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Countries to watch

"Countries to watch" Continued...

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he told troops heading to Afghanistan from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to "steel themselves for more combat and more casualties." He told soldiers bound for a second deployment to the country to "expect Afghanistan to be a different place than it was when they were last here. The insurgency has grown more violent, more pervasive, and more sophisticated."

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal-commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan-says a key part of his strategy will be training Afghan police and military to match the insurgency's sophistication. Step one will be matching their numbers: Afghan officials will push to expand the number of their own soldiers to 134,000 (from 97,000) by August.

In the meantime, Petraeus said the United States should wait until the end of 2010 to judge whether the surge is working, and he offered dark-edged hope: "Afghanistan is no more hopeless than Iraq was when I took command there."

Iraq

For even the most optimistic foreign policy expert, Iraq's sweeping to-do list for 2010 is daunting: The country plans to hold its second post-Saddam elections, prepare for the end of U.S. combat operations by the end of August, and say goodbye to some 60,000 U.S troops by the end of the year.

The looming question: Will Iraqis pull it off?

Though violence has dropped sharply in the country in the last 18 months, ongoing ethnic and political tensions and a handful of brazen attacks underscore the country's deep vulnerability and highlight the challenges to establishing order that will last.

For now, elections originally scheduled for January won't happen until at least March. Bitter disputes among Iraq's rival political factions left some wondering if the contest would go on at all: Tension remains high among once-dominant Sunnis, majority Shiites, and minority Kurds. But leaders reached a last-minute deal to hold elections that will determine whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will retain his post, even as militants stepped up attacks on government targets.

As Iraqi officials prepare for elections in March, the U.S. military will prepare to halt combat operations by Aug. 31 and to begin a steep draw-down of troops ahead of a full withdrawal planned for the end of 2011. If security conditions remain manageable, some 60,000 troops will pull out of Iraq, leaving around 55,000 U.S. soldiers in the country.

A devastating attack by an al-Qaeda group in December raised questions about security conditions in Baghdad: Militants infiltrated deep into the capital, detonating car bombs that killed 127 people and injured over 500. It was the third major attack on government targets since September.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said while a troop reduction remains on schedule, the Baghdad attacks were a sobering reminder of the security risks. "The bombings are a tragic reminder it's not over yet," said Gates. "There's still work to be done."

Sudan

Hope remains tenuous for South Sudanese leaders marking the fifth anniversary in January of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed with leaders in the predominantly Islamic North. The 2005 CPA ended two decades of civil war waged by Muslims in the North against Southern Christians who refused to submit to Islamic law. The war left more than 2 million people dead and some 4 million Southerners displaced.

The CPA promised autonomy to the South, with guarantees that the North would share the country's vast oil wealth. Southern leaders say the Northern government has failed to abide by many of CPA's terms, and the South continues to struggle to provide basic services in its frontier towns.

Still, both sides say they are tentatively ready to proceed with nationwide elections scheduled for April. Voters will choose a president, governors of states, and members of assemblies in the North and South. Many fear the elections could be corrupted: The Northern president-Omar al-Bashir-is a wanted war criminal who perpetuated genocide on Sudanese in the country's western region of Darfur. Despite his promises of fair elections, many believe Bashir would never allow a rival to win the presidency or threaten his National Congress Party's (NCP) power. But NCP remains unpopular with many Northerners, leaving some election observers wondering what would happen if they voted for a Southern president.

Election results are critical for another reason: They could affect a referendum scheduled for January 2011 to decide whether the South will declare its independence. And experts say the April contest will be another critical test of Bashir's willingness to abide by the agreements he signs. That may be an unlikely prospect: So far, the defiant leader hasn't shown much intention of keeping his word.

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