2006 News of the World
Sudan's Ongoing Massacre
In 2006, the three-year-old conflict in Darfur escalated, with the Janjaweed—the pro-government Arabic militias—slaughtering black villagers and rebel groups with impunity. More than 200,000 have been killed in Darfur and 2.5 million have become refugees. In May 2006, a peace deal was signed between the Sudanese government and the main Darfur rebel group, but when two smaller rebel groups refused to sign, the deal collapsed and Sudan intensified its attacks against rebels and civilians. Referring to the Darfur massacres as “fictions,” President Omar al-Bashir has remained defiantly indifferent to the international community's condemnations. He has the backing of two Security Council members, China and Russia—both have lucrative oil deals with Sudan—and these powerful allies have balked at the UN imposing sanctions on Sudan. The 7,000 African Union (AU) peacekeepers deployed to Darfur have proved too small and ill-equipped a force to prevent much of the killing. In September, the UN Security Council voted to replace the AU peacekeepers with 20,000 UN troops, but the resolution required the consent of the Sudanese government, which President al-Bashir categorically refused. He eventually agreed to an extension of the meager AU force until the end of the year, but rejected a hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping force. In the meantime, the killing continued.
Middle East Conflict Intensifies
Prospects for peace and stability in the Middle East dimmed significantly in 2006. Gaza, which in Aug. 2005 had celebrated Israel's military withdrawal, found itself on the brink of economic collapse and the target of an invasion. Lebanon, fresh from its “cedar revolution” and the ousting of the Syrian army in 2005, emerged from a month-long war with Israel in Aug. 2006 with its fragile government further weakened. Israel, enjoying relative peace with its neighbors and contemplating a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank after its successful Gaza pullout, waged war on two fronts over the course of the summer.
Gaza. Democratic Palestinian elections on Jan. 25 resulted in an unexpected landslide victory for Hamas over the ruling Fatah Party. Most assessments indicate that Palestinians, weary of Fatah's mismanagement and widespread corruption, chose Hamas because it promised domestic reform rather than for its militant policies toward Israel. Although Hamas had been engaged in a cease-fire with Israel for more than a year, it continued to call for Israel's destruction and refused to renounce violence. As a result, Western donor countries cut off hundreds of millions in direct aid to the Hamas government, leaving Hamas unable to pay the salaries of its 165,000 government employees since March. Although international relief agencies continued to distribute food and medical care, by summer Gaza faced a desperate economic and humanitarian crisis. In June, after Hamas militants killed two Israeli soldiers and kidnapped another, Israel launched air strikes, destroying Gaza's only power plant as well as other infrastructure. Israel then sent in ground troops and arrested about 40 of Hamas's elected officials, whom it held responsible for the soldier's kidnapping. Fighting continued over the summer, with Hamas firing rockets into Israel, and Israeli troops killing about 240 Palestinians. Hamas's support has dropped significantly amid Gaza's growing chaos and deepening poverty. Gaza's international isolation continued into the fall, with the West maintaining its aid boycott in response to Hamas's ongoing refusal to recognize Israel and give up violence.
In December, after months of fruitless attempts to form unity government, Hamas and Farah turned on each other. Street fights and shootings broke out between the various factions in Gaza for more than a week until a cease-fire was called by President Mahmoud Abbas (Fatah) and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya (Hamas).
Lebanon. In early July, Israel became involved in war on a second front that soon overshadowed the fighting in Gaza. Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon entered Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12. In response, Israel launched a major military attack. Hezbollah, led by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, retaliated with hundreds of rockets and missile strikes. After a week of fighting, Israel made it clear that its offensive in Lebanon would continue until Hezbollah was routed. Although much of the international community demanded a cease-fire, with some condemning Israel for a disproportionate use of force, the United States supported Israel's plan to continue the fighting until Hezbollah was drained of its strength. Hezbollah was thought to have at least 12,000 rockets and missiles (most supplied by Iran and funneled through Syria), and proved a much more formidable foe than Israel had anticipated. A cease-fire was finally brokered by the UN on August 14, and a UN peacekeeping force was deployed as a buffer between the countries' borders. About 1,150 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 150 Israelis, the majority of them soldiers, died in the 34 days of fighting. The conflict exposed the weakness of the fragile new Lebanese government, which had next to no influence over Hezbollah during or after the fighting. Hezbollah, a pro-Syrian militant Shiite organization identified as a terrorist group by the U.S., has operated as a state-within-a-state in the south of Lebanon. It has pitted itself against the fragile government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a pro-Western, anti-Syrian Sunni.
In November, the political crisis in the country intensified after Pierre Gemayel, minister of industry and member of a well-known Maronite Christian political dynasty, was assassinated—the fifth anti-Syrian leader to be killed since the death of Rafik Hariri in Feb. 2005. Pro-government protestors blamed Syria and its Lebanese allies, and staged large demonstrations. These protests were then followed by even larger and more sustained demonstrations by Hezbollah supporters. Beginning Dec. 1, tens of thousands of demonstrators, led by the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, occupied the center of Beirut and called for the resignation of the pro-Western coalition government.
Israel. An Israeli opinion poll after the first two weeks of fighting in Lebanon revealed that 81% of Israelis supported the attack on Lebanon, and 58% called for the offensive to continue until Hezbollah was destroyed. But in the war's aftermath, Israelis strongly criticized their government for what many characterized as an aggressive but failed military campaign—Hezbollah remained unbowed, casualties were high, and the two kidnapped soldiers remained captives. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert > who had succeeded Ariel Sharon in 2006 after Sharon suffered a severe stroke—and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, leader of the Labor party, were among the targets of an investigation into the conduct of the war. The Gaza conflict and fallout from the Lebanon war led Olmert to shelve his plan, formulated earlier in the year, for unilaterally withdrawing from a significant portion of the West Bank.
Iran's Defiant Nuclear Program
In Jan. 2006, Iran removed UN seals on uranium enrichment equipment and in April announced it had successfully enriched uranium. Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has exulted in his refusal to curb Iran's nuclear program, which he views as a source of national pride. After international negotiations and threats failed—the EU in particular has painstakingly negotiated with Iran for several years—a UN Security Council resolution was passed in July, demanding that Iran halt its nuclear activities by the end of August or face possible sanctions. When Iran missed the deadline, it became unclear what the international community's next step would be—UN Security Council members Russia and China, both of whom have strong economic ties to Iran, have indicated they will reject sanctions.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban
The Taliban continued its resurgence in Afghanistan, making 2006 the deadliest year of fighting since the 2001 war. Throughout the spring, Taliban militants infiltrated southern Afghanistan, terrorizing villagers and attacking Afghan and U.S. troops. In May and June, Operation Mount Thrust was launched, deploying more than 10,000 Afghan and coalition forces to the south. In Aug. 2006, NATO troops took over military operations in southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition, which put a total of 21,000 American troops and 19,000 NATO troops on the ground. In September NATO launched the largest attack in its 57-year history. About 2,000—the vast majority Taliban fighters—were killed in military operations during the year.
After five years as Afghanistan's leader, President Hamid Karzai still has only marginal control over large swaths of his country, which is rife with warlords, militants, and drug smugglers. The Taliban now funds its insurgency through the drug trade, and in 2006 Afghanistan's opium harvest reached record levels, increasing by 50% and representing 92% of the world's opium supply.
The Afghan-Pakistani border, a remote and lawless tribal region where Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are suspected of hiding, has become a major haven for Islamic militants. Beginning in 2003, Pakistan has launched a major military offensive on its western border to combat al-Qaeda, and to a lesser extent, the Taliban, deploying 80,000 troops. But the region remains firmly under militant control, the civilian population has been alienated by the army's heavy-handed tactics, and the Pakistan army has suffered 800 deaths. In September, Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf signed a controversial peace agreement with seven militant groups, who call themselves the “Pakistan Taliban.” Pakistan's army has agreed to withdraw from the area and allow the Taliban to govern themselves, as long as they promise no incursions into Afghanistan or against Pakistani troops. Critics say the deal hands terrorists a secure base of operations; supporters counter that a military solution against the Taliban is futile and will only spawn more militants, contending that containment is the only practical policy.