On Conflict In 2021

2020 was a landmark year for so many reasons. We saw the rise of COVID-19 (C19), a presidential election in the United States (US), the ascension of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and questions of social injustice to the realm of global public policy, environmental disasters, plagues of locusts, and so much more. Equally, the world experienced the Nagorno-Karabakh war‎, an increase of attacks by Boko Haram, the US-Iranian crisis over the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the outbreak of the Tigray clash in Ethiopia, and the continuation of conflicts in Syria, The Donbass, Yemen, Kivu, Libya, alongside ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, Darfur and Xinjiang, to name but a few. Indeed, conflict does not seem to have disappeared in any respects as a result of the global turmoil affecting all in 2020.

In addition to this, the structure and character of World Order is shifting. Firstly, there are a number of ‘macrosecurity’ issues that affect us all, but effect some states and regions more than others, such as C19 and Climate Change. In a number of developing states, the provision of health care to combat the spread of the virus has caused internal economic effects that inspires further grievances and conflict, leading to regional instability and, in some cases, hostile regime changes. This has also been exacerbated by the impact of climate change, which has made entire regions uninhabitable, epicentres of environmental catastrophe, sites of food-insecurity, and a major producer of displaced peoples that always hand power to those non-state criminal actors who claim to be able to provide public goods.

Equally, speaking of power, on a statist level of analysis the multipolar rise of China and other regional powers such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, and has led to the relative decline of US hegemonic power that the global political landscape has become accustomed to since the ascension of the liberal hegemonic norms associated with the so-called ‘Unipolar Moment’ of the 1990s. This claim is now bolstered by the clear emergence of non-liberal populist norms in response to the neo-liberal globalised character of the status-quo, clearly whispering that the liberal-norms-based order is undergoing a metamorphosis into something new. With such a shift, as with past adaptations of global order, there will be the localised breakdown of peace and the emergence of violent disputes.

The purpose of this short piece will be to briefly unpack a list of conflicts that deserve popular attention in the coming year, based upon the context and events of 2020. The following list is non-exhaustive by any stretch and ordered in no particular manner.[1]

1) Afghanistan 

After almost twenty years of discord, the US signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw troops in return for Taliban commitments to forbid terrorists from using the country for operations, and to enter discussions with the Afghan government. Initially the US stretched out the withdrawal of troops over six months, which led to increased attacks and assassinations by the Taliban.[2]

Although September 2020 saw the beginning of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, despite being unclaimed by any particular militant group, suicide bombings increased in highly populated areas of Afghanistan like Kabul, illustrating that a drive for peace may be lacking.[3] Equally, with the beginning of the second round of negotiations, which started in early January 2021, a will to locate a common ground is visibly waning, with top officials of both belligerent agents absent from this round of negotiations.[4] Afghan officials deeply distrust the Taliban or see negotiations as possibly resulting in the government’s demise, believing themselves to be legitimating the Taliban in some manner – the reverse holds with the Taliban’s own perceptions that it is on the rise.[5]

Adding to this political context, Afghanistan experienced a ‘moderate to strong’ La Niña phenomenon that caused extreme weather conditions across the region, in this case inducing below average rainfall and dry conditions that undermined the wheat harvest.[6] Consequently, as a result of the instability caused by conflict, the economic fallout of the C19 crisis, and its crop failures, this mix has led to mass food insecurity in Afghanistan. Indeed, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported in November 2020 that 16.9 million were experiencing acute or emergency food insecurity with an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) above 3.[7] The question will become whether or not government can provide basic public goods in this context, such as access to health and nutrition, or will the population turn to non-state agents, like the Taliban or other militant groups, to provide their basic needs? The inability to deliver basic human needs, as the distinguished thinker John Burton once became known for arguing, is almost always primary in the instigation and sustaining of conflict.[8]

May 2021 marks the deadline set last February for the complete withdrawal of US and NATO troops. In this there is a difficult aporia that the incoming Biden administration will have to meticulously manage. Simply put, a hurried or delayed withdrawal could destabilise the Afghan Government and lead to an expanded multiparty war in the wake of such withdrawal, where US forces depart with a threat to the Afghan government still very much present. On the other hand, withdraw too slow and this could aggravate the Taliban, leading to greater clashes in either case. In this manner, a central foreign policy goal of the Biden administration will be the reconciliation of these two options, in order to support the government without alienating the Taliban – avoiding re-escalating the conflict.

