Emerging flash points promise tough 2014 on world stage

For all the frustrations, crises, and hard-won silver linings that have have attended American foreign policy over the last year, it’s probable that those steering the ship of state are hoping for a brief respite in 2014.

It’s even more probable that they won’t get it.

Some longtime thorns in America’s side (see: Iran, North Korea) have driven the global news cycle throughout 2013, and all signs point to that continuing in 2014. But apart from those old chestnuts, some emerging problems and fresh policy challenges will confront President Obama in 2014, promising anything but more of the same.

Between a scheduled troop withdrawal from America’s longest-ever war in Afghanistan, rising tensions in East Asia driven by the dawn of a more muscular, assertive China, and problems ranging from instability to terrorism in parts of Africa, these burgeoning flash points could determine whether 2014 becomes a triumph or a setback for American interests abroad.

With that in mind, what follows is a preview of three developing challenges that could make or break 2014 as they move to the fore.

Afghanistan and Iraq 

  America’s planned 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will largely close the book on a foreign war that has exacted a steep cost in blood and treasure since it was launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Afghan security forces have already taken the lead in the fight against the insurgent Taliban and al Qaeda, and by the end of the 2014, all U.S. combat troops will be out of Afghanistan.

At this point, the only outstanding issue is whether the U.S. leaves behind a residual troop presence that would stay behind “to train and to go after terrorists,” CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate explained.

That question has been thrown into confusion by the reluctance of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement that would define the scope of America’s presence in the years to come. Despite the approval of a key tribal council, Karzai has said he wants his successor to sign the agreement after he is elected in April. The U.S. has said the agreement must be signed by the end of 2013 to provide ample time for logistics and planning.

Observers believe Karzai, who has been famously difficult to deal with throughout the duration of America’s stay in Afghanistan, is only using what little leverage remains to extract concessions before he ultimately signs the agreement. But look for the 2014 negotiations between Karzai and America’s diplomats to be a key determinant of Afghanistan’s future, and the U.S. role there.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the embers of America’s war there continue to burn three years after U.S. troops left at the end of 2011, with “growing instability, growing sectarian tension, the rise again of what appears to be al Qaeda related groups - all on the doorstep of a Syria that has increased in volatility,” Zarate explained.

“Iraq looks more dangerous, less stable than before,” he added. “What happens there then will affect what happens in the region.”

If Iraqi unrest continues unabated in 2014, it will continue to exacerbate Syria’s civil war, which has already destroyed much of that country, claiming the lives of over 100,000 and driving millions from their homes.

China and East Asia

 In 2013, China was feeling its oats, strutting with newfound confidence and occasional aggression across the global stage.  In 2014, expect that to continue and perhaps intensify.

In November, China announced the establishment of an ambitious air defense zone including areas that were at the center of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, particularly Japan.

The announcement was the latest evidence of “China flexing its muscles in its near abroad,” explained Zarate, and it left China’s neighbors (and close U.S. allies) Japan and South Korea “uneasy with what China’s doing.”

Neither the U.S. nor its allies in the region have sanctioned China’s expansion of sovereignty, a fact made clear by Vice President Joe Biden during a December swing through East Asia. The U.S. flew warplanes through the new zone in defiance of China’s edict shortly after it was issued, Korea announced the expansion of its own air defense zone to overlap partially with the areas claimed by China, and Japan has vowed to increase defense spending to help counter China’s rise.

The result of each move and countermove has been “rising tension in East Asia,” Zarate explained, and that tension will surely continue in 2014, perhaps even intensifying as the year progresses.

That possibility “is something the U.S. has to keep very close tabs on,” Zarate said, counseling U.S. diplomats and policymakers to be “the adult in the room, to reduce tension so we don’t see a potential flash point and war in East Asia.”

Africa

 While many African countries have been a relative success story in recent years, with growing economies and fledgling governments slowly finding their sea legs, some new problems have cropped up, and some existing problems have lingered, promising a tough 2014 in several regions on the continent.

Across North Africa, in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, new governments are still struggling to adapt to the shockwaves of the Arab Spring revolutions that ushered them into power. In Libya, that struggle has created  “internal turmoil” and questions about whether “security can be maintained or established,” Zarate said.

In Egypt, which has seen two forced turnovers of power since 2011 and is currently ruled by an interim government appointed by the military, a number of hard issues remain unresolved, Zarate explained: “What will happen with the military rule? Will a constitution go forward? Will the populists actually accept the order that is to come? What happens to the Muslim Brotherhood [an Islamist organization]?”

That last question could be particularly consequential, as it was the Brotherhood’s favored candidate, former President Mohammed Morsi, who was most recently ousted from power. Fighting in 2013 between supporters of Morsi and the military blighted the prospects for eventual reconciliation.

Still, hopes of greater stability in the future are not wholly misplaced: in December, a draft Egyptian constitution was agreed to by a 50-member assembly and presented to the interim government for approval. The country will hold a popular referendum on the new constitution in January, and if it is approved, it would pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014.

In sub-Saharan Africa, several countries are struggling with instability and bloodshed of their own, and most of the chaos is primed to continue through at least the early months of 2014. “You’ve got the conflict in the Central African Republic, where French troops have now gone in to stop the killings between the Muslims and the Christians,” Zarate explained.

“In places like Mali, you still have problems of al Qaeda and al Qaeda related groups,” he added. “Recall that the French troops had to invade there to stop the advance of the al Qaeda forces to the capital.”

And in East Africa, anarchy still grips Somalia and the memories of 2013’s deadly terrorist attack at a Kenyan shopping mall are still fresh in mind. Al-Shabab, the terrorist group based in Somalia that was responsible for the deadly mall attack that claimed dozens of lives, “has not gone away,” Zarate warned.

“This is a movement that is still fighting for its survival and trying to reach beyond Somalia’s borders,” he said.