Fergal Keane: An unhappy new year of war, terror and pestilence

'The interests of the big powers are so all-consuming that any tyranny can go on without any action'
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For the world is the world and it writes no histories that end in love.

For the world is the world and it writes no histories that end in love.

These are Stephen Spender's lines and are bitterly apt at the end of this terrible year. Depending on which world you lived in, it was the year in which everything and nothing changed. In America the terror of large-scale, indiscriminate violence shattered 50 years of post-war security; in the great fastness of the Third World where most of the world's population lives, life continued to be circumscribed by poverty and random terror. Good riddance old year but can we look forward to anything better in 2002? It is time for the annual scan across the world's trouble spots offered, it must be admitted, in the certain knowledge that the single most influential event will be something that comes unexpected and unimagined.

Let's start with the biggest legacy of the past year: the war against Osama Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida and America's enemies, wherever they may lurk. The hunt for bin Laden will continue and will involve the special forces of Pakistan acting on information supplied by the US. He will be captured "dead or alive" within the next 12 months, but al-Qa'ida will continue to be a danger to US and European cities. The nihilistic terror represented by the suicide bomber will be with us for years to come.

As for the wider war, I suspect the Americans will launch some form of military action against Iraq later in the new year, but not before some proxy Iraqi force has been established to take advantage of American bombing raids. The war will be about getting rid of Saddam. The US ultimatum on weapons inspectors – "let them in or face the consequences" – has been rebuffed by the Iraqi dictator but he has a few tricks up his sleeve. He will prevaricate and concede a little and then prevaricate again. This time however he will find America unwilling to tolerate his brinkmanship. An attack on Iraq will shatter what remains of the coalition against terror but the US will be willing to live with that.

There will be no dramatic break with Britain, just a more explicit statement of what is already the reality in Afghanistan. Britain will take on the role of getting food to the hungry, re-building roads and bridges. If Saddam is toppled, expect Britain to offer help to the inevitable security force deployed afterwards. The problem for Mr Blair could lie with British public opinion if the impression gains hold that we are picking up the pieces for an America reluctant to deal with the humanitarian consequences of its military action.

Elsewhere in the region the India/Pakistan conflict may erupt into a limited ground war across the line of control between the two countries in Kashmir. The Indians seem set to launch limited action against Islamic extremist bases in Pakistan; it may not happen in the next few months but nothing short of a total clampdown on extremists by the Pakistani government will forestall Indian action.

Moving to the Middle East takes us into what appears like the zone of eternal gloom. Can it get worse? That very much depends on Arafat's success in limiting the actions of the suicide bombers and Sharon's willingness to begin serious negotiations. There have been rumours about a secret channel and the possibility of a limited agreement on Palestinian statehood within the next few months. I doubt it. The Mitchell report certainly offered the basis for resumed negotiations but is Ariel Sharon the man to make the concessions on settlements necessary for a deal? As a man dependent on the right and personally committed to the settlements he would enter negotiations with little inclination to offer territory to the Palestinians.

That may have to wait until another Israeli leader comes along, and the election this week of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Army commander and a Labour party hawk, could prove one of the more significant events of 2001. Remember that it was a tough but pragmatic Labour military man, Yitzhak Rabin, who forged the Oslo deal. Ben-Eliezer could be the man who achieves the settlement that eluded Ehud Barak.

This time around he may find Arafat a more willing interlocutor. For all the dire predictions, Arafat has survived. He will continue to do so because there is, for now, no alternative. His ultimate survival depends on the question of settlements and if Arafat can't do a deal with Israel that reduces Palestinian anger on that score he is doomed.

In Africa the year will likely be dominated by the collapse of sanity and order in Zimbabwe. For several years observers have been warning against Robert Mugabe's steadily growing repression. All of the relevant international bodies – the Organisation of African Unity, the Commonwealth, the UN – have told Mr Mugabe he really ought to be nicer but all have failed to take any action that might induce him to end his campaign of terror.

They have proved singularly useless. So has Thabo Mbeki and his fellow southern African leaders. They humoured Mugabe for far too long and have only begun to exert pressure, too little and far too late.

With the presidential election due in April we have two potential scenarios: either the state increases its repression to the degree that a free and fair election is impossible and Mugabe sweeps home with a sizeable majority; or the opposition boycotts the election and Mugabe is returned unopposed. Either way the international community, including his powerful neighbour to the south, will refuse to recognise the result. In an atmosphere of escalating violence pressure will grow for military intervention by Zimbabwe's neighbours. But there is the chance that those surrounding Mugabe will recognise that the game is up and force him to step down. Before the year is over we may see him flying into exile in Congo or Gabon or some other haven for unseated despots.

The biggest story of our generation will continue to get worse, but because it is happening to poor people in poor places don't expect to see many headlines. The Aids pandemic will kill hundreds of thousands of people next year and leave millions of children – mainly in Africa and Asia – orphaned and without any means of support.

Back home, I believe the Irish peace process will endure but not without sporadic and frightening eruptions of violence. The Loyalist feud which terrorised north Belfast remains in a state of suspension but with UDA leader Johnny Adair released later in the year, many will be fearing a renewed outbreak of hostilities. The dissident republicans who make up the Continuity and Real IRA have been badly demoralised by repeated arrests in the Irish republic; they will be anxious to stage high-profile attacks to show they are still in business. The sectarian bitterness that erupted in September at Holy Cross school in Ardoyne may have been dampened but expect other flashpoints, particularly in the summer marching season.

If you have stayed with me to the end of this look-ahead I hope you aren't consumed by despair. It will be a mix of the bad stuff and bits of good here and there. Enough of the good to keep us sane at least. Happy New Year.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent