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12 Dec 11. In military-geopolitical terms 2011 will be remembered most for the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the advent of the Arab Spring – events that have had continuing repercussions.

While the killing of Bin Laden by US Navy SEALs during a raid on 2 May clearly provided a moment of national catharsis for the people of the United States, it also publically exposed what the US military had accepted in private for a years: that the Pakistani military – in particular its Inter Services Intelligence agency – could not be trusted.

There was further embarrassment for Pakistan: firstly with the disclosure that Bin Laden had been living in a garrison town barely 50 km from Islamabad; and secondly with the unsignalled US raid having taken place on Pakistani soil with impunity.

Pakistani-US relations barely recovered during the rest of the year, with US politicians and military leaders increasingly prepared to speak openly of Pakistan’s duplicitous geopolitical game in allying with the West’s ‘War on Terror’ on the one hand while supporting insurgent proxies on the other. The Pakistani-US relationship ended the year on a sour note, with Pakistan closing its Afghan border to convoys supplying NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in retaliation for a 26 November coalition airstrike inside Pakistani territory that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers.

As fraught as Washington and ISAF’s relationship with Islamabad is, it remains a nettle that must be grasped, for after a decade of operations in Afghanistan there is a clear realisation within ISAF Joint Command that its mission cannot succeed without taking account of the ‘Pakistan factor’.

Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa region enters 2012 looking significantly different than it did a year ago. While Tunisia, Egypt and Libya strive to plot new futures in the wake of deposed regimes, what will happen in Syria is less clear. With his security forces’ brutal suppression of what were originally peaceful protests, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems confident that the region’s geography leaves him free to act with impunity. Such is the extent to which Syria lies at the nexus of the world’s most politically complex region, Assad has warned that any Western intervention in Syria would cause an “earthquake” that would “burn the whole of the Middle East”. While the lack of any Western appetite for intervention in Syria would seem to corroborate Assad’s threats of potential regional mayhem, developments in Syria are looking increasingly like the onset of full-blown civil war.

Looking back at Libya, and the extent to which NATO and allied forces ultimately facilitated the demise of Libyan despot Moammar Ghadaffi without having to put ‘boots on the ground’, it would seem that patience ultimately produced a new paradigm for international intervention from the air. Such circumstances are rare, however, and Russia is unlikely to again be hoodwinked into accepting a UN resolution that purports to defend innocent civilians while actually leaving enough ‘wiggle room’ to sweep away yet another historical Russian arms market.

While the Western nations that took part in the Libyan intervention were no doubt stretched by an operation that no one had foreseen, coming as it did during a period of significant defence cuts, there were certain advantages to be had from the part they played. For one thing, as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab JAS 39 Gripen pursue a shrinking number of significant fighter contracts, there is one stamp they can place on their respective sales brochures that does not apply to Libya’s Soviet-sourced air defence network: ‘Proven in combat.’

The 2011 JDW Annual Defence Report has been compiled by Jane’s editorial staff in London in conjunction with contributions from key JDW correspondents worldwide : Guy Anderson, Matthew Bell, Craig Caffrey, Gerrard Cowan, Nicholas de Larrinaga, Guy Eastman, Peter Felstead

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