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The fires next time

International | While the president focuses on Kosovo, military analysts suggest it is only a matter of time before U.S. forces are called upon again. Here are 10 potential hot spots

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

War-gaming, scorned as the leisure activity of active-duty has-beens and the last preserve of aviator wannabes with bad eyesight, is enjoying a renaissance. Lifted from the drawing table to real time by NATO's inscrutable, out-of-control campaign over Yugoslavia, the end-time scenarios of the long-range planners look less and less like spectator sport. In the wake of NATO's mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, strategists from the war colleges in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, as well as planners from the Pentagon, were summoned to help commanders in the combat zone. They were also looking anew at wartime scenarios outside southern Europe. The ability of tiny Kosovo to flare into a longer-term conflict among the United States, China, and Russia demonstrates the importance of paying attention to hot spots, large and small, and WORLD looks at its top 10 below. Nukes in the China shop

  • Even before the war in Kosovo soured U.S. relations with Beijing, war-game strategists were planning for an eventual confrontation with China. While the Clinton administration worries over copyright infringements and smoothing China's way into the World Trade Organization, military analysts see armed conflict with China as the second most likely threat facing the United States (confrontation on the Korean Peninsula being the first). Massive military exercises, coupled with tests of nuclear-capable missiles in the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea, show China willing to threaten neighbors and U.S. allies Taiwan and Japan. Now, theft of missile deployment secrets from the United States has intensified China's ability to mount a challenge to U.S. military superiority, and to threaten both short- and long-range targets. Russia: "Best wishes" is not a policy
  • A new year's forecast from the U.S. Strategic Forces Command surmised, "The post-Cold War world quietly ended in 1998." In spite of the millions in American dollars and man-hours poured into making the crumbled Soviet Union a democracy, Moscow's financial markets are teetering and its politicians grow more bellicose by the day. The January report also predicted, "Russia will begin the process of recreating the old Soviet empire in 1999 ... the Westernizers who dominated Russia for the past decade are being replaced by Slavophiles, who will seek to root out Western influence while they liquidate the Westernizers." Proof of those predictions lies in Russia's opposition to recent NATO campaigns. Yet Washington continues to court Russian officials who call NATO forces "aggressor states" and orate about hands "stained with the blood of bombs," in the words of defense minister Valentin Sergeyev. "Wishing Russia well is not a policy," said John Bolton, a foreign-policy expert and assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration, in testimony before Congress. "The inability or unwillingness to assert legitimate U.S. interests ... is neither a policy nor an acceptable record for an American president." White House overtures to Russia as a decrepit superpower ignore its still formidable arsenal: Russia possesses more military hardware, along with nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, than any other nation outside the United States. North vs. South Korea
  • Twice a year, U.S. troops patrolling the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea host evacuation exercises as a drill in how to face an attack from the north. Usually about 7,000 civilian employees and military family members participate. Earlier this month, nearly 12,000 signed up. "Right now we're at odds with Saddam Hussein, Yugoslavia, and North Korea," Cindy Kirkland, a military wife of 27 years, told a reporter as she registered at a mock evacuation center. "I prayed on the way here that the real thing won't happen." Military planners see a stepped-up urgency, too. North Korea looks desperate under its third year of famine and a crumbling economy. It could be poised to lash out at its prospering southern nemesis. A surprise attack of missiles and artillery from the north could quickly devastate Seoul and its 11 million inhabitants, who live just 35 miles south of the border. In a ground assault, the 36,000 U.S. troops stationed at the border to supplement the South Korean army would be met by 1.2 million soldiers from North Korea quicker than even Bill Clinton can say, "Call up the reserves." The evacuation exercise tries to pre-create how to maneuver out of harm's way 100,000 Americans living in South Korea and other foreigners whose governments would likely call on the United States for help in the event of an attack. As part of the drill, U.S. troops set up 13 processing centers across South Korea. A pre-selected group of would-be evacuees were taken on to Osan Air Base and flown to Japan, where they spent two nights on a barge before returning to real life in Korea. For all the advance planning, military spokesmen acknowledged that the fear and panic produced by even a limited strike from North Korea would add an unaccountable factor to the evacuation equation. Saddam against the world
  • Little needs to be said about Iraq, given its high-profile conflicts with the United States and UN weapons inspectors in just the last year. Iraq stands fourth-behind Russia, China, and North Korea-in overall military capabilities, according to Defense Department statistics. But it ranks first in demonstrated willingness to use what it has. Beyond direct and sustained exchanges with U.S. forces, Iraq has used chemical weapons against both Iran and its own Kurdish population, and it has shot Scud missiles at Israel. Iraq successfully backed down UN weapons inspectors this year, buying itself more time to develop secret weapons of mass destruction and retaining the technical know-how to do so. Israel against the Palestinians
