2020 has been a rather challenging year for many across the globe. It started on a rather high note but a pandemic in February changed all expectations and reshaped how we carry on with daily lives. As the curtain falls in 2020, the team at Safeture will, as with past years present a special preview edition to give an idea of what to expect for all main continents of the world in 2021. Not exactly a prediction, but it is hoped the preview will be able to give an outlook for some of the events that are set to take place in the year ahead. From a new president in the Oval Office to the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan as well as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, our team of analysts in Brazil, Malaysia, and Sweden will not only seek to connect the dots but also take a step back to reflect on some of the biggest events of 2020.
The development of vaccines will hopefully turn the tide as the pandemic continues to infect millions and killing thousands worldwide. Economies are also set to accelerate the recovery phase after a year that witnessed devastating impacts of the pandemic on growth and employment, in tandem with the distribution of the vaccine. While the vaccine has offered a glimmer of hope, there are also many challenges that governments need to deal with amid the fact that 60-70 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated for it to work.
As the vaccine race comes to an end in the lab, the race to the patient has barely begun and the magnitude and intensity will once again be unprecedented. For a start, most of these vaccines will require extreme storage requirements that are not widely available. Pfizer’s vaccine for instance needs to be stored at an unprecedented -70°C (-94° F), a temperature met only with the coldest deep freezers. As these facilities are mostly available in big cities, its strict requirements could mean that those in the rural areas particularly in developing countries might not be receiving their doses that soon thus prolonging the pandemic.
The positive development of a vaccine also does not necessarily mean all measures to slow the spread of Covid-19, including movement restrictions or even lockdowns are coming to an end soon. A continuous surge of cases particularly in Europe and parts of the Americas into the new year meant that some of these measures are here to stay till at least the first half of 2021 before they could be relaxed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned that there should be no room for complacency despite encouraging signs shown by the vaccines as they will be very limited in terms of availability for the first half of the year. In addition to that, the new Covid-19 strain discovered in Britain ahead of Christmas also will raise more questions about the spread rate of the virus. Taming it, therefore, will likely see a mixture of public health measures as well as increased awareness of personal hygiene among the populace.
While the exact end of the pandemic is likely to beyond 2021, there are signs that the next year could be the beginning of the end. Resumption of pre-pandemic lifestyle could be on the horizon though it will still require efforts from various quarters of a society in order to make it work. Short-term wise though, one should not expect a bang to the end of the year as almost all countries have scrapped their usual celebrations to usher in 2021, a somber reminder perhaps that the war against the pandemic is still far from over.
The conditions included promises from the Taliban to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government and to prevent Al Qaeda or other similar groups from using Afghani soil to engage in activities threatening the US and its allies, including hosting, funding, or giving training to such groups. In exchange the US government promised to reduce the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan in the short term, leading to an eventual full withdrawal by mid-2021.
The adherence to the stated terms has been called into question following recent events. While Taliban leaders officially claim that there is no remaining Al Qaeda presence in the territories under their control there have been multiple cases indicating otherwise in recent months. In October and early November Afghan forces carried out several raids against Al Qaeda camps and operatives in Ghazni province and along the Nimroz-Farah provincial border, regions which are largely Taliban-controlled. In one of the operations Abu Muhsin al-Masri, who was one of the top senior figures in Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was killed during an operation in Ghazni. Furthermore, a meeting involving local leadership figures of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Helmand province was targeted in a US airstrike on 3 December in Nad Ali district.
However, the US government has so far seemed unwilling to press the issue, as the government and parts of the military leadership are strongly in favor of ending the US commitment in Afghanistan. Questions remain regarding what the incoming administration of Joe Biden will do, and the new government may seek to circumvent the US-Taliban deal. Reversing the troop withdrawals however would likely be politically complicated and time-consuming.
Despite the intentions of the agreement, violence in the country has increased. During the July-September quarter, the number of Taliban-initiated attacks increased by 50 percent according to a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The most dramatic increase has occurred after the beginning of the intra-Afghan talks in September. The Taliban forces have since mounted offensives of varying strength in at least a dozen provinces and have captured multiple districts in several of them. Several provinces are currently considered highly contested, including Badakhshan, Helmand, Ghazni, Faryab, and Wardak. In October, Lashkar Gah in Helmand was also besieged by Taliban forces for several days, showing that even provincial capitals are at risk. The increased activity from the Taliban could be a strategy aimed solely at improving their bargaining position at the ongoing talks but may be due to a concerted strategy to gain territory. But the willingness of the Taliban to engage in the talks with serious intent rather than using them as a tool to buy time until a full US withdrawal remains unclear and the current trend of events seems to be strengthening the Taliban’s position.
