Russia, China and Afghanistan dominated much of the national security space in 2021. Here’s where to watch in 2022 – including some particularly pressing concerns.By Paul D. Shinkman|Dec. 27, 2021, at 1:52 p.m.SaveMore
5 Places to Watch for Conflict in 2022More
Stranded people wait for the reopening of border crossing point in the Pakistan’s border town of Chaman on July 16, 2021, following clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak to retake the key border crossing with Pakistan.(BANARAS KHAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
A revisionist China, provocations from Russia and the fraught U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan dominated much of the international space in 2021 – a year defined by the ongoing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic as well as the backlash from the end of a singularly combative U.S. presidency and the beginning of a new era of supposed “relentless democracy” from Washington.
Each of these national security quagmires will continue into the near year, particularly the ongoing crisis in and around Ukraine after the Biden administration revealed it plans new deescalation talks with Moscow early in January. China, too, appears more emboldened than ever to return to mainland control other territories it considers its own, principally Taiwan.
Iran nuclear talks restart in Vienna
But beyond some of these most pressing concerns facing national security leaders, other corners of the globe remain ripe for new conflicts or resurgences of previous confrontations.
Here are five places to watch in 2022:
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 in two.
The country’s parliament declared late this month 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 that Israel carried out airstrikes in neighboring Syria – a hub for Iranian proxy militia forces.
Dynamics in the region were set to change dramatically a day later when national security adviser Jake Sullivan announced during a trip to Israel that the U.S. 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 U.S. airstrike in 2020. Jan. 3 marks two years since that event.
Though the U.S. 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 U.N. now reports 1 in 4 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 U.S.-trained forces who 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.
American national security leaders remain divided in public and behind closed doors about whether Beijing would risk the international economic isolation that would likely follow an attempt to reunite Taiwan with the mainland by force. China considers that goal as critical to overturning the so-called “Century of Humiliation” of largely Western liberal global dominance that its government has endured.
The World Bank assesses China’s economic growth will slow sharply next year – a time when leaders in Beijing have indicated they expect to see similar financial hardship rack American markets.
Though China is set to host the Winter Olympics in February, it remains unclear whether it will embrace the opportunity for benevolent engagement with other world powers, particularly following the Biden administration’s decision to boycott the games diplomatically.