“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.” – Helen Keller
“There is no world of absolute, complete privacy or a world of complete national security.” Andrew McCabe
“I would say national security is a work in progress.” -Jeb Bush
Let’s start 2022 with a little pop culture. The expression, “Elvis has left the building,” was originally a literal announcement that Elvis Presley had left after a show. It later took on a more general meaning of ‘the show is over; there’s nothing more to say. Elvis has left the building and that any further calls for an encore were useless, as Elvis Presley had physically left the show venue. Today, “Elvis has left the building” has come to figuratively mean that something is finished.
2021 is finished. There will be no encores. For many, that is a good thing. For others, it is not necessarily good. For most, it was just another year, a year of ups, a year of downs. There is one thing for certain, 2021 has left the building. We will never see it again. What we will see, however, is 2022!
I enjoy this annual season as we celebrate the beginning of a new year, new possibilities, and new opportunities. Certainly, there will be new challenges, but challenges are mostly just opportunities to make us better. So welcome to 2022!
For the past 4 years, I have used the first installment of More than Meets the Eye to take a look back over the previous year and see if there is anything that we can learn from the previous 12 months. Continuing that legacy, this is the first of two editions looking back at 2021. In this edition, we will look at what has threatened us over the last year to see if there is anything we can learn from these threats. We will also take a look at which of them might bleed over into 2022. Next week we will take a look at the trends of 2021 to see if there are some obvious potential forecasts that we should be mindful of in 2022.
Conflict continued unabated across the world in 2020 and early 2021, even intensifying in some instances, including in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar, and Nagorno-Karabakh, among others. Non-state armed groups across the world also leveraged COVID-19-induced strains on governments’ resources to strengthen their territorial control, expand illegal trafficking activities, and, in some cases, increase their legitimacy with the general population.
Battle deaths tell just a fraction of the story. Collateral deaths that result as a consequence of war or military conflict are often not reported. Yemen’s conflict kills more people—mostly women and young children—through starvation and preventable disease than it does through armed violence. Millions of Ethiopians suffer acute food insecurity because of the country’s civil war. Fighting in Africa involving Islamists often is credited with relatively few casualties, but these entanglements have driven millions of people from their homes and caused humanitarian devastation on a massive scale.
- Syrian Civil War- In 2021, the armed conflict in Syria passed its ten-year anniversary. What started as a domestic uprising soon turned into an intractable civil war that no less than five foreign countries and multiple militias are militarily involved with today. The last bouts of significant fighting were in the northwest province of Idlib in March 2020 and in southern Syria in the summer of 2021. Currently, the conflict has reached a violent, protracted stalemate where several different armed confrontations are simultaneously present, overlapping with regional security concerns about Turkish, Iranian, Israeli, Kurdish, and jihadi activity. While the United Nations-led process is struggling to make progress, Western states have largely downgraded their engagement and several Arab countries are exploring ways to re-engage with the Assad regime.
Syria is beginning to fall off the international agenda. Though Russia and Turkey remain actively engaged, interest is waning among other actors, including the United States. This is a dramatic change from earlier stages of the conflict when Syria served as a proxy battlefield for local and global powers alike. Moscow, at least, does not appear interested in surrendering its influence, though it is unclear just how much leverage the Kremlin has over Assad. Whether the Biden administration will re-engage to shape the conflict’s end game, and to what extent, remains an open question.
The magnitude of destruction and human suffering in Syria includes nearly 600,000 fatalities when you tally both documented deaths and missing people. The civil war in Syria has caused the world’s largest forced displacement crisis since World War II, with more than one in two Syrians forcibly displaced at home or abroad.
- Ethiopia and the Tigray- Ethiopia’s civil war, which began in November 2020, has escalated and taken multiple turns throughout 2021 as government forces battle rebels from the country’s former dominant party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). What was initially presented by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a swift “police action” has turned into a protracted conflict involving the presence of troops from Ethiopia’s former enemy, Eritrea, along with allegations and compelling evidence of war crimes committed by all parties?
Tigray’s forces, overwhelmed when war broke out in November 2020, rallied in 2021 to drive federal and Eritrean troops out of the region in June. Leaders were able to muster support thanks in part to the fury among Tigrayans at the massacres and sexual violence that federal troops, Eritrean soldiers, and those from the Amhara region (which neighbors Tigray) had perpetrated against civilians during the initial campaign.
A spreading famine in Ethiopia has further contributed to instability throughout the country and growing concerns over the potential for spillover violence into other countries in the region. As with any civil war, there is a significant risk that refugees and internally displaced persons will bear the brunt of the humanitarian crisis. Ethiopia’s blockade of the Tigray region imperils a population of over 5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN asserts that approximately 400,000 people are currently facing “famine-like conditions,” as reported by the New York Times.
- Migration Crises Test Rich Countries.The downturn in international migration flows in 2020 triggered by COVID-19 continued into 2021. That didn’t translate, however, into the end of migration crises. A perfect example of this was the southern U.S. border. By October, the number of people entering the United States illegally had hit 1.7 millionover the prior year, the highest number since 1960. COVID-19, economic hardship, and regional political and natural events drove the surge, as did the expectation that the Biden administration would be more welcoming than the Trump administration. To stem the inflow of migrants the Biden administration continued many of its predecessor’s harsh anti-immigration policies. Where it didn’t, the Supreme Court ordered it to.
The European Union saw a 70 percent rise compared to 2020 in the number of people entering illegally, with critics arguing that the EU was failing its duty to help migrants. A surge in migrants crossing the English Channel from France triggered a diplomatic row between Paris and London. Meanwhile, Belarus encouraged migrants to cross its territory to enter Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in a bid to pressure the EU to end sanctions it imposed to protest the rigged 2020 Belarussian presidential election. These crises are unlikely to let up in the coming year. Some 84 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Conflict, economic collapse, and climate change are likely to drive that number higher.
