Ten conflicts to watch in 2012.
BY LOUISE ARBOUR DECEMBER 27, 2011
What conflict situations are most at risk ofdeteriorating further in 2012? When Foreign Policy asked the InternationalCrisis Group to evaluate which manmade disasters could explode in the comingyear, we put our heads together and came up with 10 crisis areas that warrantparticular concern.
Admittedly, there is always a certain arbitrarinessto lists. This one is no different. But, in part, that serves a purpose: Itwill, hopefully, get people talking. Why no room for Sudan — surely a crisisof terrifying proportions? Or for Europe’s forgotten conflicts — in the NorthCaucasus, for example, or in Nagorno-Karabakh? You’ll see also that we have notincluded some that are deeply troubling yet strangely under-reported, likeMexico or northern Nigeria. No room, too, for the hardy perennial standoff onthe Korean Peninsula, despite the uncertainty surrounding the death of Kim JongIl.
No reader should interpret their omission as meaningthose situations are improving. They are not. But we did feel it is useful tohighlight a few places that, to our mind, deserve no less attention. Whatfollows is our top 10. At the end — and just to remind ourselves that progressis possible — we’ve included two countries for which we, cautiously, feel 2012could augur well.
Many in Syria and abroad are now banking on theregime’s imminent collapse and assuming everything will get better from thatpoint on. The reality could turn out to be quite different. As dynamics in bothSyria and the broader international arena turn squarely against the regime,many hope that the bloody stalemate finally might end. But however much it nowseems inevitable that President Bashar al-Assad will leave the stage after hisregime’s terrifying brutality over recent months, the initial post-Assad stagescarry enormous risks.
On the one hand, the emotionally charged communalpolarization, particularly around the Alawite community, has made regimesupporters dig in their heels, believing it is “kill or be killed,” and theirfears of large-scale retribution when Assad falls are very real. On the other, therising strategic stakes have heightened the regional and wider internationalcompetition among all players, who now view the crisis as an historicopportunity to decisively tilt the regional balance of power. In that explosivemix, the first cross-border concern is surely Lebanon: The more Assad’s ousterappears imminent, the more Hezbollah — and its backers in Tehran — will viewthe Syrian crisis as an existential struggle designed to deal them a decisiveblow, and the greater the risk that they would choose to go for broke and drawto launch attacks against Israel in an attempt to radically alter the focus ofattention. “Powder keg” doesn’t begin to describe it. The danger is real thatany one of these issues could derail or even foreclose the possibility of a successfultransition.
Even if Iran and Israel somehow manage to sailsafely past the rocks of the Syrian crisis, the enmity between them over thenuclear issue could blow them very dangerously off course. Though sanctionsagainst Iran and saber-rattling all around intensified at the end of 2011, somemay see this as merely the continuation of a long-term trend in the epicallypoor relations between Iran and Israel.
Two factors make 2012 a possible turning point forthe worse, however. First, the most recent International Atomic Energy Agencyreport is particularly unambiguous: It may not have turned up significantly newevidence of Teheran’s intention to build a nuclear weapon, but it did highlightmore clearly than ever before Iran’s obfuscation and unwillingness to cooperatewith the international body. Second, the U.S. elections will force support forIsrael onto the U.S. domestic agenda even more than usual, and generally createa favorable environment for Israel to act, with any number of unexpected,unintended — and potentially disastrous — consequences.
A decade of major security, development, andhumanitarian assistance from the international community has failed to create astable Afghanistan, a fact highlighted by deteriorating security and a growinginsurgent presence in previously stable provinces over the past year. In 2011,the capital alone saw a barrage of suicide bombings, including the deadliestattack in the city since 2001; multiple strikes on foreign missions in Kabul,the British Council, and U.S. Embassy; and the assassination of formerpresident and chief peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani. The prospects fornext year are no brighter, with many key provinces scheduled for transfer tothe ill-equipped Afghan security forces by early 2012.