This will be a difficulty for the Biden administration and it is going to take real compromise. The question will be how to balance past agreements with the Taliban under Trump’s administration and Biden’s policy of instituting long-term counterterrorism apparatuses for the sake of regional security. Either there will be a compromise or somethings got to give. There now needs to be steps taken in order to keep the peace process alive and to not to undermine it if peace is what is wanted. If compromise and discourse, a quality perhaps commendable about Trumpian foreign policy, here are not wanted, the US needs to decide whether to uphold the agreement – withdrawing – or to move for its abandonment. In any case, Afghanistan is a potential site for increased violence in 2021.

2) The Sahel

Unfortunately, The Sahel region of North Africa is no stranger to conflict. With recent increases in ethnically charged violence and Jihadists extending their reach on the continent, The Sahel is set to be the site of hostility in the year to come. In 2020, alongside a coup ousting President Keïta in Bamako, Islamist militants overran northern parts of Mali, throwing the country into a condition of instability that questions the efficacy and presence of the intervening French military.[9] Indeed, with jihadist hostility spreading across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, instability remains, in many ways, the order of the day.

The conditions on which militants thrive are proving difficult to reverse. In many of the states in The Sahel, government relations with rural areas have broken down, with many of these communities growing angrier with their governments’ inability to provide public goods and services, as in Mali. The most common cause of such anger has come as a result of the lack of resources, which, much like in Afghanistan can be witnessed by viewing levels of food insecurity. In Mali, the WFP have indicated that 437,000 experience food insecurity of IPC 3+ and that this is expected to reach 955,000 by August 2021.[10] Equally, in Niger the figure of those experiencing food insecurity has reached 1.2 million and thought to increase to 1.7 million by August 2021.[11] Sadly, in Chad, Mauritania, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the trend does not waver from this expectation of already heightened food insecurity to become worsened. To add to this mire, 2020 saw droughts and spells of locust swarms decrease food supplies, exacerbating the situation even further. Subsequently, it seems to be that no authority is able to calm this long downward spiral of conflict, where all are unable to act for de-escalation.

The key issues to address in the Sahel therefore concern problems of insecurity and underdevelopment. Underlying all of this is the problem of good governance, where the inability to provide public goods pushes those communities already at odds with central authorities towards insurgent and militant groups. Another key question to ask here is whether or not intervention can take place that is not considered neo-colonial. Indeed, it appears that an increase in foreign military presence increases in unison with violence.[12] It follows as such that a ‘militarised’ approach to securing the region is not the answer, only adding to the conflict. If the Sahel crisis is to be resolved, if possible, sovereign governance must be strengthened in order to address the reasons why citizens turn to jihadist groups, resolving local issues of land and resource allocation that fuel ethic and communal conflict. When governance collapses, non-state actors will be gravitated to in order to provide public goods. Without an attempt to resolve this widespread issue of governance in the region, it is difficult to see how peace can be brought into being.

3) Western Sahara

Although in a similar locality to The Sahel, Western Sahara is a territory north of Mauritania with sovereignty disputed by Morocco and The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Occupied by Spain until 1975, Western Sahara has been the site of conflict, first between Sahrawi factions and Spain over Spanish colonization of the region, and, since decolonisation, between the Sahrawi Polisario Front and the Moroccan army over Morocco’s claim to the territory, until a ceasefire was brokered in 1991.

Between 1991 and 2020, tensions had not wholly simmered off, with a series of uprisings, intifadas and protests across the territory stemming from Sahrawi grievances over what they consider to be Moroccan occupation, especially along the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall that bisects the territory into administrative districts. In 2020 the situation fundamentally shifted in Western Sahara. Alongside the disastrous environmental and nutritional crisis, the region is currently experiencing, in November 2020 President Brahim Ghali of the SADR brought the 29 year-long ceasefire to an end, citing clashes that had taken place with the Moroccan army. With this in mind, we should not consider it a surprise if, in 2021, the conflict is rekindled.

