2021 – The Year in Conflict

Sub Title : The conflicts that happened during the past year and the likely outlook for 2022

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2022

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 12

Category : Geostrategy

: January 21, 2022

Conflicts have been a part of the history of mankind since time immemorial. The year 2021 saw conflicts of various shades in different parts of the globe. The article outlines the conflicts that happened during the past year and the likely outlook for 2022

The year 2021 saw around 26 various conflicts in different parts of the globe. Three of them were major ones (classified as over 10,000 combat deaths) in Afghanistan, Yemen and the Ethiopian-Tigray Civil War. Around twenty minor conflicts have smoldered in places as far off as Myanmar, Columbia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Somalia, Nigeria, Darfur, Iraq, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Eighty percent of conflicts have been confined to Africa and Asia; the West has been largely insulated – except for the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. But in spite of the relatively low levels of conflict, there have still been over 1,10,000 combat related

deaths. This figure does not take into account the massive displacement and civilian casualties that have occurred in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia and North Africa, just to name a few. It has been estimated that over 5,00,000 civilian deaths have occurred due to civil war and over six million displaced. In addition, the conflicts have caused famine and starvation, which have affected over ten million people in different conflict zones.

The fault lines between Russia Ukraine, India-China, China- Taiwan and in the Middle East, could see an eruption in 2022. The unresolved wars of Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia,Myanmar and even the War against Islamic fundamentalism could alsoescalate this year. Let us visit some of the arenas and see how they have panned out.

The End of a War – and the Beginning of Another

Perhaps the most significant event was the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan last August. After twenty years of war, $2 Trillion in treasure and loss of over 7000 lives of US and Allied troops and contractors and 1,57,000 Afghan civilians, USA’s longest and most expensive war has ended exactly as it had started – with the Taliban back in power. The withdrawal of US troops and the manner in which it was conducted had all the hallmarks of a complete defeat, comparable to the disastrous US retreat from Saigon in 1979.

President Ghani fled the country and Taliban fighters took over the Presidential Palace, signaling the return of the Taliban. But the Taliban II government, in spite of its promises, has all the hallmarks of the earlier regime. Of its 33 members, 19 are UN designated terrorists, and hardliners led by Sirajuddin Haqqani seem to call the shots. With the return of the Taliban, the gains of the past two decades have been completely overturned. Women’s education and human rights are at risk and democracy has been thrown out of the window. Minorities continue to be targeted and Afghanistan remains a haven for terrorist groups sheltering over 4500 members of the Islamic State of Khorasan and Al Qaeda on its soil. With the blocking of $9 Billion of funds in US banks and the cessation of western aid – which comprises 45% of Afghanistan’s economy –there is no money to run the government and hunger and starvation are rife. The unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan holds the seeds for another period of great instability which could spill across the entire region.

Taiwan and the China Seas

One of the major reasons for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was to shift focus to the Indo-Pacific, a region which could be the next arena of global conflict. Ever since the arrival of Xi Jinping in 2013, China has been pursuing its nationalistic goals aggressively. Accordingly, its claims in the region have intensified with its actions against Taiwan posing the greatest threat.

Incursions into the Taiwanese ADIZ now take place almost on a daily basis, with 54 in September alone. These include J-16 fighters and nuclear capable H-6 bombers which came dangerously close to the island before being chased away. Any of these incidents could go out of hand and the situation escalate dramatically. Although President Joe Biden’s has indicated US commitment to defend Taiwan, how far the US will go to uphold it is not clear. That is the resolve that China may set out to test. As per some scary war-gamed scenarios, once they decide to go in, they could even achieve their goals in three to four days, while keeping the US fleet at bay with long range missiles.

Chinese actions pose the greatest threat to world peace in recent times. It could be tempted to play its nationalistic cards in the China Seas or in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The world seems to be closing ranks against them with a slew of alliances such as Quad and AUKUS. As Chinese hyper-nationalism clashes with US interests in the Indo-Pacific, the region seems set for a potential confrontation.

