Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Planning for 2013: What Are the Next Threats?

by Micah Zenko
October 24, 2012

A soldier from the U.S. Army scans across the Pakistani border (Tim Wimborne/Courtesy Reuters). A soldier from the U.S. Army scans across the Pakistani border (Tim Wimborne/Courtesy Reuters).


If you ask ten forecasters to predict the next conflict, you’ll likely get ten very different answers. But, they will agree on one thing: it is impossible to know for sure where and when the next conflict will emerge. Even the U.S. military acknowledges this certainty of uncertainty. Recently, Major General H.R. McMaster quipped: “We have a perfect record in predicting future wars…And that record is 0 percent.” Although experts have called for improved statistical models and “assigning more explicit, testable, and accurate probabilities” to improve existing U.S. government methodologies, prediction will always be an imperfect science.

How should U.S. policymakers plan for and prevent future conflicts? Every year, we at the Center for Preventive Action conduct the Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS) to help U.S. policymakers prioritize their planning efforts by ranking the importance of contingencies to U.S. national security interests. Previous surveys were sent only to a targeted group of experts, but this year, we are bringing the public into the process.

What contingencies are you are worried about erupting or escalating in 2013? Please put your suggestions in the comments section below. Keep them short and to the point: for example, “an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Yemen.” Compelling suggestions will be included in this year’s survey, which will be published in December.

Post a Comment 39 Comments

  • Posted by Josh

    Expanded influence of radically violent non-state actors in North Africa leading to destabilization across the region (case in point – Northern Mali and Libya’s militia woes); Collapse of Saudi regime (distant future when oil revenues drop drastically); Either collapse of Pakistani regime or stolen nuclear materials/weapons by local extremists seeking to use them against India thus leading to regional nuclear conflict; clashes in South and East China sea over resources and islands; conflict over newly accessible resources as arctic glaciers recede; war of independence by Kurdish groups as they each carve out an autonomous region in their respective host countries (Iraqi Kurds working with Syrian and Turkish kurds to push for their own state)

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Why quote McMaster?
    Of course there has been no ability to forecast US wars because they have been needless and stupid, except for the profiteers.

    Here’s SecDef Panetta:

    Violent extremism, weapons proliferation, international instability and the rise of new powers across Asia are just some of the challenges facing the country, Panetta said.

    “And now we confront a whole new threat of warfare in cyber [space]” he said. “I think this is an area we have got to pay close attention to. This is the battle front of the future. As I speak, there are cyberattacks going on in this country.”

    “And now they’re developing the capability to be able to go after our grid — our power grid, our financial systems, our government systems — and virtually paralyze this country,” Panetta said.

    I don’t know how he can sleep nights. It must be a difficult life when one is afraid of his own shadow., in effect.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    By the way, regarding the “Pakistani border” that the soldier in the above photo is scanning across — Afghanistan doesn’t recognize that border (the Durand Line) according to President Karzai in a recent statement.

    Last one out, turn off the lights. One “threat” down. What Are the Next Threats? They’ll think of something, some bogus threat like Persia or something.

  • Posted by Danny Hirschel-Burns

    An increase of rebel activity in Darfur, leading to a response from Khartoum that also includes the targeting of civilians.

  • Posted by Borislav Gizdavkov

    With the increasing Chinese assertiveness in Central Asia, I believe that future power shifts in that region may lead to violent clashes over resources. It will be a “small war” that may require the practice of the well-known US counterinsurgency doctrine. Such potential conflict is of great strategic importance given the interests in the region. China is concentrating its influence and land power towards this region in a time when the US redesigned its strategy towards the Pacific Rim. Russia claims inherent interests and rights in the region and I think that a little spark in the near future may be deeply disconcerting. This will have implications for the Iran-Israel stand-off and is likely to involve them in the conflict.

  • Posted by Simian O'Nihil

    The hotspots are going to be domestic. It’s likely to get hot enough that DHS shrillness re domestic security threats moves up a couple octaves. We have political polarization, the fiscal cliff, and the next leg down in the “Great Recession” on the way, and this at a time when faith in the political and economic system is at an all-time low. Add a little inflation courtesy of the Federal Reserve and there are going to be torch-lit marches through the streets of Washington D.C. in not time.

  • Posted by Filipe

    Turkey and the PKK. It´s a longtime hotspot, but due to the increasingly explosive Syrian crisis, kurds might feel tempted to push ahead on its efforts against Ankara.

  • Posted by Xavier

    Climate change is the chief threat to the United States. The drought in the Midwest states is a key example. This was even conceded by the Pentagon.
    a few seconds ago · Like

  • Posted by Crispin Burke

    I’m curious as to what others think about the situation in Mexico. The US and Mexico have several legitimate permanent interests, so the security situation should be of some concern to us.

