Things That Go Bump in the Night and Bite Us in The Ass
As we enter 2023 we are focused and consumed by events in Ukraine, and rightly so. China and Taiwan also draw attention because of the potential for escalation and war. However, I have learned that when we least expect it an unanticipated crisis rears up and creates unwanted problems. These crises catch us by surprise because we are focused elsewhere. We do not control the narrative, many times it controls us. Let us not forget that few anticipated the Russian assault on Ukraine until the very last moment. Most people thought it was a bluff, just Russia applying pressure on Ukraine in order to obtain concessions.
What makes these unexpected crises important to the U.S.? That is a good question. We regularly pay little attention to various, ongoing conflicts like those in The Horn of Africa, Mexico, and Yemen. We don't worry about these conflicts as much as we do others. We have a high tolerance for pain in some areas because there is little chance that these hot spots will impact US interests directly, except maybe for Mexico. We become accustomed to some areas or nations being in constant turmoil. Some of these hot spots have been hotspots for decades, if not centuries. We also become accustomed to brinkmanship, where one nation pushes until it is at the brink of war then steps back and returns to business as usual. You see this brinkmanship with some of the hot spots I mention below. They have always generated a crisis but resolved the problem without going to war.
I am not so sure diplomatic resolution of any of the potential crises is a given. Putin's miscalculation in Ukraine demonstrates that any nation or leader can make a poor decision and instead of resolving the crisis, it ends up as a war. Rest assured there are plenty of people in the government who spend their waking hours watching these places, keeping policymakers informed and ready to warn as soon as things look like they are going to get out of hand. But I guarantee you that somewhere, somehow, something will blow up that will catch us by surprise.
Here are some of the potential crises I believe might pop up.
Pakistan: A perennial trouble spot, Pakistan is undergoing a major economic crisis. Monumental flooding, the pandemic, and corruption are creating conditions for economic collapse. There is not enough space to cover it all but in short, prices have skyrocketed, and the government's response and restrictions on imports have caused many businesses to close their doors for lack of raw materials, resulting in over 2 million unemployed. The price of wheat has escalated as availability has declined, leaving Pakistan on the precipice of starvation. There is an energy crisis, with Pakistan unable to keep the lights on. On top of this, the International Monetary Fund is negotiating the implementation of strict economic policies for Pakistan in return for various loans to pay its debts. These restrictions would exacerbate the already perilous economic situation.
As this is going on the wealth of the elites has grown dramatically. Programs created to alleviate the suffering of the common people are being manipulated by the wealthy so as to fatten their pocketbooks. The military budget has increased by 6%, and the salaries and allowances of government officials have increased by 150%. The well-to-do are not only taking care of themselves during this crisis but profiting from it while the middle class struggles to feed their families.
Some will say this is Pakistan's problem and the crises there should not impact the United States but this would be very short-sighted. Remember, Pakistan has a substantial nuclear arsenal, likely over 160 warheads. Pakistan is also a hotbed of radical Islamic groups, including within the military. In a chaotic collapse of order nuclear weapons could reach the hands of radical groups, and they would not be afraid to use them. Another bad scenario would be the Pakistani government launching a war against India, another nuclear power, in order to focus the people on the enemy and drive up nationalist fervor.
Pakistan has always been an unstable nation, held together by force, and the fear of outside threats (India). The government only effectively controls a portion of the nation, with other areas being practically autonomous or on the verge of seceding. Pakistan has survived numerous crises but eventually, all this instability catches up.
Threat: Medium to High
Israel - Iran: As I write this post Iran is undergoing a series of drone attacks against its infrastructure. It is no coincidence that these attacks come so soon after Benyamin Netanyahu assumed the position of Israeli Prime Minister. Iran has been a thorn in almost everyone's side for decades and represents a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region, as well as the interests of our allies. This is problematic enough, but with Netanyahu in charge of Israel, the problem will grow worse. Netanyahu is an extreme hawk when it comes to Iran and has always been interested in provoking a Western military response to Iran, seeking to destroy Iran's military and nuclear capabilities.
Adding to this is Netanyahu's own position within Israel. He leads a fragmented and weak coalition that could come tumbling down at any time. He remains under criminal investigation and hanging on to the post of PM helps him fight the criminal charges. Having an outside threat to the safety of Israel would help not only unite Israelis but hopefully secure support for Netanyahu and his coalition as they fight off Iran. It is in Netanyahu's interests to escalate the conflict with Iran.