  • When the Palestinian Authority issued a stamp this month commemorating the Wye River Accords, it featured the signing by President Bill Clinton and PA leader Yasser Arafat. Conspicuous by his absence is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The stamp is derived from a photograph that included the prime minister, Mr. Clinton, and Mr. Arafat, together signing the accords at the White House last October. Mr. Netanyahu was cropped from the stamp. "It is a stamp commemorating those who have invested a lot of effort in peace," is how Palestinian postmaster Omar Magdadi pointedly explained the slight. Wars have begun over lesser incidents. In the Israeli-Palestinian world, serious fighting is so often just around the corner, it can seem downright elusive. In times past, two events currently underway would have been seen as sure fire-starters: a Palestinian declaration of statehood and Washington support for it. So far, trends in both directions have caused no flames, as tensions have been on hold leading up to national elections in Israel this month. PA leader Yasser Arafat backed away from a May declaration of statehood, giving in to international pressure to delay that decision until after Israel selects a prime minister. Palestinian rhetoric aimed at promoting statehood, however, has not slackened. The Palestinian Central Council will vote on statehood again next month, particularly if Mr. Netanyahu is reelected. The Israeli prime minister is pressing forward with Jewish settlements in the Palestinian areas of Gaza and the West Bank, prompting accusations that he is violating the Wye accords. The Israelis contend that the Clinton administration is ignoring Palestinian violations of the accord, including Mr. Arafat's refusal to jail terrorists and decrease the size of his military force. If the two sides come to serious blows (again), Pentagon strategists could resurrect a plan for 10,000-20,000 U.S. peacekeepers on the West Bank. Meanwhile, the Palestinian stamp will be accepted in every country of the world, except Israel, which recognizes only Israeli stamps from the Palestinian territories. Sudan: The Cola Wars writ large
  • For 15 years, Sudan has fought a civil war between the Muslim-dominated north and the Christian- and animist-controlled south. Outside of humanitarian groups concerned about war-induced famine and Christian watchdogs who profile persecution in the south, the war draws little strategic attention. Two developments in the last year, however, have changed that. First, emphasis on humanitarian causes, however well-meaning-as in the Kosovo crisis-are broadening the war. Sudanese opposition parties in the south have now formed alliances with rebels based in Eritrea and Ethiopia and are bringing those countries into the conflict. Second, the United States inserted itself into this flashpoint when it bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan following last year's attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. Evidence linking the factory to Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden, believed to be the mastermind behind the embassy attacks, proved much less than conclusive. The interests of major U.S. multinationals make it even harder for the United States to leave this internal conflict alone: Coca-Cola imports most of its gum arabic from Sudan, and Chevron is just one petroleum concern negotiating expansive oil deals there. Forgotten Iran
  • The tête-à-tête with Iran's Islamic fundamentalist regime may have softened from 20 years ago, but the United States faces essentially the same threat in Tehran's rooted opposition to all things American. Its military arsenal-and the alignments to go with it-have only grown over two decades. Iran possesses hundreds of Scud missiles bought from China, and is believed to have purchased long-range missiles from North Korea, according to a Heritage Foundation report. Both China and Russia have contributed ongoing nuclear reactor know-how. Iranian nuclear engineers have trained in China for 10 years under a cooperative agreement-surely encountering some Los Alamos nuclear secrets in their tutelage. Congo and Rwanda
  • Policy analysts say the conflict in Congo is the most serious threat to peace in Africa since the end of the Cold War, perhaps since the end of the slave trade. That is news to most Americans, who failed to sort Hutus from Tutsis in the first go-round. Now several rebel groups, with backing from other African states, are seeking the overthrow of African leaders seen to rule with Washington endorsement: Congo president Laurent Kabila, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, and Rwanda's Paul Kagame. "Most of the rest of Africa thinks that we are backing these leaders in their current war in the Congo," said Col. Dan Henk of the Army War College. As a result, U.S. foes like Libyan dictator Muamar Ghadhafi have stepped into the fray to broker a peace agreement and, if they see a toehold, threaten more U.S. interests in Africa than just safari and game preserves. Black gold and the Caspian Sea
  • The fall of the Soviet Union prompted oil scouts to dream of a rise in production from largely untapped petroleum reserves beneath the Caspian Sea. Geologists say the Caspian basin could yet possess 200 billion barrels, nearly equal to the combined proven reserves of Iran and Iraq. Political realities, nearly 10 years after the countries bordering the Caspian gained their independence, mean tapping those reserves requires huge stores of derrick diplomacy. The littoral nations cannot agree on who owns what portions of the sea. Offshore developers have been reluctant to sink their wells too deeply into a region torn between kiosk vendors and crony capitalists, Muslim and Orthodox. Russia and the United States have argued over the best route piped oil and natural gas should take from the Caspian to Black Sea ports and the West. Russia favors a route through the Caucasus; the Clinton administration proposes a route through NATO ally Turkey. If black gold flows as some expect, political and military rifts may follow. Colombia's terrorism
  • Of 273 terrorist attacks worldwide last year, 77 were bombings of multinational oil pipelines in Colombia. In those attacks, 71 people, including 28 children, were killed, according to the U.S. State Department. Colombian terrorists kidnapped seven American citizens last year; the rebel group ELN continues to hold one American citizen in connection with the hijacking of an Avianca domestic flight April 12. The rebel group known as FARC has not accounted for three American missionaries it kidnapped in 1993. The United States pays Colombia $100 million to fight its drug war, to which the terrorism is inextricably linked. More help is supplied in the form of counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency experts who regularly work with Colombian military and anti-drug units. Despite official assessments that Colombia is winning neither its war on drugs nor its war against terrorists, the Clinton administration has moved away from condemning Colombia for the substandard performance. Republicans in Congress, however, say direct military involvement may be called for if the narco-state and its terrorists continue to make Americans their targets.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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