  • Posted by Florian Bodamer

    Territorial conflicts in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors that are allied with the United States.

  • Posted by Charles Cameron (hipbone)

    A given hot spot may only be hot when coupled with another spot in a feedback loop – and the two spots may be widely separated geographically.

    To my way of thinking, an assessment of incipient troubles needs to look for feedback loops, blowback systems, echo chambers – all of them patterned phenomena that are likely to feature both sides of a potential or ongoing conflict from a systems analytic point of view. A microphone isn’t a hot spot, a loudspeaker isn’t a hot spot, but put the two of them in the same acoustic system and you can generate an ear-shattering howl…

    I’d look at “strong” versions of Islamophobic rhetoric and “strong” versions of Islamist rhetoric as a single system transglobally, for example, and I’d want to figure out what would cause dampening effects on both sides.

    Another tack I’d take is to ask questions like “what’s in our blind spots” and “what’s under the radar” – I vividly recall hearing Ali Allawi tell a session at the Jamestown Foundation that within Iraq, “most of the dissident Shi’a movements not within the ambit of the political process have very strong Madhist tendencies” and that they were “flying under our radar” — despite the fact that US forces had been involved in a major battle with one such group outside Najaf.

    I’ll post a more extended response on Zenpundit – but for now, I’d just like to throw in one additional question: is there a Scoville Scale for the “hotness of spots” as there is for peppers? It’s hard to know how to think through potential vulnerabilities without some sense of both intensity and probability of risk…

  • Posted by Joe Cerami

    Threats in the Middle East
    1. Syria and human security and humanitarian assistance; and aiding “rebels” in civil wars.
    2. Lebanon and Hezbollah and the U.S. role in ethnic conflicts.
    3. Yemen and Somalia and failed, failing or fragile states, especially those with active al-Qaida operatives.
    4. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and the U.S. role in promoting democracy as well as economic and social development after the Arab Spring.
    5. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and the oil economy.
    6. Turkey, our NATO ally, and its role in regional politics in the Middle East as well as the Caucuses and Eurasia.
    7. Afghanistan and the U.S. and NATO drawdowns, state building and roles in counterinsurgency warfare.
    8. Pakistan and Southwest Asia regional politics, as well as in countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
    9. Israel and Palestine, and supporting Israel while promoting Palestinian statehood.
    10. Iran and sanctions, diplomacy, nuclear proliferation and … the potential for war?


  • Posted by Andrew

    I think the biggest threat is a proxy war with Russia in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Syria is a concrete example. Russia is not a member of NATO and has a history of trying to set up their own sphere of influence. The MENA countries will provide them with an opportunity to do this. The Russians can act covertly. The end of the Cold War causes experts to underestimate them.

    Russia controls a large portion of European oil and can shut off supplies when pressured diplomatically.

  • Posted by trideo

    Let us not forget about:

    1) Increasingly belligerent moods of Chinese street at the time of leadership transition. The North Koreans are well aware of this too.

    2) Possible destabilisation of Southern Europe due to failing national economies (Eurozone is still getting worse, not better). After all, there is a limit to generosity of the Core.

  • Posted by Guy Deutsch

    A regional conflegration in the Middle East following an operation against the Iranian nuclear program, involving Israel, Hizbullah and Iran, and to a lesser extent the U.S., and perhaps also Hamas and the Assad regime in Damascus, and other regoinal players

  • Posted by Laura

    I completely agree with Andrew @ Andrew at 4:01 PM. He has encapsulated what it is known as the Primakov Doctrine.

    ” The strategy behind the Doctrine is to build a Eurasian counterbalance to the American-led Atlantic alliance by forging closer ties between Russia, China, and Iran. The goal is to weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East and in Eurasia, and to establish Russia in the Middle East as a power equal to the United States. Russia would exclude the United States from influencing issues involving the former Soviet area while strengthening China’s position.

    A partnership consisting of Russia, China, and Iran would be dangerous for the United States and its allies. It could pose a serious threat to stability in the Persian Gulf and the Taiwan Strait. It could endanger the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West if the extremist regimes in Iran, with Russia’s encouragement, were to break out of their international isolation and pursue aggressive policies toward their neighbors. Such a strategy could increase instability throughout Europe and Asia and entangle the United States in regional conflicts in Eurasia. In short, it would turn Russia’s relations with the United States into a zero-sum game.”