The litany of obstacles to peace, or at leaststability, in Afghanistan is by now familiar. President Hamid Karzai rules byfiat, employing a combination of patronage and executive abuse of power. Stateinstitutions and services are weak or nonexistent in much of the country, orelse so riddled with corruption that Afghans want nothing to do with them.Dari-speaking ethnic minorities remain skeptical about the prospects forreconciliation with the predominately Pashtun Taliban insurgency, which enjoysthe backing of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. The Talibanleadership in Quetta seem to reason that victory is within reach and that theyhave simply to bide their time until the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014.
Throughout 2011, Pakistan’s relations with the UnitedStates were sliding from bad to worse, and NATO’s deadly yet apparentlyaccidental bombing of Pakistani soldiers in November turned a miserablerelationship into an all but openly hostile one. Partially as a result, butalso due to the Pakistani military’s support of militants operating inAfghanistan, ties between Islamabad and Kabul are fraying. The electedgovernment has made some progress in its rapprochement with India, moving tonormalize trade relations. Yet the process remains hostage to the military’s continuedsupport for militant groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the renamedLashkar-Tayyeba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Another terror attackcould result in all-out war between the two nuclear-armed adversaries.
The biggest dangers for Pakistan, however, come notfrom external sources but rather from within. The transition from dictatorshipto democracy is not at all consolidated, and the military still control crucialareas of foreign and security policy. Radical Islamism is destabilizing andeven dominating the country at times, with violent attacks on leading liberalpolitical figures shaking what little confidence anyone may have had thatPakistan can escape disaster. Yet there is still some hope, because radicalIslamists lack popular support, and the two political parties that are likelyto win the next general election in 2013 (provided the democratic transition isnot disrupted by the military) — the ruling PPP and the opposition PML-N –have the capacity and the political will to take the country back to itsmoderate moorings.
Yemenstands between violent collapse and a thin hope of a peaceful transfer ofpower. Under increasing pressure from international and regional actors,President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed a transition agreement on Nov. 23.Under the agreement, he immediately transferred significant authorities to hisvice president and is scheduled to officially leave office after earlyelections that are scheduled for Feb. 21. This was an important first step, butone that fell far short of solving Yemen’s problems.
Many challenges remain, including holdingsignatories responsible for implementing the transitional agreement, adequatelyaddressing unresolved issues of political inclusion and justice, and improvingdire economic and humanitarian conditions. Moreover, tensions between Yemen’s competing armedpower centers, particularly Saleh’s family on one hand versus defected generalAli Mohsen al-Ahmar and the (unrelated) powerful al-Ahmar clan on the other,remain unresolved and are a potential flashpoint for further violence. One ofthe most challenging tasks during the first phase of the transition will besecuring a durable ceasefire, removing all military and armed tribesmen fromurban centers, and beginning meaningful reform of the military and securityforces.
It’s atall order, and international actors have a part to play. Threats of targetedsanctions against Saleh and his family from members of the U.N. SecurityCouncil played a part in bringing some regime hard-liners to the negotiatingtable. Now, with an agreement signed, implementation requires that pressuremust be applied to all sides: Saleh and his supporters on one hand and theopposition parties and their affiliates on the other. For now, support hascoalesced around Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who, according to theagreement, will be the consensus candidate in the February elections. As arelatively neutral figure, Hadi may encourage some measure of compromise andsecurity.
Addingto the uncertainty over Yemen’s future are southern activists whosedemands may yet range from immediate independence to a federation of North andSouth Yemen, and Houthi rebels in northern Yemen who seek greater rights for theircommunity and a degree of local autonomy. And, while politicians negotiate inSanaa, government forces and local tribesmen are in an ongoing fight against alQaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Abyan governorate. The one certainty is thatthe struggle for Yemen will last long into 2012.
Several states in the region are surviving on luck:their infrastructure near collapse, their political systems eaten away bycorruption, their public services almost nonexistent. On top of all this,Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both localand external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain.Adding to the country’s woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at anall-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution andoccasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.
