Foreign Affairs: Stories We’re Watching in 2010

BY Larisa Epatko  January 1, 2010 at 5:30 PM EDT

The United States is heading into a deeper war in Afghanistan/Pakistan and toward a confrontation with Iran, two stories that will likely top the international news agenda for the NewsHour in 2010.

Afghanistan: The year 2010 could mark a pivotal point in the nine-year war in Afghanistan. As the United States sends an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, what progress are the 68,000 American troops already there making in protecting the population and building up Afghan security forces, and what will the additional troops accomplish?

The Obama administration is expected to conduct a review in December 2010 of progress in the war, in order to determine the rate of withdrawal of U.S. forces now targeted for the beginning of the summer of 2011.

Leading up to the review, we’ll be looking into the various aspects of the U.S. efforts there and analyzing whether the government of President Karzai is succeeding in improving governance and winning the support of the Afghan people.

One of the main driving forces behind the Taliban’s influence is that the government — its police, governors, judges and others — is viewed as predatory and the Taliban offers a cleaner, less corrupt — albeit harsh and repressive — alternative in the view of many Afghans.

Another pillar of the Obama administration’s Afghan plan revolves around building the country’s own security forces. But according to a recent report prepared for top military commanders, “many ANA (Afghan National Army) leaders work short days, are often absent and place personal gain above national survival” and show few signs of wanting to become less dependent on the U.S. In addition, the report says, “corruption, nepotism and untrained/unmotivated personnel make success all but impossible.”

The troop surge in Afghanistan means the U.S. military will be under considerable strain, even as forces are drawn withdrawn from Iraq next year. Suicide rates in the Army are at their highest rates ever, and the military has launched programs aimed at increasing the resilience of soldiers to withstand stress. This will be another focus of our coverage.

Pakistan: We’ll also be keeping tabs on political developments in Pakistan. In December, the Pakistani Supreme Court annulled an amnesty deal that had erased corruption charges against top political leaders including President Asif Ali Zardari. So the forecast of the Pakistani political landscape could be turbulent in 2010 as the opposition tries to unseat the ruling coalition.

U.S.-Russian arms control: The United States and Russia are expected to reach a nuclear arms control agreement in 2010 that will call for cutting nuclear arsenals by around 30 percent from current levels. Even though the agreement is not finalized, there is some opposition among Republican ranks, and ratification of the treaty could be problematic for the Obama administration.

The new treaty also is likely to intensify a long simmering debate about how the U.S. should maintain the viability of the current stockpile of nuclear weapons. The current nuclear arsenal consists of aging nuclear warheads and there is concern they might not work. Thus, a debate is brewing over whether new nuclear warheads should be built or if the current generation can be maintained by replacing individual parts of the warheads.

Iran nukes: Iran’s Islamic regime is struggling for its survival and at the same time heading to a confrontation with the United States and other nations over its nuclear program. Protesters want to bring down the government, which also faces the prospect of deeper economic sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.

In 2009, Iran’s clandestine uranium enrichment facility at Qom came to light. Tehran also rejected a U.N. deal it seemingly had agreed to that would allow it to ship much of its uranium to Russia for processing. Iran tested more mid-range nuclear missiles in a show of force.

Some of the individuals and countries that had previously urged a greater degree of patience with Iran, namely Mohamed ElBaradei — who’s term as head of the International Atomic Energy Administration ended in November — and the Chinese, seemed to have hardened their stance given Iran’s behavior, noted Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

President Obama had set a year-end deadline for Iran to engage other world powers on its nuclear program, and then on the first day of 2010, Israel said it would endorse heightened sanctions against Iran — a significant pronouncement since Israel is regarded as a country that would strike back militarily if Iran’s nuclear program reaches a critical point.

Iraq elections: On March 7, another milestone in Iraq’s democracy is reached when Iraqis vote in its second nationwide elections. The elections will pose another test of security measures against insurgents.

Palestinian vote: Palestinians also are planning to vote on a parliament and president this year. Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he won’t run for another term, raising doubts about the elusive peace process with Israel.

China: This country’s emergence as a world power comes in small, sometimes barely noticeable steps. How long will its implicit bargain with its citizens hold up: to keep making them more wealthy as long as they do not push for political reforms?

Chile run-off: Also garnering attention is a run-off election in Chile on Jan. 17, which will pit a conservative billionaire against a left-leaning ex-president in the race to succeed President Michelle Bachelet. For the first time in decades, a rightist took the most votes in a presidential contest in Chile, following the original vote in mid-December.

Cuba: Cuba’s once-revolutionary government just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Castro takeover. What’s in its future: better relations with the United States, a slow movement to more market-oriented economic reforms and some political openings?

South Africa: Nearly two decades now since the end of apartheid, this country will be hosting the World Cup this summer. The event that draws billions of television viewers around the world will bring attention to South Africa’s efforts to spread its wealth and reduce its crime and the spread of HIV.

And there’s more: Additional stories on our radar screen include Mexico’s worsening drug-related violence and the continuing humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Contributions from foreign affairs senior producer Michael D. Mosettig and deputy senior producer Daniel Sagalyn.