Additionally, the conflict in the Western Sahara has gained geopolitical significance. On the 10h of December 2020, in order to broker the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel, Donald Trump agreed as part of the deal for the US to recognise Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara, undermining past US foreign policy efforts to uphold peace.[13] Formally speaking, this decision should have of not been on the table as part of the negotiation, as the status of legal sovereignty is determined by international law and the UN, not the US.

The question here is: Will Biden backtrack on Trump’s decision? To answer this question in any affirmative manner would be speculation. This being said, it would perhaps be costly to reverse a decision that could retract the agreement between Morocco and Israel, but a circumnavigation of international law and formal procedure does not aid US claims that it is the speaker for law-based international order. Now the Western Sahara will be at the forefront of geopolitical concern, with Biden having to make a decision as to whether the deal between Morocco and Israel must be altered, threatening that particular foreign policy achievement and multilateral relations, but supporting the processes of international law, or the reverse.

4) Venezuela

For the past three years, or so, discussion concerning Venezuela has often centred on the status and legitimacy of the Maduro regime. Indeed, it has been a number of years now since the Venezuelan opposition, alongside agents from all over the globe, pronounced Juan Guaidó interim president with the prediction of Maduro’s demise. Nonetheless, some years on, these acts of pronouncement appear to have been little more than failed speech-acts of mere proclamation. The Maduro regime still dominates, with predictions in tatters that the regime would have fallen by this point, especially following the swearing in of the new national assembly in the first week of January – an assembly dominated by Maduro’s PSUV. In response to this, Juan Guaidó held his own swearing-in ceremony and declared that the old legislature would continue to meet and legislate. Thus, as we move into 2021 Venezuela is divided, not just socially and politically, but institutionally – with a battle for legitimation occurring between these parallel sets of dual parliaments and dual Presidents.[14]

Sanctions have been placed on Venezuela since 2015, but the Trump administration increased sanctions and placed an embargo on Venezuela in 2019 that restricts all transactions with US companies. Consequently, it has been often asserted that these sanctions have aggravated the further deterioration of the quality of life of Venezuelans, greatly contributing to a mass-decrease in oil production and exports, currency devaluation, hyperinflation, and drastic reductions to food and pharmaceutical supplies, which have all furthered the informalization of the economy, the propagation of illegal actors, expansion in illegal industries and, significantly, a reduction in the possibility of economic recovery.[15]

With all of this in mind, we should not forget that: (a) an economy such as Venezuela’s has been thoroughly unable to combat the spread and administration of C19 as a result of its incapability to deliver public goods, and that (b) imports of pharmaceuticals would break the current embargo. Although the official statistics declare just over a thousand deaths in the country, it has been widely acknowledged by numerous Human Rights watch organisations that these figures are themselves not credible.[16] What we do know, however, is that: 9.3 million people are severely food insecure (IPC 3+), 2020 food production was estimated to cover only 10-15% of Venezuela’s food needs, and that an estimated 6.5 million Venezuelans left the country by the end of 2020, mostly into neighbouring Colombia, in order to seek refuge from the multitude of crises they face in their native home, be that economic, political, malnutritional or pandemic related.[17] In all of this, of political division, economic collapse, population changes, refugees fleeing, mass-malnutrition, and more, conflict is looming on the horizon.

5) Other Tensions

There were, sadly, so many other conflicts that could have of gone into this list. For the last part of this piece, after looking at four conflicts to watch in depth above, I will list a few sets of states that may not engage in conflict with one another, but whose tensions might begin to show all the more in 2021.

a) Iran – US

The US and Iran have had somewhat complex tensions now for many years, this is common knowledge. After the killing of Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, and Iran’s somewhat timid response, neither side chose to escalate the crisis further. The incoming Biden administration will be faced with a choice in response to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’ – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and tensions last year, including the programme of sanctions that accompanied these tensions. Biden has indicated that the Iranian question will be high on his list of foreign policy priorities, firstly by continually stressing his past support for the deal, but also by nominating Wendy Sherman to serve as Deputy Secretary of State, a former negotiator of the JCPOA in 2015.[18] If Biden were to re-enter the US into the JCPOA this would come with a series of negotiations in order to address US policy towards sanctions on Iran, Iranian weapons production, and, more than likely, the production of Uranium metal in Iran that a number of stakeholders have voiced concerns over, considering the lack of non-violent uses for those metals.[19] If Biden was to re-enter into the JCPOA, he risks alienating relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and yet if he was to continue with the Trump administration’s numerous decisions to alienate Iran and not re-enter and re-negotiate the deal, Biden runs the danger of creating an increasingly aggressive Iran that would continue to enrich weapons grade material, but unchecked or limited. Either way, there are numerous security concerns that are on the cards for Iran-US relations in 2021.