  • Posted by Alice-Sofia Savitsky

    From my point of view, the biggest threat to the US is a probability of intensification of the already manifest processes of internal collapse, which began to develop decades ago, and now could be easily inferred from the current state of affairs: problems in and with the economical, cultural, political, social, religious and other vital institutions.
    These problems reveal internal disorder/degeneration, malfunctioning of the life–sustaining establishments, and quite well detectable overall insufficiency of the entire system. The first consequence is an inability to accomplish vital purposes, firstly, such as to secure quality of life of the population and efficiency of government, defense, etc.
    The biggest problem of a collapsing system is that even if the current and future threats are identified, the system is incapable of answering them properly.
    Key to survival of a system (state, empire) is in her ability to prevent outer threats or if they still arise, to answer them adequately: the current inability to do that is the biggest threat of the nearest future.


  • Posted by Joe

    Without question, I believe that Pakistan will become a focal point for U.S. Special Operations Forces, especially when considering the impending draw-down and withdrawal from Afghanistan. American strategists could see the necessity in increased SOF-Pakistani military cooperation as creating a bulwark against the inevitable instability in Southern Afghanistan/Northern Pakistan.

    Aside from this, there are two other possibilities: the security situation in Northern Africa continues to deteriorate to the point that the American public deems it necessary to deploy ground forces (highly unlikely); if free of North African entanglements, the U.S. military becomes more interested in East Asian security partners and augments its presence in places like the Philippines and Indonesia, increasing counterinsurgency operations in this region.

    Whatever the case, it is almost certain that American Special Operations Forces will serve as the vanguard for any coming conflict, possibly absent of any conventional military component. U.S. strategy now calls for ‘smaller’ and ‘cleaner’ wars, with a minimal footprint. A much larger emphasis will be placed on the development of foreign internal defense.

  • Posted by Becky

    Cyberfailure. Loss of some critical infrastructure (power, transportation, banking) that could result from an act of aggression, aging/insufficient infrastructure, or climate related event.

    By its nature, this would occur anywhere but likely most destructive in more developed, more densely populated areas.

  • Posted by M Shields

    Large numbers of unemployed young men in many developing countries around the world will present a great threat to our national security in more ways than one.

    Regions from Southeast Asia to Africa, and possibly parts of Latin America, have emerging economies with higher total fertility rates. This translates into a greater percentage of the populations in these countries with limited access to peaceful professions.

    With an open labor market, enterprising dictators could raise armies, terror groups could recruit more agents to spread chaos in increasingly creative ways, and even if no particular group harnesses these young men to their designs, they still present a volatile group which could ignite conflict wherever economic alternatives to violence do not exist.

  • Posted by aftab

    – US created and nurtured Muslim fundamentalists during Russo-Afghsn confict resulting in one major war commitment (Iraq war was foolishly chosen by the neocons)
    US and allies are again creating future conflict areas by supplying arms, money and political support to non-state actors in the name of democracy and human rights. This is breaking the fabric of the soceities and shatering core values.
    – Failure/destabiliztion of infrastructure systms due to cyber threat

  • Posted by Berenice

    I think the Arab Israeli conflict is at the base of all conflicts happening with the Muslim world right now. The U.S. had a double standard policy when it came to Arabs or Israelis in the past and today, Al Qaeda and Muslim fundamentalism are the price we (=the West) pay for it. Therefore, I think it’s absolutely essential that we do not give up on finding a way to launch a peace process again. The Arab Spring revolts have taken the spotlight away from that conflict but it doesn’t mean it’s going any better.

  • Posted by Mike

    Syrian spillover turning into a regional conflict, drawing in Israel and eventually the US. US surgical strike on Iranian nukes turning into another Iraq/Afghanistan as a result of inevitable escalation. Seasoned Taliban/other warriors in Afghanistan looking for a war to fight after US pulls out.

  • Posted by Mike

    I am very concerned about the European (global) economic crisis. I doubt there is any true solution. I also fear that high unemployment provides time and motivation for extremists to boost their recruiting.

  • Posted by Riku Allan Kinnunen

    The problem in Afganistan’s forthcoming election and future U.S withdrawal is that historically speaking, a move to free elections has been often accomplished when the previous elites trade political power for economic power. But now that USA is withdrawing from Afganistan, that does not bode well for a ‘new Afganistan’.
    And while USA had good reason implement the deadline for withdrawal (forcing locals to shape up more) , the approaching deadline does unfortunately also encourage the anti-U.S. groups in Afganistan to prolong the battle.

  • Posted by Tiki Archambeau

    Going from continent to continent:

    Asia – Thailand. They are an integral part of the high-tech supply chain yet continue to struggle with violence due to corruption and the inability to unite separate factions.