As for Uzbekistan itself, Washington increasinglyrelies on Tashkent for logistics in Afghanistan, but the brutal nature of theregime means it is not only an embarrassing partner but also, ultimately, avery unreliable one. Already there has been at least one attack on the railline transiting U.S. material through the country. Given how U.S.-Pakistanrelations seem to hit a new low every week, Washington may feel it has littlechoice, but it certainly seems to be “out of the fire and into the frying pan”at best.
Then there is volatile Kyrgyzstan. Without prompt,genuine and exhaustive measures to address the damage done by the 2010 ethnicpogroms in the south, the country risks another round of mass violence. Theultranationalist mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, who has in the past claimedthat Bishkek’s writ does not extend to the southern city and now muses out loudabout creating a municipal police force independent of the Ministry ofInterior, will no doubt continue to fire shots across the bows of the centralgovernment in 2012.
Reassuring declarations from the government in Bujumburasound hollow, as the end of the Arusha consensus, which concluded the civil warin 2000, combined with the deteriorating political climate that followed theboycott of the 2010 elections, have contributed directly to an escalation ofviolence and insecurity. The elements of the peace deal are being dismantledone by one. The not-so-hidden struggle between the opposition and the rulingparty, combined with the government’s intensifying repression, is leaving evermore victims since the 2010 polls. Independent media are harassed by theauthorities, who are allegedly commissioning targeted assassinations. At thesame time, state corruption is on the rise, governance indicators are in thered, and social tension is mounting as living conditions deteriorate due torising prices of basic commodities. Unless the government takes measures toreverse these trends, Burundi could edge toward renewed civil war in 2012.
DEMOCRATICREPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Joseph Kabila has beenre-elected president and officially sworn in, but that’s unlikelyto satisfy his political opponents, particularly supporters of oppositioncandidate Etienne Tshisekedi. The vote was badly flawed, with reports ofpre-marked ballots, voter intimidation, localized violence, widespreadmismanagement and fiddled results. The election commission and Supreme Courtwere also stuffed with Kabila loyalists, rendering their arbitration worthlessin the eyes of an angry opposition that may be marginalized for the next fiveyears if legislative election results are also mishandled.
The election standoff is asymptom of larger trends. In his five years in power, Kabila has stacked manynational institutions in his favor, leaving his opponents with few avenues topursue grievances peacefully. International players have also quietlydisengaged from Congolese affairs. Despite the sizable U.N. presence in Congo,and the involvement of donor countries like the United States and Britain,together with the European Union, little has been done to check Kabila’sconsolidation of power.
As calls for internationalarbitration fall on deaf ears in Kinshasa and most Western capitals, Congo’selectoral authorities appear unable to salvage any sense of credibility fromresults. Kabila’s illegitimate mandate threatens not only Congo’s peace andstability. The muffled international response to the flawed polls, and thesilent acquiescence of regional leaders, bode ill for democracy across thecontinent. If only the African Union reacted to stolen elections with theoutrage it reserves for coups — both are, after all, equally unconstitutionalchanges of government — politicians might at least think twice before rigging.
It is too soon to tell whether Kenya’s recently launchedmilitary campaign in southern Somalia will succeed in defeating al-Shabaab — themilitant Islamist group that formed during the fragmentation of the IslamicCourts Union, which controlled most of southern Somalia for part of the lastdecade — or end up a protracted and messy conflict. Now that Kenya will becomepart of the African Union’s mission in Somalia, however, it looks like it isthere for the duration. Its prolonged presence in southern Somalia could bevery unpopular, and the risks for Kenya’s internal stability are very real.Following the launch of the campaign in mid-October, al-Shabaab immediatelythreatened retaliatory attacks. The possibility of an al-Shabaab terrorcampaign has to be taken very seriously and there is a palpable sense of uneasein Nairobi. In late October, the organization carried out two grenade attacksin the capital on Kenyan, not Western, targets. A Kenyan al-Shabaab member wasjailed for the attacks. Since then there have been a number of incidents nearthe border with Somalia.
Kenya has a sizable ethnic Somali and wider Muslimpopulation, most of whom are critical of the government’s military campaign inSomalia, the more so for its associations with the Western-led counterterrorismstruggle. There is significant risk that the military campaign exacerbatesalready worrisome radicalization in Kenya, particularly if it goes badly andcivilian deaths mount.
