With wars and rumors of wars dominating international headlines in 2009, the year ahead promises more of the same. Dozens of hot spots all over the world will likely breed trouble, but some of the most difficult places on earth also hold out fragile hope for real progress. Here are seven countries in particular to watch in 2010.
If Afghanistan dominated U.S. foreign policy in 2009, the new year may bring a new fixation: Iran. The Islamic regime continues to taunt Western powers with refusals to curb its nuclear ambitions and with fantasies about wiping Israel off the map. With the country's nuclear capabilities growing-along with political unrest within its own borders-2010 may prove a turning point for a regime that seems to thrive on buying more time.
On some fronts, time may be running out. After an October revelation that Iran was building a secret uranium-enrichment facility, international leaders warned the regime could face UN sanctions as early as this month if Iranian leaders don't relent. Iran's reaction: Leaders said they would build 10 more uranium-enrichment plants.
U.S. officials have spoken of tougher penalties that could follow if sanctions fail, but few have offered specifics. Meanwhile, the international community will keep an eye on Israel, where leaders have hinted at the possibility of preemptive strikes to cripple Iran's capability to attack the nation that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad loathes.
Back in Iran, leaders will grapple with homegrown problems: After students and dissidents flooded Tehran's streets this summer to protest an election they believe was stolen by Ahmadinejad, the entrenched leader will likely face growing opposition that could undermine the stability of his iron-fisted rule. Late into 2009, protesters were still filling streets, chanting slogans like: "Iranian Republic, Not Islamic Republic!" They also looked for signals of support from the United States, with slogans like: "Obama, Are You with Us or with Them?"
In a December interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gen. James Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, was frank about his uncertainty over how Iran would respond to sanctions and penalties: "They think they can withstand anything the U.N. or the coalition of like-minded nations can put together. They might be right. They might be wrong."
If Iran thinks it can withstand international pressure, Israeli leaders are worried they can't withstand the consequences of Iran's unchecked nuclear capabilities. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has famously and defiantly denied the Holocaust, has also called for the eradication of Israel and has predicted that the nation will "soon be erased from the geographical scene."
Israeli leaders won't rule out a preemptive strike and will likely spend 2010 anxiously eyeing Iran's response to international calls to scale back its nuclear program. So far, the response isn't encouraging. Ahmadinejad told an Iranian crowd in December: "The Zionist regime and its [Western] backers cannot do a damn thing to stop Iran's nuclear work." In the background, crowds chanted: "Death to Israel" and "Death to America," according to the Reuters news service.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has another problem closer to home: a relentless conflict with the Palestinian Authority. The prime minister called for a 10-month freeze on new Israeli construction in the West Bank in November, but Palestinian leaders said the move didn't go far enough. Netanyahu rebuffed their complaints and didn't offer new concessions, leaving international observers wondering how-or whether-the peace process will progress in 2010.
Much of that outcome depends on Palestinian politics. An internal conflict between members of the dominant party, Fatah, and members of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, leaves Palestinian direction uncertain. Fatah leaders postponed elections scheduled for January after Hamas warned it wouldn't allow voting in the Gaza Strip. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he won't run again. Without a clear successor to Abbas, members of Fatah wonder who will fill the vacuum in an ongoing struggle with no end in sight.
The grueling war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year. The world will be watching to see if President Barack Obama's order for an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan can bring the kind of success gained by a surge in Iraq, and whether Afghan leaders will take on more responsibility for protecting their own population.
U.S. Gen. David Petraeus-architect of the troop surge in Iraq-believes a similar surge in Afghanistan can succeed, but he warned that conditions will likely grow worse before they grow better. U.S. military leaders predict an outburst of insurgent attacks during the spring and summer and are preparing returning soldiers for more difficult conditions.
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."
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."
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.
Though Russia ended 2009 in the throes of an economic crisis that gripped most of the world, the largest country on earth exerted its might through a natural resource that left many of its European neighbors beholden to the regime: oil.
Russia remains the world's second-largest producer and exporter of oil, and while Russian leaders proved their willingness to exercise military force in Moscow's 2008 invasion of nearby Georgia, many experts expect the giant to rely on economic and psychological prowess to continue to build a regime with abuses that often escape Western scrutiny.
The U.S. State Department has noted that human-rights conditions in Russia remain poor: Stories of murdered journalists and human-rights attorneys draw attention to the country's tight-fisted grip on media and free speech. Churches report increased attention from authorities, and they fear that more harassment could follow in the year ahead.
Human-rights and religious freedom advocates will watch the nation closely in 2010 to see if conditions worsen, and to see how the United States will respond to any deterioration, as well as Russia's willingness to aid the belligerent nation of Iran.
Handfuls of both conservatives and liberals have criticized the Obama administration's soft approach to nations like Russia, a complaint Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dismissed, saying the administration is practicing low-key diplomacy that is "pragmatic and agile."
Still, Clinton couldn't deny that Russian leaders remain impervious to human-rights complaints, and she offered a brief criticism that perhaps doubled as a warning: "With Russia, we deplore the murders of journalists and activists and support the courageous individuals who advocate at great peril for democracy."
Human rights may prove a central issue for Vietnam in 2010, as the Asian nation seeks more prominence and influence on the international scene. In January, the country assumes the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization billed as promoting economic and political cooperation and regional stability. The United States retains good relations with the organization, which may put pressure on the Obama administration to look more closely at the head country's human-rights record. Though the State Department notes improvements in Vietnam, Christians and Catholics in the country's Central Highlands report a significant level of ongoing persecution in the communist nation. The adoption of Vietnamese children remains closed to Americans, after a report of severe corruption in the nation's system for orphans.
Religious freedom advocates will watch to see if the U.S. State Department returns Vietnam to its list of Countries of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations, a move the administration has resisted but may find difficult to withstand as violations continue.