    Not adding North Korea because, while volatile, the status quo is in the best interest of both sides.

    Europe – The Balkans remain a tinderbox for Europe. And if tempers flare again, it could drag Romania into the mix. Add the sensitive economic issues felt across the Euro zone – and near-failed states like Greece and Portugal – and there is potential for a very serious situation in Europe.

    Africa/Mid-East – Syria holds the key to the future of the middle east. The choice now is between Assad or a failed state, not a palatable situation for any party). Proxies would be wise to revisit WWII colonial boundaries that set the region up for dictatorships versus coalition-built governments.

    Else wise, Mali will be drawing interest as France occupies parts of that country. Libya too which is realistically a failed state at the moment. Somalia and Yemen are no different despite gains by western powers in both those nations.

    On a personal level, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the most disappointing blemish on western diplomacy. The problem there is on the scale of genocide, lacking only a convenient name to label the scale of deaths there. This resource-rich country could be the envy of Africa were it not so hung up on egomaniac domination.

    Latin America/Americas – Mexico. The drug violence is out of control and there is a new leadership taking over. Since the U.S. is clearly uninterested in addressing demand for drugs, Mexico must either continue targeting supply lines or call truces with them. More deaths or a deal with the devil. Another unenviable situation not unlike Syria in many ways.

    Finally, there’s Canada. Just kidding. Thought mentioning one of the most stable countries in the world would add levity to a rather dark post.

  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    The key security concerns for the United States may not find resonance in other societies or states. The systemic hegemon is primarily concerned with an apparent erosion of its primacy by a conjunction of trends transforming the global landscape into a new and intensely interlinked and inter-dependent political-economic domain in which lethal destructive force does not answer all the questions testing those claiming leadership.

    Although US politicians from President Barack Obama on down have stated an interest in collaborative approaches to managing global challenges, few (barring Congressman Ron Paul and a few of his acolytes) have actually offered to moderate America’s dominance of the system it has sought to fashion in its own image, especially since 1991.

    America remains, and will remain, the pre-eminent economic, military and popular-cultural power for decades. However, its ability to force international affairs in preferred directions on the strength of its planet-straddling overwhelming military power is much more modest than would be admitted by articulate folks making the running in the Washington Beltway. Iraq and Afghanistan clearly shelter in their fiery bowels lessons for those excited by imperial hubris and afflicted with an inability to see beyond second-order consequences of their action.

    The rest of the world, or much of it, anyway, still demonstrates its admiration and affection for the United States by sending its sons and daughters to acquire education in American schools and colleges. Even scions of China’s Communist Party revolutionary elites, considered to be the source of the greatest threat to America’s national security interests, devote a great deal of their private resources to the education of their single-child offspring in US schools. Few adversarial or hostile powers would rationally do this to its own future.

    And yet, both presidential candidates seeking the highest office of their land, have found it necessary and appropriate to fulminate against China in their competitive zeal to demonstrate their patriotic fervour. How is that rational? And if leadership selection processes in America, the greatest of the world’s democracies, depends on such irrational (or, perhaps, extra-rational) outbursts of unnecessary passion, then how would the cause of pluralist representation be advanced by the system- leader?

    What kind of structural insecurity forces perfectly sane and decent politicians to engage in this kind of ultimately meaningless polemics? That question needs to be addressed early on before wider concerns can be resolved.

  • Posted by Daniel

    I belive that Magreb and Machrek will be one of the hotspots since a lot of islamists radicals are roaming free in there; the new so-called “spring revolutions spawned regimes”; Qatar, since it’s obvious they are behind many terror and hate funding organizations; threats to Israel but also it’s settlements in west bank (they have to stop); Drug traficking in central and south america (it’s way out of porportion); Tech espionage from world powers; India and Pakistan war and/or islamic radicals; US debt and currency owners; environment and its consequences to US territories, multinational corporations that fund regional wars; and last but not least: bankers.

  • Posted by Shai

    Syrian WMD fall into the hands of non-state actors: Hizballah or other terrorist groups

    Rise in Sunni-Shia tensions in the Middle East with potential flash points within and between:
    – Syria-Iraq
    – Syria-Lebanon
    – Iran – Gulf States/Saudi Arabia (Iran and SA participating through proxies in all of the above)

    Rise in violence between Israel and its neighbors
    – Palestinian authority disintegration 3rd intifada from the west bank, this time using rockets to attack Israeli population centers
    – Increasing frequency of rocket attacks from Gaza leading to Israeli invasion of Gaza strip
    – Increase in terror attacks from Sinai, leading to heightened tensions between Israel and Egypt
    – Further weakening of Jordan’s King Abdallah and rise of Palestinian ruled Jordan