The capability and self-reliance of the Afghan armed forces have been a subject of debate for years, and the question may come to a head after the US withdrawal. While it seems unlikely that either side would be able to outright defeat the other militarily, the risk of morale loss seems more urgent on the Afghan army side. As the Islamic State takeover of Mosul and onward offensive in 2014 showed morale can be decisive, and as in that case, a continued offensive from the Taliban along with outbreaks of routing among overstretched Afghan forces could lead to a rapidly deteriorating security situation in 2021.
The infighting in Tigray started when federal forces were deployed to launch air and ground offensive against TPLF forces after a night-time assault targeting the Northern Command in Tigray. Abiy has been a controversial figure at least in the Tigray region following his decision to declare the regional election held in Tigray in September 2018 as null and void. The relationship between Abiy’s federal government and the regional government has also been deteriorating amid a subsidy cut to the latter. Although the federal forces seized control of the capital, Mekelle, the conflict also came with a high price as hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands more displaced. Abiy has vowed to rebuild the region but deep-rooted mistrust between Abiy’s Oromo group and the Tigrayans could result in it being a futile effort.
The real test for Abiy’s leadership will also be seen in the upcoming national election scheduled for May or June 2021. The nation that has been divided along the ethnic lines through ethnic federalism was put in a democratic experiment after Abiy’s arrival, as a series of sweeping reforms to end the repression and corruption that plagued the country for more than 25 years were promised upon. Further escalation of violence is not impossible in the coming months if Abiy continues to make unilateral decisions without making progressive peaceful settlements with TPLF, thus tarnishing his position as a broker of peace.
Furthermore, the involvement of Eritrea could complicate the Tigray conflict, given the existing troubled relations despite reconciliation efforts under Abiy’s leadership. With the seizure of Mekelle being regarded as a premature move to restore peace, TPLF militias have affirmed plans to continue fighting federal forces, therefore worsening the conflict to the point of triggering a drawn-out guerrilla war that could last for months.
Data from Safeture shows an increased concentration of armed incident in the Tigray region following a conflict between federal and regional forces in November
The Ansar al-Sunna militant group, also known locally as Al-Shabaab (separate from that in Somalia) has evolved from a religious organization in 2015, to a militant group with the intention of establishing a caliphate in the region. The group’s activities have been concentrated in the Cabo Delgado Province, due in large part to their ability to radicalize and recruit poor, marginalized, and unemployed youth in the area. Despite sporadic attacks in their earlier years, the group gained notoriety in October 2017 when they launched an attack on multiple police stations in the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia, only to be forced out later by security forces.
Targeted raids and ambushes have since escalated in the region and militants recently launched another attack and took control of the port city of Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020. Aside from being a vital supply point for government forces, the loss of control could also prove costly as the town also possesses strategic importance for multiple natural gas projects in the region. The Ansar al-Sunna has also continuously used violence and intimidation to gain a foothold in the region as seen during the massacres in Muidumbe as well as Macomia between April and May 2020.
Limits on media freedom have also hindered timely and accurate reports of attacks that could obscure the scale of Ansar al-Sunna’s control of the region. Such attacks have often sought to weaken the government’s hold and credibility and therefore tend to target vital infrastructures such as administrative buildings, cell towers, schools, and medical facilities. The group remains very much entrenched in Cabo Delgado Province and is likely to continue and even escalate attacks into 2021. Government forces have had a tough time in reclaiming territory lost to the group and with violence spreading into neighboring Tanzania, the conflict could easily intensify in the coming year.
The latest string of attacks shared some common characteristics. While the terrorists were Islamists aligned, they were more importantly lone wolves and socially isolated, yet active on extremist social media sites. Despite maintaining a limited social media presence, their links to a larger network of extremists were limited. Many of them also came from a minority background or were refugees. Furthermore, some of these attackers also took advantage of the lax border controls between Schengen Area Member States. While unlikely to cause mass casualties, such attacks against vulnerable soft targets like a crowded café in Vienna are difficult to prevent as the attackers leave little warning signs in advance. European security agencies also failed to produce actionable intelligence in advance due to lapses in coordination and monitoring.
Despite a spike in violence over the past few months, data by Europol suggests that the number of terror attacks has steadily declined over the years. It is also important to consider that most recent terrorist attacks have taken place in France and related to domestic issues. Similarly, the recently released Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2020 has noted that fatalities from all other forms of terrorism have declined by 15 per cent in 2019 compared with the previous year. During this same period, the lethality of IS attacks declined by as much as 40 percent as the group’s networks shrank around the world. Instead, GTI has noted far-right related terrorism has grown significantly in recent years. Far-right extremists including neo-Nazis have become more prominent in European countries through their active participation in protests against Covid-19 restrictions and their hostile stance against immigration. Amid reports of bombmaking instructions being shared on anti-lockdown social media sites, increased activities of far-right extremism should not be ignored.