For years Iran has tolerated Israeli sabotage and assassinations inside Iran. That could remain the norm but provoking Iran into some type of retaliation could not only bring Netanyahu support but draw in the U.S. to launch strikes against Iran, depending upon the severity of the Iranian response. We will likely see an escalation of Israeli actions against Iran. It remains to be seen how Iran will respond.
Threat: Medium to High
Greece - Turkey: This is another problem area that has been percolating for decades but has become more strident in recent years. Greece and Turkey have had a long history of conflict, hundreds of years worth. The backstory is worth reading if you get a chance. The current crisis comes from a much more aggressive Turkish foreign policy and energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. The situation is too complicated for this post, maybe I will do one solely on this problem, but Turkey is feeling isolated. Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece have begun close cooperation to explore natural gas deposits off the coast of Cyprus, leaving Turkey out of this endeavor. Greece is also making small moves to bolster its military positions in the Aegean Sea, where it controls most of the islands. Again, Turkey sees this as a move to isolate it and cut it off from the eastern Mediterranean.
Add to this a change in Turkey's foreign affairs. Turkey wants to assert itself as the leading power in the Islamic world, and a regional powerhouse in the Mediterranean, Levant, and central Asia, a return to the days of the Ottoman Empire. This puts it in conflict with nations in the region who are not interested in Turkish hegemony at their expense. Furthermore, Turkey's relationship with the U.S. has deteriorated to the point Turkey no longer sees the U.S. as a viable partner.
Upcoming elections in both Greece and Turkey cause the governments in both countries to appear harsher toward their perceived enemies and to portray themselves as defenders of their nations. We can see that in Turkish President Erdogan's increasingly bellicose rhetoric towards Greece, making threats that Turkish missiles will hit Athens and the Turkish military will appear at night to attack Greece. There have already been hundreds of violations of Greek air space by Turkish aircraft over the last few years. Turkey and Greece have usually been able to walk themselves back from any conflict in the past but we cannot rule out a miscalculation on the part of either player.
Complicating this will be Russian meddling. Russia would love to divide NATO, both Greece and Turkey being members, and draw NATO's attention away from Ukraine. It would surprise no one if Russian elements tried to stoke the tensions between these nations in the hopes of causing a war.
Kosovo - Serbia: They are back at it again. The bottom line here is that Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence. Serbia is also pushing for an Association of Serbian Municipalities in Serbian-majority cities and towns inside Kosovo. Kosovo does not want this association to be based on ethnicity. Tensions are high. A big part of these tensions dates back to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent war and genocide. The Balkans gives Afghanistan a good run for its money when it comes to vengeance. The good thing is that the European Union (EU) is working the issue hard, holding out economic aid as a carrot and stick in return for normalizing relations between the two countries.
It is likely the EU will get the issue resolved as both nations want and need EU economic aid and cooperation, giving the EU considerable leverage. I have noted this as a trouble spot because of the potential for Russian meddling. As noted above in the section on Greece and Turkey, Russia would love nothing more than a crisis that the West must respond to, drawing attention away from Ukraine. There is always the possibility that Russia will work to exacerbate the tensions in the hope of a war between both nations.
India - China: A perennial favorite of mine, the border conflict in the Himalayas between India and China continues to simmer. Both fought each other in 1962 over who controlled parts of the mountainous terrain that extends between both countries but nothing was really settled. For the last several decades a status quo settled over the region but during the last year violence has escalated, leading to the death of several service members on either side. Other than national pride over an ill-defined border, I'm not sure what they are fighting over. They are literally killing each other over rocks.
Both nations are nuclear-armed, making a conflict between the two a notch above the regular border disputes around the world. India and China seem to be playing a schoolyard bully game of pushing here and there to see what they can get away with, testing each other's resolve. When things get too bloody both nations step back. This conflict has a low probability of escalating beyond small skirmishes but, given the 1962 war, there is always a chance things can get out of hand.
There are plenty of other potential problems that could crop up in the coming year that I have not listed. Most notable is Mexico, where narcotics traffickers battle the Mexican government on a daily basis and cause more casualties each year than the US suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan combined during the long wars. There are areas of Mexico that the government does not have full control over. Somehow, we tolerate this instability at our southern border. There will also be humanitarian crises, but let's be honest, unless they directly affect US interests, we won't get too worked up over them. A few million dollars spent on humanitarian assistance will be fine by us. Although we can’t be certain which of these crises may escalate, we can be sure that there will be plenty of surprises in the coming year.