The year 2015 was marked by violence and war. The most prevalent story in the U.S. media throughout the year was ISIS. The Paris attacks, mass shootings, police brutality, terrorism, the Charleston massacre and the refugee crisis were also among the top 10 stories of the year.
The U.S., as the world’s leading military power, played an important role in much of this violence and war. In some cases, the U.S. directly participated in armed conflicts. In others, it played a supportive role, providing weapons and other forms of aid to warring parties. Although it has just 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. sells more than half of the world’s weapons.
The numerous wars throughout the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa can seem complicated, because of the variety of different forces involved. The following is a guide to 10 of the major armed conflicts in which the U.S. was involved in 2015.
U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (Credit: Reuters/Parwiz Parwiz) Reuters/Parwiz Parwiz
President Obama promised countless times he would end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. He was reelected on the promise — which he subsequently broke, twice, instead further entrenching the U.S. military occupation of the South Asian country.
Al-Qaida, which was isolated and weak when the U.S. war in Afghanistan began, has since grown exponentially, expanding into almost every country in the Middle East. Extremist Islamist groups like the Taliban have also regained strength and legitimacy under the U.S. military occupation, and ISIS has entered Afghanistan.
Washington’s story behind the attack changed numerous times and was full of contradictions. Despite numerous calls by Doctors Without Borders and the U.N. for an independent investigation, the U.S. refused to allow one.
Doctors Without Borders subsequently withdrew from Kunduz, leaving the entire region of northeastern Afghanistan without a large-scale hospital. The region has been taken over by the Taliban.
Iraqi soldiers fighting ISIS in northern Ramadi (Credit: AP) AP
Throughout 2015, the U.S. led a coalition of countries that are carrying out airstrikes on the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
A French journalist formerly held captive by ISIS has claimed that the U.S.-led bombing campaign is “pushing people into the hands of ISIS,” rather than weakening it. “Strikes on ISIS are a trap,” he warned. “We are just fueling our enemies and fueling the misery, the disaster, for the local people.”
The U.S. government invaded Iraq in 2003, relying on allegations that dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — which officials later admitted was false. The U.N. asserted in no uncertain terms that the U.S. invasion was “illegal.”
Although the Bush administration falsely claimed Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda, the extremist group was not present in Iraq when the U.S. invaded. It was in fact that the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that led the once small yet now enormous al-Qaeda to spill into the country, and subsequently spread throughout the Middle East.
The U.S. support for brutal militias like the Wolf Brigades and a sectarian Shia-majority government further alienated the Sunni minority, radicalizing civilians and creating more sympathy for extremist groups.
At least 1 million people were killed in the U.S. war in Iraq, according to the aforementioned Physicians for Social Responsibility study. The report also notes that “this is only a conservative estimate.”
The U.S. military illegally occupied Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The Obama administration officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011. In 2014, however, with the rise of ISIS, the U.S. once again militarily intervened.
Today, vast swaths of Iraq are controlled by ISIS, one of the most heinous and violent groups to emerge since World War II.
The Kurds have also fought a war of independence in Iraq and northern Syria. Kurdish fighters, who are leftist, secular, and feminist, have relied to an extent on U.S.-led airstrikes, and have successfully liberated territory from ISIS.
Destruction in Syria (Credit: Reuters/Bassam Khabieh) Reuters/Bassam Khabieh
Civil war erupted in Syria in 2011. The armed conflict, which is still ongoing, and is now approaching its fifth year, has been nothing short of catastrophic.
4.4 million Syrian refugees are registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of the population of Syria has been displaced in the ongoing war.
More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, and entire cities have been reduced to rubble, from constant government bombing and rebel fighting.
The Obama administration has called for the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and has armed and trained anti-Assad rebels, yet reporting by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh shows that the Department of Defense has in fact simultaneously supported the Assad government — suggesting the U.S. government has continued a policy of backing both sides, similar to that it pursued in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Although the U.S. has supported a wide variety of armed rebel groups, it did not directly militarily intervene until the rise of ISIS, late in 2014.
U.S. allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, have also supported extremist Islamist groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra.
Dozens of countries have fueled the Syrian civil war, along with non-state militant groups like Hezbollah. More than 30 countries are involved in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, including the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the U.K., Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, France, Canada, Australia, Morocco, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and more.
Hundreds of civilians have also been killed in the U.S. and Russian bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Rubble after Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen (Credit: Reuters/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)Reuters/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
Since March, the U.S. has backed a Saudi-led coalition of Middle Eastern countries in their war on Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East.
Thousands of Yemenis have been killed in the war, including hundreds of children. Tens of thousands have been injured. An average of 25 Yemenis were killed every day throughout the nine-month war.
The Western-backed coalition seeks to reinstate President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. It is fighting Houthi rebels, who have received some weapons and support from Iran — although the extent to which it has is disputed — and fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi claims the Houthi rebels are puppets of Iran; the rebels characterize Hadi as a puppet of Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
Approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths and property destruction have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition, according to the U.N. Amnesty International has also reported that “more civilians have died as a result of coalition airstrikes than from any other cause during the conflict in Yemen.”
Leading human rights organizations have accused the U.S.-backed coalition ofcommitting war crimes. Rights groups have called on the U.S. to stop providing the coalition with the weapons — including widely banned cluster munitions — they are using to carry out these atrocities.
The UAE and Qatar have also essentially invaded the country.
Rights groups warned in August that 80 percent of Yemen’s population —21 million people — desperately needed humanitarian aid. The U.N. warned in November that the “health and education systems in the country are on the brink of collapse.”
