Conflicts to Watch in 2022
If 2021 brought one chapter of Afghanistan’s decades-long tragedy to a close, another is starting. Since the Taliban’s seizure of power in August, a humanitarian catastrophe has loomed. UN data suggests millions of Afghan children could starve. Western leaders shoulder much of the blame. The world responded to the Taliban’s takeover by freezing Afghan state assets, halting budgetary aid, and offering only limited sanctions relief for humanitarian purposes. The new government can’t pay civil servants. The economy has tanked. The financial sector is paralyzed. All this comes on top of a punishing drought. Western decision-makers bear the lion’s share of responsibility for Afghans’ plight. The sudden cut-off of funds to an entirely aid-dependent state has been devastating. The United Nations and the United States, which have now lifted some sanctions to allow humanitarian aid in the country, should go further by easing restrictions to permit regular economic activity. Biden should release Afghanistan’s frozen assets, with an initial tranche to test the waters. If the White House, loath to underwrite Taliban rule, won’t take that step, internationally supervised currency swaps could infuse dollars into the economy. Propping up health care, the education system, food provision and other basic services should be priorities — even if this requires Western policymakers to work through Taliban ministries. The alternative is to let Afghans die, including millions of children. Of all the blunders the West has made in Afghanistan, this one would leave the ugliest stain.
Two years ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, appeared to be turning the page on decades of repressive rule. Instead, more than a year of fighting between Abiy’s federal army and forces from the northern Tigray region has torn the country apart. Brutal fighting has embittered an already acrimonious dispute. Abiy casts the war as a battle for the Ethiopian state’s survival. Many Ethiopians outside Tigray revile the TPLF, which dominated a repressive regime that ruled Ethiopia for decades before Abiy’s election. The wounds the bloodletting has left on Ethiopia’s social fabric will be hard to heal. Fighting has already killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted millions of Ethiopians from their homes. More war would spell more disaster. Recent battlefield developments, however, may have opened a small window. Tigrayan leaders have dropped a key condition for talks, namely that Amhara forces leave disputed areas they seized in western Tigray. In late December 2021, federal authorities announced they would not advance further to try and vanquish Tigrayan forces. Diplomats should now push for a truce to get humanitarian aid into Tigray and explore whether compromise might be feasible. Without that, bloodshed and hunger will continue, with terrible consequences for Ethiopians and, potentially, the region.
America’s goal of maintaining relations with both South Asian nuclear powers has suffered during the war in Afghanistan and the widespread concerns in Washington of duplicity in Islamabad. The shift in balance spilled out into the open during the Trump presidency, when the White House appeared to adopt a more overt preference for its relationship with India, renaming its US military headquarters for the region as “Indo-Pacific Command” and pushing the previously untethered democracy into greater lockstep with Washington’s regional ambitions. That slide has only accelerated under the Biden administration, sped up by new concerns that Pakistan appears to increasingly operate under the influence of Beijing.
And tensions will only continue to rise, as an already precarious humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan worsens under the governance of the Taliban and the potential for conflict between India and China heats up in increasingly militarized contested territory on their shared border in the Himalayas.
Division and violence has plagued the oil-rich nation since the US intervention in 2011 that led to toppling the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi and his bloody death. A decade of war has followed, bolstered through proxy conflicts as several regional and world powers push weapons and other resources toward militias that have left the country largely split into two.
The country’s parliament recently declared late it would delay highly anticipated elections previously set to take place later in December, saying it would be impossible to do so effectively and fairly. Now it remains unclear whether the country will be able to elect a new president that could unite it, expel the foreign military influence and begin to rebuild its crumbling government institutions.
The two Middle Eastern powers have waged shadow warfare against one another for decades – hostilities that occasionally emerge in public, such as the news in late December 2021 that Israel carried out air strikes in neighbouring Syria – a hub for Iranian proxy militia forces.
Dynamics in the region were set to change dramatically a day later when US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, announced during a trip to Israel that the US had privately set a date to end the option for diplomatic talks with Iran over its nuclear program, prompting new questions about whether the Biden administration and its allies may turn instead to military force to counter Tehran’s ambitions.
And notably, Iran has not yet indicated it believes it had successfully avenged the Trump administration’s brazen decision to kill Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who died in a US air strike in 2020. Jan. 3 marked two years since that event.
Though the US presence in Somalia dramatically diminished due to then-President Donald Trump’s unorthodox order after his election loss to withdraw all troops, the potential for conflict emanating from the Horn of Africa has only grown. Humanitarian concerns on the ground have reached crisis level as the UN now reports one in four Somalis face acute hunger due to a worsening drought.
Al-Shabab, an affiliate of the Islamic State group, remains a potent force in and around the region. It continues to carry out local attacks while overwhelming the US-trained forces that remain locked in conflict with them. The group, and those like it, are trained on carrying out attacks against the West and its interests in that part of the world.
Russia’s large military build-up near its border with Ukraine has heightened concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin may attack its neighbour to finish his “unfinished business.” Although it is still unclear whether he will again invade, yet dismissing the menace as a bluff would be a mistake. The Ukraine war began in 2014 when Putin, angered at what he saw as a Western-backed overthrow of a president friendly to Moscow, annexed Crimea and backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Putin has written that Ukraine is not a true nation and that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole.” If Putin, who seems increasingly mindful of shaping his legacy, acts on such instincts, he has a spectrum of options for weakening Ukraine and thus keeping the country in Russia’s sphere of influence and as a dependable buffer against NATO. Putin, who amassed more than 100,000 troops near the border, only to withdraw many of them weeks later after a meeting with US President Joe Biden, has drawn a new red line on NATO, rejecting not only the idea that Ukraine would join the alliance, which (in reality) won’t take place any time soon, but also growing military collaboration among Kyiv and NATO members, which is already happening. Russia proposes a new European order that would prevent NATO’s further enlargement east and curb its military deployments and activities.
The writer is a member of staff.