In response to the threat of al-Shabaab attacks onKenyan soil, the Kenyan government has launched a massive sweep inethnic-Somali majority areas, aiming to flush out the group’s supporters.Although the police and security services have mostly shown restraint, localleaders in the northeastern border region have already accused the military ofexcessive force. The real test will come if al-Shabaab carries out a majorattack in Kenya. There are fears this would trigger a draconian crackdown onethnic Somalis in Kenya, with grave consequences for intercommunal relationsand societal cohesion and harmony, especially ahead of general elections thisyear, the first since the 2007 polls sparked widespread ethnic violence.
Venezuela’s homicide rates are among the highest inthe hemisphere — twice those of Colombia and three times those of Mexico –despite largely escaping the world’s attention. Rates were rising even beforeHugo Chávez assumed power. But under his 12 years they have skyrocketed, from4,550 in 1998 to 17,600 last year. The victims are predominantly poor young men– killed for as little as a mobile phone, caught in gunfire between gangs, oreven subject to extrajudicial killings by security forces.
Criminal violence has not yet permeated thecountry’s politics. But signs ahead of presidential elections next year areominous. The regime itself has armed local civilian militias to, in its ownwords, “defend the revolution.” Thus far it has failed to tackle corruptionwithin the security forces, or their complicity in crime. Arms are easilyavailable — reportedly more than 12 million weapons circulate in a countrywith a population of only 29 million. Impunity is a major driver of violence,with judicial independence eroded through sustained attacks by the government.According to some estimates, fewer than one in 10 police investigations everleads to arrest.
It’s not yet clear who will face off against Chávezfor the presidency, nor do we know the extent of political space in which candidateswill be able to contest for office. But with the president’s ailing healthadding considerable uncertainty, bitter enmity between him and some oppositionleaders, and Venezuelan society polarized, militarized and lacking credibleinstitutional conflict-resolution mechanisms, next year could prove testingindeed.
Now for the good news. Here are two countries whose2012 is looking relatively bright.
The victory by the moderate Islamist An-Nahda Partyin October’s elections is a victory for democracy. Of course, no one wouldunderestimate the major challenges the nation still confronts. There is acontinuing threat of violence, whether from agents provocateurs bent ondiscrediting An-Nahda, the more radical Salafists marginalized by the An-Nahdavictory, or working class towns and cities in the country’s interior, whichhave been largely sidelined since the fall of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and where the economic, social, and securitysituation continues to worsen. Small vestiges of the old regime in ministriesand the Constituent Assembly, while weak, could still play a spoiler role. Newbusiness elites, meanwhile, appear only too quick to adopt the poor practicesof their predecessors. The new government will have to move quickly away fromwrangling over transitional details — prime ministerial powers, constitutionalreform and new elections — and concentrate on reversing the country’s economicdecline and tackling corruption and unemployment.
Still, having held the first free, competitiveelection to follow the onset of the Arab Spring — in a relatively transparentmanner and in an atmosphere of enthusiasm — it is clear that Tunisians alreadyhave much to be proud of. If the country’s relative stability and evidentprogress could be a beacon to the rest of the wider region, that would be nobad thing.
The government’s pledges on reform are beingfulfilled: The military has moved out of front-line politics; top oppositionfigure Aung San Suu Kyi was released, is engaging with the government at toplevels, and is set to run in elections; many other political prisoners werealso released; there are livelier debates in parliament that are even broadcaston TV; and some previously banned websites are now unblocked. There is a majoropportunity for this long-suffering country to continue in a positive directionin 2012.
The outside world, particularly the West, needs torespond by engaging further and dropping counterproductive sanctions that haveharmed civilians without loosening the junta’s grip on power. U.S. Secretary ofState Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar in early December was the right moveat the right time, but it is not enough. Key next steps to watch for from theregime include releasing all remaining political prisoners, passing a new medialaw that would curtail censorship, and signing ceasefires with armed ethnicgroups that would be a key step towards ending abuses by the military in theseborder conflicts.