For years before the war broke out, the U.S. was carrying out a secret drone war in Yemen, which killed a large number of civilians, terrorizing and radicalizing the population. Scholars, intelligence officials, and journalists have argued that the drone war has only exacerbated extremism, and the U.N. says the U.S. killed more civilians with its drone strikes in Yemen than al-Qaeda.
The coalition-backed President Hadi approved and praised the U.S. drone war in his country.
Soldiers walk in Poraskoveyevka, eastern Ukraine (Credit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits) AP
More than 9,000 people have been killed in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, according to the U.N. At least 20,000 more have been injured.
In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, which was internationally recognized to be Ukrainian territory. Crimea has a Russian-majority population that voted in supportof the annexation.
War subsequently broke out in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists fought pro-Russian separatists throughout 2015.
The U.S. supports the Ukrainian fighters, some of which are neo-fascists, aligned with far-right ultra-nationalist parties like Svoboda and the Right Sector.
Ukraine and NATO characterize the war as the product of Russian aggression and illegal annexation of Crimea. Russia says it is responding to NATO encroachment. NATO originally said it would not expand eastward, but broke its promise.
Rubble and destruction in Gaza after Israel bombed the strip in its summer 2014 war (Credit: AP/Adel Hana) AP/Adel Hana
An uprising in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel broke out in October 2015. More than 100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers from October to the beginning of December. Nineteen Israelis were killed in the same time period.
The Palestinian uprising has been widely characterized as the “Third Intifada,” or the “al-Aqsa Intifada,” referring to the Jerusalem mosque around which much of the tension has flared. Some far-right Israeli groups and religious extremists want todestroy al-Aqsa, which is the third-holiest site of Islam and is also an important Jewish site, known as the Temple Mount, and reserve it solely for Jews.
Yet the conflict is not religious at its core. Many Palestinians are protesting the continued Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the Israeli siege on Gaza.
Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since 1967, in contravention of international law and scores of U.N. resolutions. In 2005, Israel partially withdrew from Gaza, but subsequently imposed a blockade on the strip that the U.N. has declared illegal. Today, international legal institutions have ruled that Israel still maintains “effective control” over Gaza, controlling its waters, airfield, electromagnetic field, and population registry.
The U.S. has steadfastly backed Israel throughout these past five decades. The U.S. considers Israel one of its most important allies, and has given the country more than $100 billion in military aid since 1967.
Washington continues to give more than $3 billion in military to Israel every year, and the Obama administration has considered increasing this.
Rubble after a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan (Credit: Reuters/Haji Mujtaba) Reuters/Haji Mujtaba
The U.S. has waged a drone war in Pakistan for more than a decade. From 2004 to 2015, the U.S. drone war killed up to 4,000 people in Pakistan, one-fourth of whom could have been civilians, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The exact number of civilians killed in this war is unknown. According to the U.S. military, a “militant” is defined as a male of military age. This ambiguous definition makes it difficult to determine how many civilians are killed.
Secret government documents leaked to The Intercept by a whistleblower in 2015 show that 90 percent of people killed in U.S. drone strikes in a five-month period in provinces on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan were not the intended targets.
As a neighbor, Pakistan also plays an important role in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has maintained a relationship with the Pakistani government, ostensibly to fight extremist groups like the Taliban. At the same time, however, U.S. officials have admitted that Islamist extremist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan receive funding from allied countries like Saudi Arabia.
In 2015, the U.S. continued its drone war in Pakistan, as well as in Yemen and Somalia.
Armed Mexicans in a self-defense council against drug gangs (Credit: AP/Eduardo Verdugo)AP
ISIS’ use of beheading as a military tactic has attracted a lot of media attention, but drug gangs and far-right paramilitaries in Central America have used such tactics for years. Some scholars have even gone so far as to claim that Central American drug gangs and far-right paramilitaries are worse than ISIS.
The drug war in Mexico in particular reached a new height in 2015. The U.S. has long worked with the notoriously corrupt Mexican government to fight drug gangs. In the process, not only have civilians been killed; the Mexican government has itself committed atrocities.
43 student activists from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were kidnapped in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico in September 2014. The government claimed the students were kidnapped by a drug gang, but many media reports have found government connections to the presumed mass killing.
Amnesty International blasted Mexican authorities in September 2015 for “a scandalous cover-up orchestrated by the highest levels of government.” The leading human rights organization called Ayotzinapa kidnappings “one of the worst human rights tragedies in Mexico’s recent history,” and said President Peña Nieto “will continue to be seen around the world as an enabler of horrors.”
A street of debris and abandoned houses in Benghazi, Libya (Credit: AP/Mohamed Salama)AP
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped push for the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, which overthrow dictator Muammar Qadhafi and destroyed the government, leaving a power vacuum that is yet to be filled.
Amid the chaos, ISIS has expanded into Libya.
Throughout 2015, a variety of militant groups fought for control of the country. The internationally recognized government in the east is fighting ISIS affiliates in the north, along with more moderate Muslim Brotherhood-aligned rebels in the northwest, and tribal militias in the southwest.
The project Libya Body Count, which derives figures from compiling media reports, documented more than 4,300 deaths in 2015 and 2014.
Although the war officially ended in 2011, the U.S. has backed the Libyan government in the east.
Clinton was grilled by Republicans in 2015 for her role in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but what was ignored was that downtown Benghazi is in ruins, and swaths of the city are under the control of Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist Salafi Islamist militia that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Ben Norton is a politics staff writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at@BenjaminNorton.