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The President's Take

High Stakes in the Months Ahead

In his foreword to the November/December 2018 instalment of CrisisWatch, our monthly conflict tracker, our President Rob Malley sees inflection points drawing near in two of the world's hottest wars – Yemen and Afghanistan – as well as crucial elections approaching in DR Congo and Nigeria.  

As we were finalising this month’s CrisisWatch, the U.S. Senate signalled in an unexpectedly broad and bipartisan vote its growing opposition to Washington’s backing for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. The vote reflected anger at the war, at the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and at the Trump administration’s seemingly unconditional support for the former and cavalier reaction to the latter. At this stage, the Senate vote is largely symbolic, but it still indicates a shifting mood. As Congress’s patience runs thin, the challenge will be to turn that impatience into pressure to achieve a ceasefire – most urgently to avert the Saudi-led coalition’s planned offensive on Hodeida, which could precipitate famine in parts of the country – and an end to the war.

Impatience with U.S. involvement in conflict is also behind recent events concerning Afghanistan, though in this case the desire to extricate is shared by President Donald Trump. That is one explanation for the flurry of diplomatic activity, notably the new U.S. envoy’s three days of talks with the Taliban in Doha, and Pakistan’s release of several Taliban officials, likely a confidence-building step taken at Washington’s request. Other developments pointed in different, at times contradictory directions. U.S. airstrikes reached their highest level since 2001; the rate of casualties among Afghan forces was also the largest in years; while an international conference on Afghanistan hosted by Moscow featured the Taliban’s first participation in such a diplomatic gathering since 2001. The picture emerging from these developments remains murky, but this much appears clear: 2019 is likely to be a pivotal year. Over the coming months Crisis Group will intensify our coverage of both Yemen and Afghanistan, two conflicts where real opportunities for peace contend with grim battlefield realities.

Elsewhere too, the coming months are likely to prove critical, as this month’s CrisisWatch illustrates. In DR Congo, long-delayed, high-stakes elections are scheduled for 23 December. Reasons for worry about what comes next abound. The government has not addressed the opposition’s and civil society’s legitimate concerns about the fairness of the polls. Armed group violence rages in the east. Opposition attempts to unite behind a single candidate collapsed, seriously harming their chances of beating President Joseph Kabila’s favoured successor. With a risk of violence rising in the run-up to and aftermath of the vote, African and Western countries with influence over DR Congo should focus on getting Kinshasa to implement steps to increase confidence in the process and bolster monitoring of the vote.

Nigeria also will be heading to the polls in February and March 2019 under less-than-ideal conditions. I’ll be travelling there in the run-up to the elections. The campaign and vote will take place in the context of a resilient Boko Haram insurgency, which President Muhammadu Buhari repeatedly and inaccurately claims to be near defeat; continued (if slightly diminished) herder-farmer clashes, including in swing states likely to be hotly contested in the forthcoming vote; and deadly skirmishes between Shiite protesters and the army in Abuja. President Buhari himself faces a stiff challenge in the presidential contest from veteran politician Atiku Abubakar.

To end the final CrisisWatch of the year on a note of (relative) hope: last month, in CrisisWatch and in a short briefing, we warned against the possible involuntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Under international pressure, Dhaka put its plan on hold. The respite might be brief, as Bangladesh says it could proceed with repatriations after its 30 December elections. Should that be the case, Crisis Group – along with many others – will once again be there to oppose a move that would risk fuelling instability on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Until then, happy holidays to you all.