Ending America's Longest War
In 2011, Obama announced that most U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan at the close of 2014. By then, his administration anticipated, Afghan security forces would be strong enough to secure the country and a political agreement involving the Taliban would be in the offing.
What a difference two years makes. Even when the plan was announced the security situation was discouraging, and it has only grown worse. International casualties had reached their highest point in nine years of war in 2010. They climbed higher in 2011 and higher still in 2012 as shootings of U.S. and NATO troops by individual Afghan police and army members became a grim feature of the war. After several false starts, a successful negotiation with the Taliban seems increasingly remote. Afghanistan's neighbors are positioning themselves for what seems likely to be a period of even greater instability after international forces depart.
If it hopes to leave a stable Afghan government behind when it departs, the United States and its international partners will have to broaden their efforts to build political reconciliation that encompasses Afghan groups far beyond the Taliban. Whether they will choose to do so is not yet clear. Even less clear is whether, with declining leverage as their troops leave the country, they will be able to push for a fair presidential election when President Hamid Karzai's term ends in 2014. An obviously corrupt outcome in that election could prove a devastating setback.
Pakistan represents a surprising bright spot over the past year. It now seems likely that Pakistani elections next year will see the first peaceful end to a period of civilian rule in Pakistan's history -- a notable milestone. Violence or a military coup looks increasingly unlikely. At the same time, Pakistan's obsession with its adversary, India, has significantly lessened. Trade across the border has increased markedly, visa restrictions have been loosened, and there is talk of renewed efforts to settle long-standing Indo-Pakistani territorial disputes. A sickening attack by Taliban militants in October on Malala, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who campaigned for women's education, brought the country together as never before. It is impossible to say whether this unity will last, but the attack has dramatically reinforced the reality that the country's internal problems mean more to Pakistan's security than does the threat from India.
If these trends endure, real change could be on the horizon in one of the world's most dangerous countries. In the best case, they could ease Islamabad's fear of being caught between unfriendly governments in New Delhi and Kabul enough to allow Pakistan to play a more constructive -- or at least a less destructive -- role in shaping Afghanistan's future.
Strange Interlude in Russia
Large street protests in Moscow at the close of 2011 suggested a political turning point in Russia. But the movement weakened rather than spread, and only three months later Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was overwhelmingly reelected to the top post of president -- albeit with badly damaged legitimacy. Since then, he has gathered greater power into his own hands, labeled those who did not support him as "decadent" and unpatriotic, and branded Russian non-governmental organizations that receive financial support from abroad as "foreign agents." Internationally, he has executed his own pivot toward Asia, huffily turning away from the West.
In all likelihood, decisive change in Russia will be a long, slow evolution that will not occur in 2013, or perhaps for years thereafter. Yet Russia is not the same as it once was. An urban elite and a well-informed middle class, which is freer and more prosperous than ever, are too aware of the regime's failings. A more assertive foreign policy appears to be part of Putin's answer to his domestic problems -- even when it works against Russia's own interests, as stubborn support for the regime in Syria does.
The most critical near-term decision will be whether the United States and Russia can find a way to cooperate on the missile defense systems each is planning to build. Missile defense cooperation is a game changer for the Russian relationship with the West and for the future of nuclear arms control -- for good if it happens, for ill if it does not.