Raymond Whitaker: As it mourns its lost leader, Pakistan is in the eye of the storm

The year is off to a fearful start in south Asia; the US continues to plot a dangerous course in Iraq, with its arming of Sunni militias; and the Israeli-Palestinian problem is no nearer a solution
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan has ensured that 2008 will get off to a fearful start, and with reason. If any part of the world gives cause for concern in the coming year, it will be the region encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan, and particularly the lawless border between the two countries.

Not only is Pakistan nuclear-armed, but its barely governed tribal areas have become the headquarters of al-Qa'ida and a base for the Taliban to regain a foothold in Afghanistan, where 7,800 British soldiers and 36,000 other Nato troops are battling to stabilise the country from which the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington were plotted. In 2008, it may well become accepted that Pakistan is a worse problem for the international community than its neighbour. That in turn could spell renewed trouble in Kashmir, that eternal flashpoint between Pakistan and India, the superpower of south Asia.

The respected Conflict Data Programme at Uppsala University in Sweden says there was a trend in 2007 for some of the world's worst conflicts to spill beyond their original borders, drawing in the whole region. This was true not only of Afghanistan, but of Iraq. Turkey has already begun counter-attacking into northern Iraq against the Kurdish guerrilla movement, the PKK, which has taken a heavy toll of soldiers and civilians in south-eastern Turkey, and is likely to carry on doing so in 2008.

But the main question in the coming year will be whether the US will be able to declare its troops "surge" a success by the summer, when it plans to start bringing large numbers of its forces home. Although violence has fallen sharply over the past year, and a measure of normal life has returned to Baghdad and other parts of the "Sunni triangle" in central Iraq, a political settlement between Sunnis and the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki remains elusive, and the US may be tempted to try to replace him. But its arming of Sunni "neighbourhood militias", while successful in curbing al-Qa'ida in Iraq, may be disastrous in the longer term.

Britain, meanwhile, is due to reduce its remaining troop contingent from 4,500 to around 2,500 by the spring. Having handed over security responsibility in mid-December to Iraqi forces in Basra, the last of the four provinces under its control, Gordon Brown hopes to have no more than a token British force in southern Iraq by the end of 2008.

As for the crisis that many see as the root of Islamist hostility towards the West, Israel and Palestine, it is hard to envisage much progress over the next 12 months. The White House at least got peace negotiations started at Annapolis for the first time in seven years, but the old issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinians to return, are no closer to being solved. And Hamas, which seized control of Gaza, is not taking part. Border closures and heavy Israeli intervention in Gaza are highly likely in 2008 if militants continue firing Qassam rockets into Israel.

Any of these conflicts could have an impact on the biggest show of the year: the US presidential election. Given the relentless tendency to hold state primaries ever earlier, the Republican and Democratic candidates may well be known long before the party conventions in the summer, which is when the fun will really start. The sums likely to be spent on the campaign will exceed the GDPs of many Third World countries.

As for potential trouble spots, look no further than Kosovo. The Albanian majority population were restrained with difficulty from declaring independence from Serbia immediately after the election that brought the former Kosovo Liberation Army commander, Hashim Thaci, to power, but the US and EU will give their blessing to a breakaway early in 2008. Serbia and its ally, Russia, are sure to react angrily, and may encourage the Serbian-majority enclave around Mitrovica to split away in its turn.

Russia is due to hold its own presidential election, but the result, unlike America's, is not in doubt. President Vladimir Putin has already named his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and the votes will follow in March. The only question is how Mr Putin will continue to run the country.

If one is seeking light relief, there are the Beijing Olympics to look forward to, though the less than subtle Chinese efforts to use the games to proclaim the country's greatness could prove annoying. In football there is the African Cup of Nations in January and February, which will deprive the Premiership of some of its best players, and Euro 2008 in Switzerland and Austria in June. None of the home nations is taking part, which at least keeps the occasion out of the "conflict" category.