Russia – Ukraine

As China flexes its nationalistic muscle in the East, Russia does the same in Europe. Over November, it has amassed 100000 troops on the Ukrainian border in a stand-off that could precipitate war in Europe. The seeds of this confrontation go back to 2014 when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, in support of Russian speaking separatists of the Donbas region of Southern Ukraine. The war between the separatists and Ukrainian forces has already killed around 13000 people. There was a cease fire agreed to between Russia and Ukraine in Jul 2020, but the truce was short-lived. However, with an agreement in Dec 2021 to implement the terms of the 2020 cease fire, there may be some peace on the contact line.

The major cause of the present confrontation is Ukraine’s seeking membership of NATO. That move would bring the alliance dangerously close to the Russian frontier and enable the deployment of NATO missiles that could reach Moscow in a mere four minutes. It is ‘a thin red line’ that Putin has warned the West not to cross. In what amounts to an ultimatum, Russia has warned NATO against admitting Ukraine into the alliance, and also asked it to withdraw combat units and missiles from Eastern Europe, especially Poland and the Baltic states. In short, it wants a veto over NATO, and get it to pull back to its pre 1994 boundaries so that Russia could exert its influence over areas which were once under the erstwhile USSR.

In spite of a frosty war of words, neither side really wants war. Besides destabilizing Europe, it will lead a resentful Russia deeper into Chinese embrace, which will threaten world peace further. Nor does Putin want an escalation which could stymie Russia’s economy by sanctions. It is likely that this crisis will pass, but the seeds have been planted for a resurgence of Russian assertion which is dangerously reminiscent of the days of the Cold War.

The Volatile Middle East

The Middle East went through its periodic cycle of upheaval when the Israel-Hamas War erupted in May. It began with rioting in the streets of Jerusalem between Jews and Palestinians, which led to the Israeli police occupying the holy Al Aqsa Mosque. In retaliation, Hamas launched 150 rocket strikes into Israel, most of which were intercepted and destroyed. But it led to Israel’s ‘Guardian of the Walls’ campaign which unleashed a series of air strikes into Gaza. The air strikes targeted the Hamas leadership and rocket sites. After eleven days of rocket and air strikes, the firing subsided, leaving Gaza’s fragile infrastructure in ruins. Israel has now made common ground with UAE, Saudi and the Arab world, to counter another rising threat in the Middle East i.e. Iran, thus further diluting the hope for a ‘two state’ solution.

Iran has become even more intransigent after Trump walked out of the US-Iran nuclear deal. Attempts to get it back to the negotiating table have led to impossible demands. Already, its breakout time – the time taken to produce a nuclear weapon – is down to just 3 to 6 weeks from the 12 months that it was before the deal. The more it stalls, the closer it comes to the production of a nuclear weapon, and it now also seems reluctant to give up its nuclear card. As Iran heads towards nuclear weaponization, there are fears of a US-Israel strike at its nuclear capabilities. Should Iran attain nuclear capabilities (which it would by 2022) it will become even more belligerent, and a volatile Middle East will become an even more dangerous place.

Civil and Uncivil Wars

While conventional wars between states have been avoided, civil wars and insurgencies have raged in places like Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and North Africa. In Syria, the slaughter of the civil war has abated somewhat with President Assad having pushed back the rebels with Russian and Iranian support. With the capture of Idlib last year, the last bastion of separatists had fallen. And after ten years of civil war which killed 3,20,000 and created over 5.6 million refugees, Assad still remains in control of his shattered nation.

But while the Syrian war has abated, an equally brutal civil war has raged in Tigray – the Northern region of Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – who ironically won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for brokering peace with Eritrea – sent in Ethiopian and Eritrean troops towards Tigray to quell separatist activity there. In a year of civil war, Tigray forces had come dangerously close to Addis Ababa. The War has seen 52,000 killed and witnessed some gruesome ethnic massacres on both sides. To halt the Tigray offensive, Abiy Ahmed imposed an economic blockade of the land locked region of Tigray which threatens 5.5 million people with starvation. There seems no early end to the war and its ethnic contours could draw neighboring nations like Sudan and Chad in its wake

An equally high cost of life has been incurred in the Yemen civil war which is in its seventh year now. The Iran backed Houthis have pushed back government forces, taken over the capital of Sanaa, and seized control of the coast of Hodeida. They have also staved off air strikes by Saudi and UAE and carried the fight onto Saudi soil by drone attacks on its refineries. Three ceasefires have collapsed and the Houthis – supported by Shia militia and the Islamic State fighters – are now in virtual control of the war-torn nation. The success of the Houthis will further embolden Iran and allow it to control the crucial shipping channels of the Red Sea.

