The Year Ahead
January 11, 2012
On December 18, 2010, a police slap of a vegetable-cum-fruit peddler in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid triggered an “Arab Spring” that no one had forecast and that quickly spawned a long, dark Arab winter.
Before the end of January 2011, violent unrest had spread to Egypt. By February 11, after 18 days of riots, the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak ended. Less than a week later, Libya exploded. And on October 20, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s dictator for 42 years, was mauled and killed by angry revolutionaries.
The top military man in Tripoli, the capital, is Abdelkrim Elhaj, the former al Qaeda operative in Libya who was captured during Qaddafi’s regime, turned over to the United States, and then renditioned to and tortured by Thai authorities. He now says he is not holding the United States accountable but expects “those responsible to be brought to trial.”
Former close U.S. ally Egypt will soon fall under the sway of an Islamist parliament (40 percent Muslim Brotherhood, 25 percent Salafist, or Muslim extremist). Liquor is already out of Cairo stores and can now only be sold to foreigners from locations yet to be determined. Tourism, once 15 percent of national revenue, is down to 5 percent.
From Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and more to come, the widely hailed Arab Spring had turned into a dark winter with more bad news to come from other parts of the Middle East.
The outlook for a Palestinian state is now still darker than before. Palestinian extremists are in the ascendancy again, and some 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank keep expanding and strengthening their defenses. A good bet for 2012: a third Intifada.
In Iraq, the last U.S. troops have left but some 14,000 Americans remain—half of them with diplomatic passports, assigned to the largest U.S. embassy in the world, and the other half, private security contractors. Already, the threat of sectarian civil war looms between Sunni and the Shia Muslims now in power. Sunni-triggered bombs are killing people daily.
In today’s Iraq, Iran and its Shia allies, have more influence than the United States. And 2012 should tell whether the United States’ $1-trillion war effort, with its 4.400 killed in action and 30,000 wounded (plus an estimated 100,000 Iraqis killed), was the disaster forecast by some prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Afghanistan and the near-mandatory end of the war in 2014—or at least the end to U.S. military involvement—is the big unknown. It could easily end the way the Vietnam War did or with a congressional vote against further military aid. We have the clock, and the Taliban have the time.
The last U.S. soldier left Vietnam on March 29, 1973, but Saigon did not fall to North Vietnamese troops until April 1975. ARVN, the South Vietnamese army, fought on with U.S. military assistance—until Congress suddenly decided to end all further military aid to Saigon. Hanoi, according to the memoirs of North Vietnamese generals, were taken by surprise and had to improvise an offensive to take Saigon, a prize they thought was still two years away.
Some observers can see the danger of a similar scenario in Afghanistan. After the end of U.S. military involvement in 2014, the Afghan army will require from $7 to $10 billion in annual aid. How long Congress will continue to vote for such big numbers is an open question.
Iran is the big unknown in the black swan aviary. President Obama, his new generals at DOD, the DIA/CIA, and DOS are firmly aligned against an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The key facilities are underground, and even with Israel’s new, U.S.-made deep penetration ordnance, nothing is less certain than the ability to set Iran’s nuclear timetable back by more than a year or two.
Some argue—as has Henry Kissinger—that we should be engaging Iran in a multilateral international solution, along with Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, for ending the Afghan war. The estimated $1 to $3 trillion in precious minerals, including uranium, that lie deep underground in Afghanistan could form the centerpiece lure to accelerate an end to hostilities with a coalition government in Kabul.
In light of the rapidly unfolding crises of 2011, the reluctance of U.S. intelligence agencies to forecast beyond the next five years is understandable. As then–Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted two months into NATO’s intervention in Libya, “If you’d asked me four months ago if we’d be in Libya today, I would have asked, ‘What were you smoking?’”
Al Qaeda has vanished from news media, and most have assumed that the killing of its leader Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals, May 2, 2011, put an end to the threat of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction in a major U.S. city. But the killing of major underground leaders frequently acts as a spur to followers to avenge their death by taking on bigger and better terrorist action—from underground leaders fighting the Nazis in World War II to terrorist leaders against apartheid in South Africa.