Terrorism will remain a threat that will continue to plague certain European Union (EU) member states through 2021. However, the threat will likely be isolated acts of violence committed by lone wolves. While the EU as a collective has symbolically pledged to strengthen external border controls and counter extremist information, France is expected to lead the way as the country will table in January 2021, a controversial draft law with sweeping security changes including strengthened monitoring of religious institutions. Similar initiatives were already attempted by Austria and the Netherlands with limited success. Terrorism will also likely be an important agenda for elections coming up in other major EU states in 2021 such as Germany, Netherlands, and Norway. However, the risk of marginalizing Europe’s significant minority communities through a disproportionate response should be managed carefully especially at a time when far-right extremism is growing.
Overview of failed, foiled and successful terror attacks between 2007 to 2019 per selected EU member states. (Source: Europol)
In October 2020, Bolivia elected a new president, Luis Arce. Arce’s win came one year after a major political crisis, during which former president Evo Morales had to resign and flee the country amidst severe political pressure and the threat of prosecution. While the transition of power in Bolivia has been praised for its solidity and overall smoothness, all eyes will be on Peru for its election in 2021.
A new Peruvian president will be chosen in April 2021. The results and overall process are being watched with much anticipation as the presidential seat has been surrounded by polemics since the resignation of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, known as PPK, in 2018. PPK resigned after corruption allegations, and as his first vice-president did not have enough congressional support to retain the presidency, Martín Vizcarra, the second vice-president ascended to the presidency and had been governing ever since. In October, Vizcarra was impeached over corruption and influence-peddling charges. Manuel Merino, then President of the Congress took over. Major civil unrest erupted amid the political turmoil. At least two people were killed in massive rallies and clashes with security forces only escalated the tension even further. Thirteen out of eighteen ministers resigned from Merino’s cabinet crippling the administration until Merino himself stood down only five days after taking office.
Francisco Sagasti, the president of the Congress was subsequently elected to govern Peru until July 2021, when the newly elected president is supposed to be sworn in. The uncertainties will likely continue into the first half of 2021 as political parties ramped up their campaigning. Once in office, it will also not be a honeymoon for the winner as his or her most challenging task will be gaining enough congressional and popular support to stay in power and at the same time stabilize the political scene of the country.
Other general elections to watch:
Being a former vice-president under Barack Obama’s administration, there have been views that Biden’s policy could be a reflection of that of his former boss. Biden had already insisted that it will not be a “third Obama-term” though he is still looking to expand and restore some of the past policies including Obamacare. While admitting that he will reverse some of his immediate predecessor’s policies, it is very unlikely to be a complete overhaul, leading to what many believe is a hybrid of Trump’s and Obama’s going forward.
There are three main areas that will be highlighted here namely China, security, and trade. President-elect Biden is expected to take a different approach than Trump when dealing with China. Creating a field for co-operation between US-China will be the key move, especially on economic and technology. More strategic approaches on issues such as climate change, North Korea, Iran, and Covid-19 could also be expected. Nevertheless, Biden will be tough on the issues of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and freedom of navigation operations in contested waters.
On the issue of security and defense, the US is also expected to maintain a formidable presence around the globe, especially in the Middle East – Syria and Iraq. However, as for Afghanistan, Biden will bring back some combat troops and leave special forces as well as intelligence units on the ground. Additionally, the US will also be likely to rejuvenate its ties with traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea as well as strategic partners like India and Vietnam. The US under Biden will also seek to rebuild relationships with allies, especially in the Asia-Pacific region in order to regain its leadership role that has been on retreat during the Trump-era.
As mentioned earlier, co-operation rather than confrontation is also in the cards when it comes to trade with China. Biden had already signaled that his administration will seek to advance the trade agenda through collaboration with others, instead of unilateral action. He might also opt to modify the “Phase One” trade agreement and tariffs on EU and Canadian steel in return for favorable terms once in office. If his vice-presidential tenure is anything to go by, Biden as a liberal internationalist is expected to take a multilateral approach rather than leaning toward isolationism as seen during the Trump presidency.
Summit Calendar (dates and locations)
*No firm dates or locations set as of writing
**Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, many host countries have yet to ascertain exact details as of the end of 2020. Further information will be provided on the Safeture app once they become available
*Note: Details of this election will be provided in the Safeture app as they become available
Analyst Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Chan Hoi Cheong
Senior Analyst and Office Manager Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Analyst Sao Paolo, Brazil
Analyst Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Analyst Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Senior Analyst Lund, Sweden
Analyst Lund, Sweden
Senior Analyst Lund, Sweden