As the world remained pre-occupied with Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese actions, the War against Terror has been sidelined. But Islamist militancy continues to hold sway in Africa. Boko Haram has captured vast swaths of territory in Nigeria. Al Shabab has Somalia in its grasp and seized Mogadishu in much the same manner in which the Taliban took over Kabul. Their success has spurred jihadi factions in Congo, Uganda, Mali, Sudan and Burkina Faso, which try to replicate the success of other Islamic State affiliates. Africa could thus become a springboard from where Islamist fundamentalism could see a resurgence in Asia and Europe.

And closer home, another event has created turbulence that affects India directly. In February 21, Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) took over the country, imprisoned political leaders and established military rule. Perhaps they were alarmed by the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in the recently held elections and were afraid that it would erode their own authority. However, they miscalculated the response of the people. An array of resistance groups under the so-called National Unity Government launched a series of nationwide protests, strikes and bandhs, and attacked military convoys and bases. The Tatmadaw responded with a crackdown that has seen 10000 killed and created over a million refugees in India and Bangladesh.

India’s Troubled Frontiers

For India, 2021 was a year of uncertainty which required deft navigation. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to a loss of Indian influence and a strategic victory for Pakistan. However, by resuming humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in the form of grain supplies and vaccines, and also establishing contact with the Taliban leadership, it has kept its options open.

The year began on a positive note with a ceasefire agreement with Pakistan, which has held in spite of the hiccups. There were some encouraging signals from Pakistan, including statements from the Army Chief, Gen Bajwa that it was time “To bury the past, move forward and focus on economics”. There was also a brief resumption of trade. But by September or so, it all evaporated with Islamabad returning to its old narrative on Kashmir

Pakistan faces its own internal turmoil with the insurgency in Baluchistan heating up, and Waziristan becoming even more restive. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik virtually calls the shots in the interiors and has refused a cease fire even as its attacks intensify. Yet, Pakistan has been emboldened by what they see as a victory in Afghanistan. As was expected, it has led to a fresh influx of heavily armed militants into Kashmir and an intensification of terrorist activity there.

While the LOC has been somewhat stable, the 20-month long stand-off between India and China in Eastern Ladakh continues unabated and both sides have built up forces along the border in preparation for a long haul. China has ramped up its infrastructure with the construction of airfields, helipads, roads and is even building a bridge across the Pangong Tso. They have activated the long and disputed frontier, changed the names of various places in Arunachal Pradesh, and constructed 624 ‘Xiakong’ villages along the land borders with India. The recent Land Border Law is also an indicator of the hardening of its claims along the LAC, and it is unlikely that the PLA will return to its pre May 20 positions. While India has countered it effectively so far, the existing tensions could well lead to a skirmish or even a localized conflict anywhere along the 3488 long India China border.

What 2022 holds

As per the Global Conflict Tracker, the places where conflict is most likely to erupt in the coming year would be India-China, India-Pakistan, Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan/USA. Besides that, other potential conflicts could expand in scope. Afghanistan is a hot bed whose instability will extend to Pakistan, India, Iran and even the Central Asian Republics. A nuclear armed Iran is a possibility and with it, they are likely to up the ante against Israel, USA and Saudi Arabia. Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and North Africa will continue to bleed internally and cause a humanitarian disaster which is already worse than any seen after World War II. Most of all, as Russia and China increase their aggressive nationalism in Ukraine, Taiwan, Ladakh and the China Seas, the stage seems set for a confrontation in both Europe and Asia. 2022 could be the year of decision in any one of these arenas. We will just have to wait and see how the year unfolds, what new conflicts arise, and which of these simmering issues reaches a flashpoint.