    Rising Chines nationalism:
    – Increased tensions in south china sea, primarily between Japan and China. Risk of small incident spiraling out of control
    – Slower economic leading to civic unrest, brutal repression and increased tensions with neihbors

    Pakistan instability and implications for its nuclear arsenal, relationship with India

    A more militant, nationalistic and assertive Russia distancing itself from west, leading to a repeat of war with Georgia

    Korea re-unification

    – Rise in nationalism and fascism in parts of Europe (Ukraine, Greece), some of Europe’s past demons awaken
    – Separatism in Spain (Catalonia), Northern Italy, Belgium

  • Posted by Eugen Ghita

    Slower economic leading to civic unrest, brutal repression and increased tensions with neihbors

    Pakistan instability and implications for its nuclear arsenal, relationship with India

    – oil/gas in the Meditterean Sea;
    – Europe/global failure to create a new productive-profitable economy;
    – cyberwar;
    – lack of unity spread at the national level;
    – Saudi Arabia;
    – nuclear power generation;
    – separatism in Europe.
    -Russia lack of home democracy and operations abroad;
    – Afganistan;
    – China limits of economy

  • Posted by Al Biegel

    An Iranian domestic implosion that results in the violent overthrow of the Mullah led regime. Elements of the former Green Movement along with more secular members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) combine to overthrow a corrupt and divided Regime that is becoming increasingly sclerotic and totalitarian. Global sanctions and the growing threat of Western and Israeli intervention to eliminate Iranian nuclear capabilities along with increasing internal conflict over limited resources cause severe domestic pressures and lead to a renewed Iranian Spring. The threat of massive external intervention by external powers to limit the indiscriminate killing of Iranian civilians, forces the IRGC leadership to turn against the continued rule of the Mullahs. Toward that end, the IRGC with the backing of secular elites pledge more democratic rule in an effort to maintain their own
    privaledged role in Iranian society.

  • Posted by Jackie Clark

    The Israeli-Palestine conflict.

  • Posted by Thomas Horn

    The war in Syria ends within a few months with a rebel victory.

    Radiccal Sinnis have nowhere to go, so they decide to kill Shited in Iran

  • Posted by Jghedi

    The Somali conflict, first, will continue through the Jubbaland and Kysmayo case, which involves local and regional interests, such as Kenyan Somali origin Ministers and business groups, Ethiopian Government to counterbalance the ONLF influence and the oil issue in Lamu Basin which could exacerbate the border dispute between Kenya and Somalia.

    Second, the other issue in Somaliaonflict’s c is the unclear and confusing “federalism” which will create

  • Posted by EthanP

    While I do not possess a crystal ball: There are several flashpoints, mostly in the Islamic world. Lybia, Mali, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afganistan. And after 10+ years of fruitless war, the American population will not sanction interventions unless we are clearly attacked, (I.E. another 9/11 scale event).
    China’s saber ratteling is also worrying. Not that I expect them to deliberately start a war. But all of these provocations with the neighbors might lead to an accidental event.

    And of course Iran again. I think that the psyco Mullahs in charge would welcome a shooting war with the US and or Israel. But the attack must clearly appear an agression against Iran. This would serve to unify the Iranian people against an outside agressor. It’s my only concern about a pre-emptive strike against Irans nuclear program.

  • Posted by Juan

    The more aggresssive interference of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the many issues of the Middle East. Their rivalry will be more notorious as thin the coming years.

  • Posted by Patrick Galley

    I’m concerned the new Chinese regime will continue the push to expand China’s boundries, which will draw in the US.

  • Posted by Dallin

    The most immediate threat appears to be the situation in Syria. That cup is filled to overflowing. Turkey and Lebanon have both faced Syrian-related crises that put the region on the brink of war. A prolonged conflict within Syria will, I predict, eventually lead to a multinational war. Other dangers (an Israeli-Iranian nuclear crisis, northern Mali, fallout in EU countries like Greece and Spain, Chinese aggression in Asia, etc.) are obvious. But I feel that cyber warfare is the new global warming. Panetta doesn’t hide his concerns over the issue, and neither do the MNCs whose operations have been handicapped or infiltrated by hackers. Terrorists don’t need to pull off elaborate plans in the public square anymore. All they need is a working knowledge of cyber warfare technologies, and they can potentially disable an entire country’s power grid. The U.S. is a sitting duck for cyber attacks.

  • Posted by apseudonym

    With three peacekeeping missions within two countries, instability in and between the Sudans looks set to come to a head in the upcoming term.

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