Terrorism has been the weapon of the weak against the strong from time immemorial. Today, the arc of instability, from west to east Africa to Pakistan to Bangladesh has any number of al Qaeda copycat sympathizers. Al Qaeda ceased to be centrally directed long before Bin Laden’s death. Tomorrow, an unmanned drone, launched from a cargo ship a few miles off Manhattan, could be the carrier of deadly pestilence.
The Center for Preventive Action’s “Preventive Priorities Survey” for 2012 is designed to overcome the lack of forecasting ability in the intelligence community by developing a list of 30 plausible human-generated contingencies of relative importance to U.S. national interests, grouped into three tiers according to levels or categories of risk associated with various types of instability or conflict:
- Tier 1: Contingencies that could threaten the homeland, trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threaten critical strategic resources.
- Tier 2: Contingencies in countries of strategic importance but which are non-treaty allies.
- Tier 3: Contingencies in countries of limited strategic importance, or in those where humanitarian consequences are likely to be severe or widespread.
The 30 contingencies were sent to a wide selection of over 300 government officials, policy analysts, academics, and journalists for their confidential feedback. Their insights led to a number of additions, subtractions, and refinements based upon whether they believed the contingencies were more or less probable and severe in the coming year. These changes are reflected in the “Preventive Priorities Survey: 2012.”
Tier I: Contingencies that directly threaten the U.S. homeland and are likely to trigger U.S. military involvement
- A mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland or on a treaty ally
- A severe North Korean crisis (e.g., armed provocations, internal political instability, advances in nuclear weaponry)
- A major military incident with China involving U.S. or allied forces
- An Iranian nuclear crisis (e.g., surprise advances in nuclear weapons/delivery capability, Israeli response)
- A highly disruptive cyber attack on U.S. critical infrastructure (e.g., telecommunications, electrical power, pipeline output, transportation, or emergency services)
- A significant increase in drug-trafficking violence in Mexico that spills over into the United States
- Severe internal instability in Pakistan, triggered by a civil-military crisis, or terror attacks
- Political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers global oil supplies
- A U.S.-Pakistan military confrontation, triggered by a terror attack or U.S. counterterrorism operations
- Intensification of the European sovereign debt crisis that leads to the collapse of the euro, triggering a double-edged transatlantic crisis
Tier II: Contingencies that affect countries of strategic importance to the United States but that do not involve treaty obligations
- Political instability in Egypt with wider regional implications
- A severe Indo-Pak crisis that carries risk of military escalation, triggered by a major terror attack
- Rising tension/naval incident in the eastern Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Israel
- A major erosion of security and governance gains in Afghanistan with intensification of insurgency and/or terror attacks
- An outbreak of widespread civil violence in Syria, with potential outside intervention
- An outbreak of widespread civil violence in Yemen (which presumably means the past year didn’t meet this criterion)
- Rising sectarian tensions and renewed violence in Iraq
- A South China Sea armed confrontation over competing territorial claims
- A mass casualty attack on Israel
- Growing instability in Bahrain that spurs further Saudi and/or Iranian military action
Tier III: Contingencies that could have severe/widespread humanitarian consequences but in countries of limited strategic value to the United States
- Military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan
- Heightened political instability and sectarian violence in Nigeria
- Increased conflict in Somalia with continued outside intervention
- Political instability in Venezuela surrounding the October 2012 elections or post-Chavez succession
- Political instability in Kenya surrounding the August 2012 elections
- Renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia
- An intensification of political instability and violence in Libya
- Violent election-related instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo
- Political instability/resurgent ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan
- An outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, possibly over Nagorno Karabakh
(The survey identifying Tiers I through III was conducted and published by the Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations. See http://www.cfr.org/conflict-prevention/preventive-priorities-survey-2012/p26686.)
Arnaud de Borchgrave is a senior adviser and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.