Every year important news stories come and go with too few people taking notice, but the chaos (not to mention the scandal and corruption) of the Trump presidency makes the problem even worse this year. It is nearly impossible to keep up with the firehose of news we face each day. On Twitter, I asked which national security and/or foreign policy stories have not gotten the attention they deserve this year, and the responses came flooding in. Several people pointed out that while the investigation into President Donald Trump’s Kremlin ties dominate the news landscape, the administration’s actual policy toward Russia remains opaque and not well understood. Plus, we obsess (rightly) over Russia’s interference in the U.S. 2016 election, but what about the Kremlin’s continued belligerence in Ukraine or its long-term plans in Syria and the broader Middle East?
So, with this problem in mind, and looking ahead to 2018, here are 11 stories (in no particular order) to keep on your radar. The policy and security ramifications of all of them are still developing and, it’s safe to say, they are bound to make an appearance in the year ahead.
U.S. Citizen Being Held in Iraq as a Detainee — As Steve Vladeck repeatedly reminds us: An unnamed U.S. citizen has been held in Iraq as an “enemy combatant” for three months without the government publicly identifying him or giving him access to a lawyer. The New York Times reported that the man, suspected of being a low-level Islamic State fighter, could be transferred to Saudi Arabia, where he reportedly holds dual citizenship. But by refusing to publicly disclose the man’s identity, the U.S. government has made it far more difficult for anyone to challenge his detention. This is deeply troubling. As Steve wrote for the New York Times, “After all, without the judicial review that the government has so far been able to avoid, how can we be so sure that the prisoner is, in fact, an ‘enemy combatant’? And what’s to stop the government from holding any of us without charge for 11 weeks, as well?”
The End Game for 16 Years of War in Afghanistan? — In August, Trump unveiled his “new” strategy for Afghanistan, which included a moderate increase in U.S. troops to try to break a stalemate with the Taliban and force them to the negotiating table. Another big part of the revised strategy is an uptick in U.S. airstrikes, especially targeting the Taliban’s opium trade. The CIA is also taking on an expanded role in the country, reportedly sending in small covert teams to hunt Taliban leadership. But will these steps make a big enough difference? And even if they do, will a political settlement be achievable?
“It’s probably enough to make sure the Taliban does not seize and hold major urban areas at least for the foreseeable future,” Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp, told USA Today. “Whether it’s enough to turn the tide, that’s a harder question.”
The Next Chapter for Islamic State Fighters — 2017 was a bad year for ISIS. The group lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, and with its back against the wall, it may have broken with its usual protocol and claimed terrorist attacks with which it had no link. But even though Washington is dancing in the endzone, the group hasn’t been vanquished entirely. First of all, some of the ideas that inspired people from around the world to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight live on, even if the Islamic State brand has taken a pretty big hit. Secondly, thousands of Islamic State fighters have returned home. “Did the idea of a caliphate die on the battlefield? I think the answer is self-evident. The loss of territory is not synonymous with defeat,” a senior officer with the Defense Department told Buzzfeed.
What is Going on in Cuba? At first it was reported that a “sonic weapon” maybe have been used against U.S. and Canadian officials in Havana, but now it’s looking possible that they were poisoned, or, as John Sipher wrote in August, it could have been “a surveillance effort gone wrong.” Still, months later, we don’t really know what caused the brain abnormalities suffered by the U.S. embassy victims, or who did it, although many have strong suspicions. When are we going to get answers? If and when a culprit is identified, then what?
Drone Strikes Have Never Been So Easy — The Trump administration has made it clear it wants U.S. military commanders and the CIA to be have fewer obstacles to deciding when and where it can kill someone with a U.S. missile. The policy guidelines the Obama White House put in place are, in large part, being rolled back, leading to a clear uptick in drone strikes in multiple countries. With more bombs, inevitably come more civilian casualties, which we’re are also witnessing across the board. And as the New York Times’ Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt noted in September, the “changes would lay the groundwork for possible counterterrorism missions in countries where Islamic militants are active but the United States has not previously tried to kill or capture them.”
Epic humanitarian catastrophes — Whether in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, human suffering and unthinkable violence continued to compete for headlines, diplomatic energy and desperately needed relief funds in 2017. The UN is requesting a record-breaking $22.5 billion in humanitarian assistance for next year to meet the need of roughly 90 million people, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. But why do resources keep falling short of demand? “We can’t seem to get anyone’s attention to what’s going on,” Carolyn Miles, the president and chief executive of Save the Children, told the Washington Post in June.
The CIA’s New Role Under President Trump — Under Trump, the CIA is taking on new authorities and expanding its covert operations. As CIA Director Mike Pompeo put it, the agency is going to become “much more vicious.” It’s carrying out drone strikes, hunting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and taking a more aggressive approach elsewhere too. Pompeo is one of Trump’s most trusted advisers, and thanks to his almost daily one-on-one interactions with the president, the CIA director is able to pitch Trump on the fly and get a verbal green light for new initiatives, sometimes circumventing the regular review process, multiple sources have told me. One thing to watch in 2018 is who takes over for Pompeo at CIA should he replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
National Security Implications of Not Dealing with Climate Change — It didn’t feature in Trump’s new National Security Strategy (as Mark Nevitt pointed out), but that doesn’t mean the threats from climate change are disappearing. It was a record-breaking year for extreme weather events. Residents in Puerto Rico are still waiting on basic services to return. Coastal U.S. military installations are making contingency plans. Water shortages and extreme temperatures will continue to exacerbate political tensions all over the globe and increased Russian naval activity in the Arctic is setting off alarm bells at NATO.
Mission Creep in Africa? — The death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in October brought attention and needed scrutiny to the growing counterterrorism war the U.S. is fighting in Africa. As POLITICO reported, “The escalation is occurring with little public debate — and, some military experts say, too little attention from top decision-makers in Washington. The U.S. military presence in the Sahel and sub-Saharan regions has grown to at least 1,500 troops, roughly triple the official number of American troops in Syria, according to Pentagon and White House figures.”
China filling the U.S. Void — Whether it’s on climate, trade or diplomacy, the Trump administration’s decisions are creating space for China to step in and play a larger role. “As Trump steers his administration’s focus inward, China has stepped into what many see as a U.S.-sized void left behind in the region, boosting cooperation on infrastructure, security and trade, flooding eager countries with tourists and offering itself up as a model for developing nations with sometimes dodgy rights records,” the AP’s Foster Klug wrote in November. What will this mean for the U.S. in the long run? And what kind of international broker does China intend to be, and to what end?
Venezuela’s Unrest — While Venezuelans try to grapple with a dire economic crisis, the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, is clinging to power through a rampant crackdown on democracy. He’s thrown his political opponents in jail, met public protests with violence, delayed elections and seized power where he can. The situation has caused thousands of Venezuelans to flee the country. “The country’s total collapse would cause chaos in Latin America, creating an exodus of refugees to neighboring nations and likely exacerbating high crime rates in Central America and the Caribbean,” Vox’s Zeeshan Aleem wrote in September. A presidential election was scheduled for 2018, but in early December, Maduro announced the country’s main opposition party is banned from taking part.
Image: Kevin Frayer/Getty