Since the successful raid on bin Laden's Abottabad compound, much of America's attention has been focused squarely on southwestern Asia. The world has also been captivated by the drama unfolding in the aftermaths of uprisings in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, the so-called Arab Spring. But that doesn't mean the killings have stopped elsewhere, nor the challenges and dangers for the United States. Here are four major conflicts that could pop up on the front pages or TV screens any day.
1. Mexican Drug War
The chaotic battle among rival drug cartels and a Mexican government desperate to quash the violence has raged on for nearly five years. And though the Mexican Drug War receives more media attention than some other global conflicts, "it's so much worse than it's portrayed inside the U.S.," says Steven Weber, professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley. The brutal fighting intensified greatly in 2010--15,000 were killed in that year, up from 9,600 in 2009. All told, the death toll stands at more than 35,000, and has come to include U.S. personnel, as two Immigration and Customs agents were shot, one fatally, in a roadside attack in northern Mexico in February. That this war is happening on the United States' doorstep, Weber says, should deeply trouble Americans.
Equally troubling is that the United States is adding fuel to the fire, says Patrick Morgan, professor of political science at UC-Irvine's School of Social Sciences. "The really bad part is that we're involved in it in two huge ways: one is, of course, that the drugs are coming through Mexico to get to us. And most of the arms are going there from us." Though arms smuggling over the border had been a persistent problem, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives came under fire over "Operation Fast and Furious" this March, when it was revealed that ATF agents allowed guns to cross into Mexico, in order to track those firearms.
The U.S. government is working to help Mexico combat the ongoing discord. In its fiscal year 2012 budget, the State Department requested $333 million for Mexico, accounting for nearly 20 percent of State Department aid to all Western Hemisphere countries.
2. Democratic Republic of the Congo
"Congo doesn't affect U.S. national security, and a lot of people are dying there." This is the simple explanation of why Alan Kuperman, associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, believes that the ongoing hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have long been a severely overlooked conflict, despite a casualty count that may exceed 5.4 million.
The rumblings of conflict began in 1996, after the war and genocide in neighboring Rwanda spilled into country, then called Zaire. After an armed faction funded by Rwanda and Uganda ousted Zaire's President Mobutu Seko in 1997, a war that some call the "African World War" resulted, with the governments of neighboring countries backing various hostile armed groups in the conflict. Though the conflict officially ended with a 2002 peace agreement, fighting continues, fueled by the country's plentiful supply of "conflict minerals." Valuable minerals like gold, copper, zinc, and coltan, a mineral used in cell phones and other electronic devices, are key sources of funding for many of the armed militias. Adding to the conflict's intractability is the country's status as a failed state, says Morgan: "It's a state that has very little control over much of the country and very little credibility, even with its own citizens."
The Congolese crisis has raised alarms among human rights groups worldwide, as men and boys are forced into carrying goods for armed groups, and as both militias and the Congolese army employ rape as a tool of warfare. A study published this week in the American Journal of Public Health estimates that women are raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the shocking rate of 48 per hour.
Some Americans have taken notice; in April, Pittsburgh passed a proclamation calling for electronic companies to "take the necessary steps to remove conflict minerals from their supply chain." The SEC has also proposed a rule that would require public companies to report the sources of their "conflict minerals."
3. Southern Sudan
After a protracted Sudanese civil war that lasted over two decades, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 between the government and rebels in the south was hailed as an historic achievement. In accordance with that treaty, the southern region of Sudan held a referendum in January in which it voted overwhelmingly for independence.
Despite the heralded peace agreement, it is clear that the fight is far from over; unifying the south will be a Sisyphean task. "U.S. media, western media, the U.S. government--they have painted the conflict in Sudan as a sort of this north-south conflict, where this evil northern Islamic regime was attacking and denying autonomy to the...peoples of Southern Sudan," says Kuperman. "That neglects the fact that the people of Southern Sudan are not one people," he adds, pointing to the South's myriad ethnic groups.
In particular, the fate of Abyei, an ethnically divided border region that has not yet voted on whether to join the south or the north, remains to be negotiated. This is perhaps the most important issue to be decided before the south's July 9 independence. The violence in Abyei remains constant, and the International Crisis Group has warned that new conflict could erupt. Just this week, four U.N. peacekeepers on patrol in Abyei were wounded in an attack.