Peace, War or Chaos?: The 5 Big National Security Challenges of 2018

Russian Marine Corps conscripts stand in formation in front of Soviet Navy flags as they take the oath in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol

Will North Korea conduct an atmospheric test? Will the frozen conflict in Ukraine turn hot? Daniel DePetris makes his predictions for 2018.

In 2018, senior adviser Jared Kushner will release the administration’s Mideast peace parameters to the world. President Trump himself will attempt to market it as the product of a year’s worth of listening to all parties and debate among the inter-agency. Abbas will criticize the plan as too biased towards Israel’s position, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will applaud the president’s effort while putting the responsibility of resuming of the peace process in Ramallah’s court. If Washington is lucky, the Palestinians will drop their refusal to participate in a U.S.-led process and go through the motions—only for the entire thing to break down over prisoner releases, Israeli settlement building and the municipal boundaries of who controls what in Jerusalem. If the two-state solution doesn’t die completely, Washington’s role in its foundation will be surpassed by France, the European Union and Russia.

Trump fires Gen. John Nicholson

As the war in Afghanistan proceeds through its seventeenth year, U.S. and NATO officials will continue to talk up the president’s new South Asia strategy as some kind of genius and unconventional whole-of-government plan with lasting results. Like every year since the war began a month after the 9/11 attacks, thousands of Taliban and ISIS foot soldiers will be killed in U.S. airstrikes throughout the year as the Afghan special forces operations grow increasingly confident in conducting unilateral operations. The Taliban Shura Council will be forced into another leadership battle after Haibatullah Ahkunzada is killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan counterterrorism raid along the Durand Line. Afghan security forces will chip away at Taliban-controlled districts and remain effective in preventing the insurgency from capturing a provincial capital.

Because U.S. advisers are permitted to embed with Afghan units at a lower level, however, American casualties increase compared to 2017. The Taliban will remain a prickly foe, ambushing static Afghan army checkpoints, launching suicide attacks deep into the heart of Kabul, and frustrating Afghanistan’s security situation just enough that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah decide to postpone the 2018 parliamentary elections. Pakistan, with Washington’s tightening strategic alliance with India in mind, purposefully neglects to take action against the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, convincing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to once again block hundreds of millions of dollars in counterterrorism payments to Islamabad. Trump, who is furious progress that progress in Afghanistan isn’t fast enough, blames the commander leading the war effort instead of the war strategy itself. Tired of a war he instinctively wanted to pull out of, Trump ends Nicholson’s tenure and Chief of Staff John Kelly is ordered to deliver the news to the commander.

North Korea Detonates a Nuke over the Pacific Ocean and Trump Blinks

In 2017, U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies assessed that Pyongyang would acquire the capability to pair a nuclear warhead with a reliable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) sometime in 2018. It only takes a month after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics for Kim Jong-un to declare such a capability, a development that concerns the White House but was nonetheless expected.

What wasn’t expected was North Korea’s seventh nuclear test in the summer, the first atmospheric nuclear weapons test since 1980. The mushroom cloud over the Pacific is broadcasted around the world, generating 24/7 panic among pundits on cable television. Hawkish members of Congress, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, lobby for President Trump to take preventive military action in retaliation in order to demonstrate American resolve and deliver a warning to Kim that his nuclear brinkmanship and violations of Security Council resolutions will result in grave, regime-ending consequences.

Trump, however, surprises nearly everyone in Washington by announcing to the American people that the weeks-long backchannel talks he authorized with the North Koreans immediately after the nuclear test has been met with enough progress to formalize it. The Chinese-sponsored freeze-for-freeze package the White House previously refused to consider becomes the foundation of America’s diplomatic strategy—not because Trump likes the proposal, but because it was the only option Washington and Pyongyang could swallow among the dwindling list of ideas. At a moment when war appeared inevitable, Trump shocks the world and decides to use the crisis as an opportunity to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Eastern Ukraine Becomes a Proxy Conflict between Washington and Moscow