b) China – India

China and India, although not formally in conflict with one another, engaged in a number of border clashes in May 2020. Along the Sino-Indian border, near the Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies territory that is disputed between China and India. As of May 2020, both states have engaged in skirmishes that have led to the death of armed personnel for both belligerents. Although talks between the two states, brokered by Russia in Moscow, occurred in September re-instating the status-quo, many contend that China not only gains from the status-quo, but that this is simply an impasse that will move the situation closer towards further tensions yet to come.[20] This is significant for a number of geopolitical reasons. Both China and India regional powers, with China set to become, if it is not so already, a superpower in its own right. In this case, the border skirmishes are symbolic of much more than contestation for bureaucratic administration over a territory, but are themself an insight into the ambitions of both states to lay claim to territory that is disputed in order to assert its dominance. As far as China is concerned, it has become frightfully more overt that its foreign policy is one of expansion and self-legitimation in disputed territories. One only has to look at its attitude towards Hong-Kong, Taiwan and the creation of land in the South China Sea to observe this.[21] What we will see in 2021 in Ladakh is anybody’s guess, but do not expect either belligerent to forget about the scenario anytime soon – especially for as long as Xi Jingping and Narendra Modi are premiers.

c) Russia – Turkey[22]

Again, some might find this a rather odd addition. No, Russia and Turkey are not in conflict with one another, nor are there exceptionally overt tensions between them. Russia and Turkey have made this list not because of their conflict with one another, but because of their conflicts with others. Despite a ceasefire which has held since October, in Libya Turkey supports the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Russia has supported Haftar’s Libyan National Army in Tobruk. In Syria, Turkey has been one of Bashar al-Assad’s fiercest adversaries, throwing its weight behind the Rebels of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), whereas Russia continues to aid al-Assad, an intervention which turned the Syrian Civil War, one which has been raging for a decade in March 2021, in the governing faction’s favour. Although fighting between Russian and Turkish backed forces has been halted in Idlib by a deal between Moscow and Ankara, an end to this instigated by either side, indeed a possibility, could trigger tensions with serious ramifications not only for the MENA region, but also in the central Eurasian region itself.

Speaking of the Central Eurasian region, 2020 saw the war over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although holding a military alliance with Armenia, Russia eventually brokered the peace that brought an end to the conflict and an Azerbaijani victory, gaining influence in the region as a third-party peace broker; whereas Turkey aided the Azerbaijani cause both diplomatically and militarily, enabling it to claim some responsibility for the victory and benefit from the ceasefire deal. Both states are somewhat similar in their increasingly non-western and non-liberal norms, with both governments resting their principles on a foundation of religious legitimation. In this, in their odd friendly quasi-proxy antagonism, they both seek to gain through their intervention in regional conflicts. This being said, however, with their forces in such a close proximity, there is always the capability for ‘flash points’, and with this, a decline in their relations could lead to a hot conflict between them and force a re-emergence of conflict in those areas where their brokered ceasefires are currently active.


[1] This piece was prompted after reading, and often quotes from: Robert Malley (2021) Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2021, Brussels: International Crisis Group.

[2] Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain (May 1st 2020) ‘Taliban step up attacks on Afghan forces since signing U.S. deal: data’, Reuters,https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-afghanistan-taliba/taliba n-step-up-attacks-on-afghan-forces-since-signing-u-s-deal-data-idUSKBN22D5S7 (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[3] Associated Press in Kabul (24th October 2020) ‘At least 18 dead in suicide bomb attack in Kabul’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/24/dead-in-suicide-bomb-attack-in-kabul-afghanistan (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[4] Osama Bin Javaid (12th January 2021) ‘Why Afghanistan-Taliban peace talks have not reached breakthrough’, Al Jazeera,https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/12/why-have-the-afghanistan-taliban-peace-talks-stalled (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[5] Niels Terpstra (2020) ‘Rebel governance, rebel legitimacy, and external intervention: assessing three phases of Taliban rule in Afghanistan’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 31(6), pp. 1143-1173.

