to turn Syria into a religious dictatorship while most Syrians just wanted peace and some prosperity. The Islamic terror groups, as is their custom, put a priority on determining which of them was; “the true savior of Islam”. ISIL was definitely the most ruthless and best organized and many groups submitted to ISIL, if only temporarily, but that weakened the rebel effort sufficiently for the Assads to hang on and become part of a larger anti-ISIL coalition. One thing everyone could agree on was that ISIL had to be destroyed first and by late 2017 that was accomplished. While ISIL lost all its territory in Syria and was reduced to small groups carrying out terror attacks, the remaining rebels were still not united. At the time ISIL was crushed the rebels controlled about a third of the country but were outnumbered by the Assad forces and most Syrians were increasingly war weary. Most of those who died did so after 2013. The killing diminished a bit in 2015 because of sheer exhaustion and picked up again in 2016 because of the Russian air (and other) support. The stubborn Assad dictatorship, because of reinforcements supplied by Iran (mainly in the form of over 60,000 Shia mercenaries from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia volunteers from all over) and Russia had a chance to win after early 2016, something some Western nations saw as preferable to Islamic terrorists taking over and requiring a Western invasion to remove such a threat. Russia and Iran are quite pleased with the way they have played the situation, especially the 2014 deal to remove Syrian chemical weapons (which the Syrians could, and did, rebuild later) in return for the Americans not entering the Civil War (attacking Assad forces for using chemical weapons). After 2014 the only rebels getting air support were the Syrian Kurds because, like their Iraqi kinsmen, they can be trusted and were active in fighting ISIL in Syria. Western warplanes have been operating over Syria since late 2014 and they are still bombing Islamic terrorist rebels, plus the occasional Russian, Iranian or Assad force that made the wrong move. In August 2016 Turkish ground forces entered northern Syria to seal the border (to ISIL and Turkish separatist PKK Kurds) and weaken the Syrian Kurds. The Turks were basically helping the Assads and hurting ISIL and all that made an Assad victory more likely. Before the Assads can resume control of the country they have to deal with the fact that Israel, Jordan and the Sunni Arab oil states are opposed to the Iranian effort to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. The Assads are not happy with Iranian domination but have to keep quiet about that. Turkey is opposed to any autonomous Syrian Kurdish area in the northeast as well as a permanent Iranian presence. Turkey and Russia are technically allies of Iran in Syria and the reality is that no one trusts Iran. The Russians have quietly made it clear they would side with Israel if it came down to that. The Turks are NATO members and traditional foes of Russia and Iran. But the current Turkish government is unstable and increasingly unpopular with Turks as well as the neighbors. At the end of 2017 many Iranians took to the streets to demand a withdrawal from Syria and using the billions saved to fix the crippled Iranian economy. That unrest was still growing nearly two years later and in Syria Israel has told everyone that Israel will fight Iranian efforts to increase its forces in Syria. This is especially important as the Americans are withdrawing most of the 2,000 troops they had supporting the Syrian Kurds. The unrest in Iran and growing financial problems have reduced Iranian efforts in Syria. If Iran withdraws from Syria Russia is too broke to pick up the slack and the Turks are only interested in the Kurds and don’t really care if the Assads stay or go. So the Syrian rebellion is not over yet and may not end in 2019 either.
The anti-democracy royalists finally permitted elected government to return, but only after several years of another military government that changed the constitution to guarantee the military more power even with an elected government. Meanwhile, Islamic terrorism in the south and continuing struggles between democrats and royalists nationwide hamper economic growth and much else. Years of civil disorder in the capital triggered yet another military coup in 2014 and the aftereffects of that are still being felt as democracy returned in 2019. The 2014 coup ended the low level civil war over military control of the government. The anti-democracy minority (royalists and many educated urbanites) had used large demonstrations and persuasive appeals to the military to stage another coup. The new military government kept delaying new elections because opinion polls indicated military rule was unpopular with most Thais and, as in the past, the democrats would seek reprisals against the military once elected government returned. The royalists and military expect to survive the return of democracy this time because they managed to change the constitution while in power and that gave the king and the military more political power. Those additional powers may not survive the return of democracy but reversing those changes won’t be easy. Meanwhile ethnic Malay Moslems in the south (three percent of the population) continue to cause problems. Since 2013 the government has had someone down there to negotiate with but negotiations always stalled on one issue or another and remain stuck. Most Thais are ethnic Thais and Buddhist while the southerners are Moslem and ethnic Malays. In the south Islamic radicalism arrived after 2001 along with an armed effort to create a separate Islamic state in the three southern provinces. Islamic terrorists grew more powerful month by month for several years and refused to negotiate. Security forces persisted and made progress in identifying and rounding up the most active terrorists. But there is no quick victory in sight. Even the death of the beloved Thai king in late 2016 did not change anything and his much younger successor will be a work-in-progress for a while.
