Libya threatens to spawn more unrest in North Africa
Libya's revolution, if not as seismic as anything Syria may produce, is still reverberating far and wide. As Moammar Gadhafi's rule crumbled, his regime's weapons found their way into an arms bazaar, turning up in Mali and Sinai, even being intercepted off the Lebanese coast.
The Libyan government, such as it is, seems no closer to stamping its authority on the country, with Islamist brigades holding sway in the east, tribal unrest in the Sahara and militias engaged in turf wars. The danger is that Libya, a vast country where civic institutions were stifled for four decades, will become the incubator for a new generation of jihadists, able to spread their influence throughout the Sahel. They will have plenty of room and very little in the way of opposition from security forces.
The emergence of the Islamist group Ansar Dine in Mali is just one example. In this traditionally moderate Muslim country, Ansar's fighters and Tuareg rebels have ejected government forces from an area of northern Mali the size of Spain and begun implementing Sharia law, amputations and floggings included. Foreign fighters have begun arriving to join the latest front in global jihad; and terrorism analysts are seeing signs that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria are beginning to work together.
There are plans for an international force to help Mali's depleted military take back the north, but one European envoy said it was unlikely to materialize before (wait for it) ... September 2013. Some terrorism analysts see North Africa as becoming the next destination of choice for international jihad, as brigades and camps sprout across a vast area of desert.
A bumpy troop transition for Afghanistan
The U.S. and its allies want to prevent Afghanistan from becoming another haven for terror groups. As the troop drawdown gathers pace, 2013 will be a critical year in standing up Afghan security forces (the numbers are there, their competence unproven), improving civil institutions and working toward a post-Karzai succession.
In November, the International Crisis Group said the outlook was far from assuring.
"Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections (in Afghanistan in 2014) could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out," the group said.
Critics have also voiced concerns that the publicly announced date of 2014 for withdrawing combat forces only lets the Taliban know how long they must hold out before taking on the Kabul government.
U.S. officials insist the word is "transitioning" rather than "withdrawal," but the shape and role of any military presence in 2014 and beyond are yet to be settled. Let's just say the United States continues to build up and integrate its special operations forces.
The other part of the puzzle is whether the 'good' Taliban can be coaxed into negotiations, and whether Pakistan, which has considerable influence over the Taliban leadership, will play honest broker.
Private meetings in Paris before Christmas that involved Taliban envoys and Afghan officials ended with positive vibes, with the Taliban suggesting they were open to working with other political groups and would not resist girls' education. There was also renewed discussion about opening a Taliban office in Qatar, but we've been here before. The Taliban are riven by internal dissent and may be talking the talk while allowing facts on the ground to work to their advantage.
Where will North Korea turn its focus?
On the subject of nuclear states that the U.S.-wishes-were-not, the succession in North Korea has provided no sign that the regime is ready to restrain its ambitious program to test nuclear devices and the means to deliver them.
Back in May 2012, Peter Brookes of the American Foreign Policy Council said that "North Korea is a wild card -- and a dangerous one at that." He predicted that the inexperienced Kim Jong Un would want to appear "large and in charge," for internal and external consumption. In December, Pyongyang launched a long-range ballistic missile -- one that South Korean scientists later said had the range to reach the U.S. West Coast. Unlike the failure of the previous missile launch in 2009, it managed to put a satellite into orbit.
The last two such launches have been followed by nuclear weapons tests -- in 2006 and 2009. Recent satellite images of the weapons test site analyzed by the group 38 North show continued activity there.
So the decision becomes a political one. Does Kim continue to appear "large and in charge" by ordering another test? Or have the extensive reshuffles and demotions of the past year already consolidated his position, allowing him to focus on the country's dire economic situation?
China-Japan island dispute to simmer
It's been a while since East Asia has thrown up multiple security challenges, but suddenly North Korea's missile and nuclear programs are not the only concern in the region. There's growing rancor between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, which may be aggravated by the return to power in Japan of Shinzo Abe as prime minister.
Abe has long been concerned that Japan is vulnerable to China's growing power and its willingness to project that power. Throughout 2012, Japan and China were locked in a war of words over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, with fishing and Coast Guard boats deployed to support claims of sovereignty.
In the days before Japanese went to the polls, Beijing also sent a surveillance plane over the area, marking the first time since 1958, according to Japanese officials, that Bejing had intruded into "Japanese airspace." Japan scrambled F-15 jets in response.
The islands are uninhabited, but the seas around them may be rich in oil and gas. There is also a Falklands factor at play here. Not giving in to the other side is a matter of national pride. There's plenty of history between China and Japan -- not much of it good.
As China has built up its ability to project military power, Japan's navy has also expanded. Even a low-level incident could lead to an escalation. And as the islands are currently administered by Japan, the U.S. would have an obligation to help the Japanese defend them.
Few analysts expect conflict to erupt, and both sides have plenty to lose. For Japan, China is a critical market, but Japanese investment there has fallen sharply in the past year. Just one in a raft of problems for Abe. His prescription for dragging Japan out of its fourth recession since 2000 is a vast stimulus program to fund construction and other public works and a looser monetary policy.