Predicting the outbreak of conflict is not an exact science; intelligence services and diplomatic corps with billion-euro budgets and thousands of staff all over the world fail to see wars approaching with almost charming regularity.
So it is entirely possible that 2011’s foreign news agenda could be driven substantially by a conflict that, right now, seems surreally unlikely – a communist revolution in Texas, perhaps, or warfare between Sweden and Denmark over a disputed call in a curling tournament.
Most wars, however do not descend from clear blue skies. Storm clouds usually gather a long way off – or, in many cases, are fixtures of the local climate. Of the locations here, several host frequent low-level conflicts – the question is if, or when, these scraps may involve other countries, as Afghanistan’s civil war did. Others are best described as wars-in-waiting, those which many know are going to happen, but which no one is keen to deal with on their watch: Iran and North Korea are perhaps the most obvious of these. Of the rest, most are grimly plausible, one is a whimsical long shot and another is a new kind of war entirely.
While it would obviously be preferable that none of them happened, and that 2011 was a calendar unbesmirched by conflict, this would amount to a startling reversal of centuries of form.
1. Mexico Mexico’s drug war is looking disconcertingly like a real war. Since President Felipe Calderón launched his offensive against drug cartels in 2007, the death toll has approached 30,000, and no one believes that things are improving. The concentration of violence in the north, and the emigration it prompts, could force America’s hand.
2. Venezuela President Hugo Chávez is the sort of man from whom a declaration of hostilities against Saturn would not surprise. But a more prosaic threat is Venezuela’s border with Colombia. In 2010 Colombia accused Venezuela of harbouring guerillas associated with narco-terror groups FARC and ELN. Both countries stepped up regional deployments and briefly severed diplomatic ties.
3. Gibraltar The resolutely British Rock remains a pebble in Spain’s shoe and Madrid’s petulance has been answered by the defiance of Gibraltar’s chief minister, Peter Caruana. In 2010, he urged Royal Navy warships to deter Spanish police from operating in the waters off Gibraltar. It’s hard to imagine the Royal Navy storming an imperial leftover to see off a Spanish-speaking invasion, but that might have been said about the Falklands.
4. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) The question of how much worse things need to get in the DRC for the rest of the world to pay serious attention is an interesting one, and one that we may get the answer to soon.“A much higher risk than Somalia,” says Stephen Chan, professor of international relations at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “Hordes of militias, mineral resources at stake and huge international investment.”
5. Lebanon One could argue that the country has always been a proxy battleground – but despite a tick of assassinations and other outrages, Lebanon exhibits no desire for conflict. “They have been there, done that,” says Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at think tank Chatham House. “But outside Lebanon’s borders everything is possible.”
6. Somalia The Horn of Africa has been on a low simmer, but only a demented optimist would conclude that it is ceasing to be a problem. “The West would be out of its head to intervene in Somalia again,” says Chan. “But it could become a crucible in which people could be mobilised against the idea of western interference.”
7. Yemen It’s surprising Yemen’s myriad conflicts haven’t bubbled over. It is beset by a war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula movement, a Shia revolt in the north and secessionist rumblings in the south. “Al-Qaeda is looking to carry out attacks in the US and Europe,” says Princeton University Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen. “If they were successful, western governments may not be able to withstand the public outcry.”
8. Iran The big one. Despite threats and sanctions, Iran does not seem minded to abandon its uranium enrichment programme. It remains hard to imagine Israel consenting to a nuclear-armed Iran. “We have already passed a few points of no return,” says Amos Harel, defence analyst with the newspaper Haaretz. “It’s clear that 2011 will be crucial.” The question may become what is easier to contain: an Iran equipped with the means to enact its apocalyptic rhetoric, or the consequences of preventing them from getting it.
9. Pakistan Still the world’s most volatile tinderbox. It is not fully appreciated how close calamity came in 2009 when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by terrorists in Lahore. Had that assault been mounted on its original target – India’s team, for whom Sri Lanka was filling in – there could have been a subcontinental war. Kashmir, Waziristan and the North-West Frontier Province could also trigger civil war.
10. Tajikistan A weak government, tottering economy, under-employed population, porous border with Afghanistan and uppity militias. Added to that is the fact that the Taliban-friendly Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is believed to be at large. “The IMU,” says John MacLeod of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, “may be the Taliban’s means of creating trouble behind American lines.”
11. North Korea Recent hints of a transfer of power from ailing despot Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, suggest the ghastly regime at large in Pyongyang has no plans to implode. But tyrannies often collapse suddenly. If 2011 is the year in which the gates of this nuclear-armed prison camp fall, it won’t be pretty.
12. The internet In 2010, the US military activated a branch called Cyber Command to defend America’s interests in cyberspace. In the UK, the National Security Agency identified cyber attacks as a threat equal to violent terrorism. Signs of future wars may be banknotes refusing to emerge from cashpoints and traffic lights remaining obdurately red.
13. Fiji Fiji has been a steady source of “Trouble In Paradise” headlines, prone to coups and ethnic resentments as tensions itch between its politicians and its military, and between its indigenous Fijians and the descendents of Indians who arrived a century or so ago. The military regime is intransigent, expelling diplomatic envoys from Australia and New Zealand in 2009. Fiji simmers in hostile isolation.
14. South China Sea As China and Japan build up their naval power, fail to agree on territorial disputes and look to extend their influence, the scene is set for Skirmishes at least. But it would take just one shot to escalate into something more serious. The US and China have also been involved in confrontations, including in 2009 when Chinese ships surrounded the Impeccable, a submarine-surveillance ship, in international waters.