This area has become quieter over the last decade and we are no longer covering it regularly as a separate category. There will still be coverage as needed in other sections (mostly Congo and Somalia) because of Ugandan participation in a growing number of peacekeeping operations in Africa.
The Iran-backed Shia rebels are losing but refuse to make peace, in part because of continued Iranian support and partly out of fear of the consequences. Yemen has proved an embarrassment for Iran and the Saudi/UAE backed government is not willing to suffer the heavy casualties a quick victory would require. So the war drags on, probably into 2020 or until Iran just decides to halt support. Iranian withdrawal is a possibility because of growing popular protests in Iran against the expensive foreign wars in Syria and Yemen. Until late 2017 there was not much progress in the Yemen fighting, a development that favored Iran. But by early 2018 the Shia rebel coalition began unraveling and Iran suddenly had its own domestic uprising to deal with back home. Worse, the U.S. government had changed in early 2017 and was much more aggressive dealing with Iran. Moreover, there was a radical (for Arabia) new government in Saudi Arabia with a young Crown Prince in charge and organizing more effective resistance to Iranian aggression. That played a role in causing the Yemen unrest becoming a full-scale civil war in 2015. That was when Shia rebels sought to take control of the entire country. Neighboring Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, quickly formed a military coalition to halt the Yemeni rebel advance. The Arab coalition succeeded and by 2016 pro-government forces were closing in on the rebel-held capital. The coalition did not go after the capital itself because of the expected heavy casualties and property damage in the city. Instead, the coalition concentrated on rebuilding the Yemeni armed forces, recruiting allies from the Sunni tribes in the south and eliminating al Qaeda and ISIL groups that had grown stronger as the Shia rebels gained more power. As the fighting intensified in early 2015 Iran admitted it had been quietly supporting the Shia rebels for a long time but now was doing so openly, or at least trying. Because of the 2015 war, Yemen is truly broke, disorganized and desperate. The Arab Spring hit Yemen hard and upset the "arrangement" that left one group of tribal, criminal and business leaders in charge for over three decades. The country is fragmented again, just like it has always been. Many Yemenis trace the current crisis back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemens finally united in 1990 but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take and the north and south have always been pulling apart ever since. This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government until the 20th century was wealthier coastal city-states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both) plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary secular dictatorship.) For a long time the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They have always wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional Shia tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Now there is ISIL and an invading army composed of troops from oil-rich neighbors. By late 2017 the rebels were slowly losing ground to government forces who, despite Arab coalition air support and about five thousand ground troops, were still dependent on Yemeni Sunni tribal militias to fight the Shia tribesmen on the ground. While the Shia are only a third of the population they are united while the Sunni tribes are divided over the issue of again splitting the country in two and with no agreement on who would get the few oil fields in central Yemen. Many of the Sunni tribes tolerate or even support AQAP and ISIL. The coalition was not permanent either. Former president (Saleh), who was deposed in 2012 and later sided with the rebels, was killed by the rebels at the end of 2017 when he tried to make peace with the Arab coalition. Saleh had made the Shia rebellion a success by organizing his remaining loyalists, especially those in the army, to get many Sunnis to join the rebels. But that did not last once Iranian involvement increased and it was made known that Iran has been quietly encouraging the Shia rebels for a long time. But this all fell apart in 2018 as other factions followed the example of the Salehs and turned against the rebels. By early 2019 the rebels had lost control of the major Red Sea port of Hodeida. The government forces have taken the airport there and blocked access to the vital docks area of the port. This port city is currently the only way for the rebels to accept legitimate imports. Those aid shipments contain a lot of smuggled items, usually weapons from Iran. With this smuggling pipeline much reduced the Shia rebels, and their Iranian sponsors are now on the defensive and seeking a tolerable way out of the mess they made.