[6] Food and Agriculture Organisation of The United Nations (13th January 2021) ‘Mitigating the potential impacts of dry conditions triggered by La Niña in Afghanistan’, fao.org, http://www.fao.org/emergencies/fao-in-action/stories/stories-detail/en/c/1369281/ (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[7] World Food Programme (2020) ‘WFP Afghanistan: Country Brief – November 2020’, wfp.org, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000122236/download/?_ga=2.179640612.1890923349.1610810204-1512460420.1610579968 (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[8] John Burton (1990) Conflict: Human Needs Theory, Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

[9] BBC News (22nd September 2020) ‘How Mali’s coup affects the fight against jihadists’, BBC Newshttps://www. bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-54228920 (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[10] World Food Programme (2020) ‘WFP Mali: Country Brief – November 2020’, wfp.org, https://docs.wfp. org/api/documents/WFP0000122552/download/?ga=2.246928772.1890923349.1610810204-1512460420.16105 79968 (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[11] World Food Programme (2020) ‘WFP Niger: Country Profile – November 2020’, wfp.org, https://docs.wfp.org/ api/documents/WFP-0000122098/download/?_ga=2.180370855.1890923349.1610810204-1512460420.161057 9968 (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[12] International Crisis Group (2020) Reversing Central Mali’s Descent into Communal Violence: Africa Report N°293, Brussels: International Crisis Group

[13] BBC News, (10th December 2020) ‘Morocco latest country to normalise ties with Israel in US-brokered deal’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-55266089 (Accessed 19th January 2021); John Bolton (15th December 2020) ‘Biden Must Reverse Course on Western Sahara’, Foreign Policy,https://foreignpolicy.com/ 2020/12/15/biden-reverse-course-western-sahara/ (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[14] BBC News (5th January 2021) ‘Venezuela crisis: Maduro loyalists take control of parliament’, BBC News,https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-55545352 (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[15] Luis Oliveros (2020) ‘The Impact of Financial and Oil Sanctions on the Venezuelan Economy’, The Washington Office on Latin America, https://www.wola.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Oliveros-report-summary-ENG.pdf (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[16] Tom Phillips (26th May 2020) ‘Venezuela’s Covid-19 death toll claims “not credible”, human rights group says’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/26/venezuela-coronavirus-death-toll-hum an-rights-watch (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[17] Food and Agriculture Organisation of The United Nations (2020) ‘The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: Revised humanitarian response Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)’, fao.org, http://www.fao.org/3/cb0195en /cb0195en.pdf (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[18] Loveday Morris and Erin Cunningham (17th January 2021) ‘ Europe sees a narrow window for Biden to revive Iran nuclear deal’, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/iran-nuclear-europe-biden/2021/01/16/b0e45352-54f1-11eb-acc5-92d2819a1ccb_story.html (Accessed 19th January 2021); Tal Axelrod (16th January 2021) ‘Biden selects Wendy Sherman for No. 2 State Department post’, The Hill, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/534561-biden-taps-wendy-sherman-for-no-2-state-department-post (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[19] Agence France Presse (17th January 2021), ‘“Grave military implications”: Iran making uranium metal alarms Europe’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/17/grave-military-implications-iran-maki ng-uranium-metal-alarms-europe (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[20] Sushant Singh (1st January 2021) ‘Why China is winning against India’, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy .com/2021/01/01/india-china-himalayas-ladakh-standoff/ (Accessed 19th January 2021).

[21] Marc Lanteigne (2020) Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, Fourth Edition, Abingdon: Routledge.

[22] Robert Malley (2021) Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2021, Brussels: International Crisis Group, p. 21.

Published by K.J.O'Meara

K.J.O'Meara (Ba, MLitt) is an independent British political theorist whose academic interests include: The English School of International Relations, Arendtian Political Thought, Political Hermeneutics, Biopolitics and Critical Film Theory.

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