If 2017 is any guide, 2018 is unlikely to herald a new era of global disarmament and enduring peace. The world today seems fraught with growing points of instability and led increasingly by unpredictable governments. The threat of nuclear conflict seems to be on the rise, and the reality of chemical weapons on the battlefield is here. Things are pretty bad in the usual places, and growing worse in places you might not expect. So what hot spots can we expect to see in the news next year, and why?
President Trump has ramped up his rhetoric against North Korea, but Kim Jong-un has shown little interest in halting his country’s nuclear weapons program. Last month the southeast Asian nation tested its third intercontinental ballistic missile. It surprised experts by going higher and farther than any previous such North Korean missile, and is capable, it seems, of hitting Washington. The White House has promised sanctions following a year of threatening military action, if not a preemptive nuclear strike. In 2018, North Korea might not only be the hottest spot in the world, but the hottest spot in the history of the world.
The Lake Chad Basin (Western Africa)
Earlier this year, four soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) were killed in Niger. The first, angry thought of many was: Why are we engaged in operations in Niger? The answer, as you might have guessed: terrorism. The U.S. military first entered Niger in 2013, when it deployed to support the French, who were fighting al-Qaeda forces in the adjacent Mali, itself a former French colony. The U.S. established a major drone force there, and most of the 800 soldiers presently deployed to the African nation are building a second drone base. Special Forces, meanwhile, are doing what they do best: training and building up local forces to fight mutual enemies. They are doing the same in Cameroon and Burkina Faso. That general region, the Lake Chad Basin, is in a state of emergency, plagued with starvation and violence. Those are precisely the sorts of conditions where terrorists gain footholds and flourish.
Iraq and Syria
There are more terrorists in Iraq than anywhere else in the world. The Defense Department, meanwhile, isn’t saying how many U.S. soldiers are in the region, though that figure is at least in the 6,000 range. That Iraq and adjacent Syria are, and will continue to be, a global hot spot is simply a given at this point. The U.S. has 2,000 soldiers in northern Syria there to not only fight ISIS, but also to hold Bashar Assad accountable for using chemical weapons on his own people during the ongoing Syrian civil war. It’s a military, humanitarian, diplomatic, and human rights disaster there, with no hope in sight. Worse (or at least, equally bad), because Russia and other major powers are engaged and increasingly at odds with the United States in Syria, an ever-growing chance has emerged of one incident or another inadvertently sparking World War III.
In November, President Trump doubled the number of U.S. military personnel in Somalia, bringing its numbers to the largest they have been since 1993 — the year of the infamous Battle of Mogadishu (best known from Black Hawk Down). The U.S. is there to fight al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization that has launched devastating attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Special operations forces are supporting and training local Somali troops as well as mounting drone strikes. Recent reports suggest serious combat actions by U.S. forces, as well.
Next year will be the deciding year for Afghanistan, according to NATO’s top policy and planning officer. The idea is to force the Taliban back to the negotiation table through a surge of western force, rather than by simply relying on Afghan security forces to win the day. One major goal is to prepare the country for its next major election in 2019. Three months ago, President Trump increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan by nearly fifty percent, on top of tripling the number of airstrikes from the following year. It remains to be seen whether even more U.S. soldiers will be sent to the nation, with which we’ve been at war for 16 years. If, however, 2018 is make-or-break, the war fighting tempo will be high indeed and the temptation to add more bodies to the battle will be high.
As every year, 2018 might bear witness to some state actor unknown by most today that does something horrible and must then be dealt with. In 2000, few Americans could have pointed to Afghanistan on a map, the war torn country making headlines only because its religious fundamentalists, so skilled at making life so miserable for the Afghan people and blowing up ancient artwork for the offense of being enduring and beautiful. The next year, we were at war with the Taliban, and so we remain. This is how it goes with a shrinking world and an expanding roster of madmen determined to destroy civilization. Peace remains ever elusive.