- Afghanistan Civil War- The Taliban seemed to easily re-take control of Afghanistan in 2021. Their victorious march across a little contested battlefield set the stage for a replay of the 1996 overthrow of the Afghanistan government. After the US’s ill-advised de-occupation of Afghanistan, the Taliban moved quickly to consolidate their power and to implement their draconian form of government.
There is a difference, however, between winning the war and winning the peace, and the Taliban’s governing incompetence is leading Afghanistan into one of the most disastrous humanitarian crises on earth. As we will discuss next week, the war may appear to be won, but there are powerful forces waiting to pounce upon the fragile and adolescent government.
- Yemen’s devastating war could be destined to get worse. Houthi rebels have encircled and advanced into the oil- and gas-rich governorate of Marib. A battle for Marib city would be deadly and would prolong rather than end the war.
The new UN envoy should redouble efforts to avert an offensive on Marib, while pushing for an approach to peacemaking that goes beyond two-party talks between the Houthis, on one side, and the Hadi government and its Saudi backers on the other.
- China and all of South and South-East Asia- 2021 saw the implicit effects of the Chinese Communist Party’s “slicing the salami” strategy. Through unrestricted war— China is aggressively seizing parcels of disputed territory without providing a cause for war), cyber-warfare, debt-trap diplomacy, environmental degradation, and the spread of misinformation—China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. Beijing is using the same methods to box India into the Hindu Kush mountains.
Armed engagements have been relatively few, but soldiers both from China and India have given their lives in 2021 as a result of this low-intensity conflict. It has the potential to grow into an enormous problem for all States in South and South-East Asia.
- Israel and Palestine- This past year saw the most destructive Gaza-Israel warfare in just over a decade, as well as clashes in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and other Israeli cities. The escalation illustrated once again that the status quo is untenable. Israel’s new government has continued repressing Palestinians and de-facto annexing the West Bank.
The peace process is long dead and hope of a two-state solution is dying fast. The question this year is whether the world’s policies catch up.
- Islamist militancy in Africa—Africa today is suffering from some of the world’s most ferocious battles between states and Islamist militants. Western-backed military operations help keep jihadists at bay, but they often alienate locals and there is little to show for years of foreign efforts to build up indigenous armies.
The number of conflicts between the Sahelian Sheikhs and ISIS has risen significantly in 2021. Millions have been left without hope and are struggling for their lives. A new record high of 29 million Sahelians in six countries – Burkina Faso, northern Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger and north-east Nigeria – are now in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, five million more than last year. United Nations aid agencies and non-governmental organizations have been overwhelmed by this rapid worsening of the crisis.
- Iran and US/Israel- An April 11 explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility—presumed to be the work of Israel—was a dramatic salvo in the shadow war over Iran’s nuclear program. In response to the attack, Iran ramped up its enrichment capacity. An errant Syrian missile landed near Dimona in Israel on April 22, and Israel struck back at the launch site in Syria. Such chains of events risk escalating, even unintentionally, to open conflict.
In 2021 the US and Israel were potentially complicit in clandestine operations targeting a high-ranking Iranian scientist and a nuclear production facility. After the barrage of conflicts in 2019 and 2020, 2021 was a fairly quiet year in the actual conduct of armed conflict. Depending on how President Biden’s administration negotiators handle the new JCPOA negotiations, 2021 could be just the calm before the storm.
- Russia and Ukraine—Though not engaged in an official armed conflict, Russia and Ukraine are deeply engaged in a cold war that sits at a tipping point for all-out aggression. The movement of close to 120,000 Russian troops and the addition of two Combined Arms Armies (CAA) Headquarters and three Airborne Divisions has given the Ukrainians a lot to be concerned about.
The Russian/Ukrainian frontier is a tinderbox waiting to be lit with the slightest spark of aggression.
Elvis may have left the building at the end of 2021, but there remains plenty for us to remain concerned about. Armed conflict deaths are down. Civilian conflict deaths are down. Though some analysts seem to be encouraged by that, it feels a bit like a pyrrhic victory in so many ways.
Next week we will look at what this all might mean for all of our futures in 2022. We will analyze whether any of these conflicts have the potential to bloom into full-scale conflict or will possibly defuse and become just bad memories.
There is one other factor that I feel is necessary to add to the calculus, but I do so at my own risk: COVID-19. The pandemic, in one way or another, whether by governmental mismanagement or significant numbers of sickness, has exacerbated the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and propelled the impoverishment, rising living costs, inequality, and joblessness that fuel popular anger.
It had a hand this past year in a power grab in Tunisia, Sudan’s coup, and protests in Colombia. The economic damage COVID-19 is unleashing could strain some countries to a breaking point. Although it’s a leap from discontent to protest, from protest to crisis, and from crisis to conflict, the pandemic’s worst symptoms may yet lie ahead.
It will be easy to retreat into a state of fearful resignation. It is not a time to drawback. It is time to feed those who cannot feed themselves, defend those who are defenseless, and help those who are without help. It is a time for living dangerously.
The world Elvis lived in is not the same world we live in in 2022. I am not trying to play on the philosophy of the “good old days.” I am just seeking to understand the global landscape better. If one understands the world better, where the threats lie, and where it is safe to travel, do business and invest, it is possible to live prosperously in this grand world we live in. The threats are not pervasive. They occupy less of the global landscape than you might believe. The world is a safer place than the mainstream media leads us to believe.
Taliban cracks down on more rights while demanding Western aid… https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/12/30/afghan-taliban-crackdown-aid/?utm_source=iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=3471643_
The Islamic State Continues to Mutate, Defying Efforts to Stamp it Out… https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2021-december-16/
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: email@example.com