Post-Cold War Conflicts Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

One of the most unexpected developments of the last years of the twentieth century and first years of the twenty-first century has been the failure of the ending of the Cold War to bring peace and stability to the world order. Although there has been a dramatic lessening of tensions between the United States and its former Cold War rivals, new and unexpected conflicts and tensions have arisen to take their place, and many of these have drawn U.S. forces into combat. Moreover, by the year 2005, a majority of Americans believed that the world was an even more dangerous place than it had been during the days of the Cold War. Between 1991 and 2005, U.S. military forces were directly involved in lethal conflicts in three different regions: the Middle East, Northeast Africa, and the Balkans. Several of these conflicts developed into full-scale wars.

One of the most unexpected developments of the last years of the twentieth century and first years of the twenty-first century has been the failure of the ending of the Cold War to bring peace and stability to the world order. Although there has been a dramatic lessening of tensions between the United States and its former Cold War rivals, new and unexpected conflicts and tensions have arisen to take their place, and many of these have drawn U.S. forces into combat. Moreover, by the year 2005, a majority of Americans believed that the world was an even more dangerous place than it had been during the days of the Cold War. Between 1991 and 2005, U.S. military forces were directly involved in lethal conflicts in three different regions: the Middle East, Northeast Africa, and the Balkans. Several of these conflicts developed into full-scale wars.

Northeast Africa and the Middle East

The Middle East was a center of conflicts throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but much of the region’s tension and actual armed conflict arose from the animosity between the Jewish state of Israel, which was founded in 1948, and the predominantly Muslim nations that surround it. The United States generally supported Israel through those years but was never directly involved in any of Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbors. What finally drew the United States into major armed conflict in the region was only tangentially related to the Arab-Israeli struggle.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, unequivocal U.S. diplomatic support for its long-time ally Israel came to an end. U.S. diplomats began to bring pressure to bear on the Israelis to make concessions to the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern states to achieve a lasting peace in the region. In 1991 war again interrupted the peace process. The Gulf War–or Persian Gulf War as it is also known–resulted from Iraq’s invasion of the tiny oil-rich nation of Kuwait, which Iraq claimed as a lost province.

T<sc>ime</sc> L<sc>ine of</sc> P<sc>ost</sc>-C<sc>old</sc> W<sc>ar</sc> C<sc>onflicts</sc>June, 1961Kuwait becomes independent; Iraq begins challenging the new nation’s sovereignty.May, 1988Somali civil war begins.Aug. 2, 1990Iraq occupies Kuwait; United Nations Security Council orders Iraq to pull out.Nov. 29, 1990U.N. Security Council gives Iraq January 15, 1991, deadline to withdraw from Iraq.Jan. 16, 1991United States launches air strikes on Iraq, while leading international coalition in what becomes known as the Gulf War (or Persian Gulf War).February 23, 1991Coalition land offensive vs. Iraq begins.Feb. 28, 1991Iraq capitulates and withdraws from Kuwait, but Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein stays in power.May 17, 1991Northern Somalis declare independent Republic of Somaliland.Oct., 1991The Yugoslavian republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina declare their independence.Jan. 15, 1992Yugoslavian federation dissolves into constituent parts.Feb., 1992Cease-fire is declared in Somali civil war but soon breaks down; national famine worsens.Mar., 1992Civil war begins in Bosnia-Herzegovina.August 11, 1992U.N. human rights inspector reports that Hussein is killing his own people.August 27, 1992To counter Hussein’s attacks on Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq, United States, Great Britain, and France establish “no fly” zone for Iraqi aircraft below the 32d parallel.Dec. 9, 1992-Mar. 31, 1994U.S. troops occupy Somalia.Feb. 26, 1993Terrorist bombing damages lower level of one of the towers of New York City’s World Trade Center.Apr. 10, 1994U.S. troops intervene in Bosnian civil war.Dec. 14, 1995U.S. troops are major part of NATO contingent that enter Bosnia to enforce peace agreement.Aug. 7, 1998Terrorist bombs explode at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 250 people–mostly African nationals.Aug. 20, 1998United States launches missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan in retaliation for terrorist bombings.October 31, 1998Iraq suspends all cooperation with the U.N. weapons inspectors.Dec. 16, 1998United States and Britain bomb five Iraq radar sites.Oct. 12, 2000Suicide terrorist attack on USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen.Sept. 11, 2001“9/11" terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; U.S. Congress responds by passing the Patriot Act to give president greater power to combat terrorism.Oct. 7, 2001United States launches invasion of Afghanistan after Taliban regime refuses to comply with U.S. request to turn over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. President George W. Bush declares ”war on terrorism."Jan., 2002In his state of the union address, President Bush alludes to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as “an axis of evil.”Oct., 2002Al-Qaeda bombs resort complex in Indonesia.Oct. 10–11, 2002U.S. Congress empowers President Bush to invade Iraq if latter fails to dismantle its alleged weapons programs.Nov., 2002United Nations approves a resolution calling upon Iraq to disarm.Jan., 2003In his state of the union address, President Bush claims that Iraq is attempting to acquire uranium in order to build nuclear weapons. U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell presents evidence to the U.N. Security Council that Iraq is building “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).Mar. 15–16, 2003President Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair hold emergency meeting and issue ultimatum to Iraq to disarm.Mar. 19, 2003United States leads a new coalition in a new invasion of Iraq, in what becomes known as the Iraq War, after Hussein fails to meet U.S.-British ultimatum.May 1, 2003President Bush proclaims that the Iraq War is won.December 13, 2003Saddam Hussein is captured.Mar., 2004Al-Qaeda bombs commuter train in Madrid, Spain.May, 2004U.S. soldiers’ torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners is made public.June 1, 2004Iraq’s Interim Governing Council names Iyad Allawi prime minister.Sept., 2004U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan calls the war in Iraq “illegal” under the U.N. Charter.Sept. 8, 2004One thousandth American service person is killed in Iraq.Jan. 30, 20058.4 million Iraqis defy insurgent violence by voting in election for transitional national assembly; Shi’ite candidates win 48 percent of votes; Kurdish candidates place second. Afterward, civilian and military death tolls rise as assassinations and bombings continue.Mar., 2005U.S. military death total passes 1,500.Dec., 2005Scheduled date for national election on new constitution.

Encouraged by mixed signals from U.S. diplomats, Iraqi armed forces under Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait, a region Hussein considered to be legally part of Iraq. U.S. trading partners in Europe and Asia received much of their oil from Kuwait. Consequently, U.S. president George Bush secured a United Nations (U.N.) condemnation of Iraqi actions and a Security Council resolution calling for the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait by force of arms. A military force made up overwhelmingly of American troops landed in Kuwait, while American aircraft bombed Iraqi military targets and cities.

During the brief conflict, the Iraqis launched guided missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and Israel. The American-led U.N. forces quickly overwhelmed the Iraqis and drove them out of Kuwait, forcing Hussein to capitulate. U.S. military forces remained stationed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait into the next century, to guard against renewed Iraqi attempts to incorporate Kuwait into Iraq. Allied forces continued to monitor Iraq through the 1990’s and renewed bombing attacks on Iraqi bases in 1998, but Iraq eventually renounced its claims to Kuwait, and the situation seemed to stabilized. In the early twenty-first century, new–and possibly unrelated–developments would turn U.S. attention back to Iraq. Meanwhile, other disturbing events were commanding American attention and placing new demands on U.S. military forces.

In December, 1992, the United States sent troops into the Northeast African nation of Somalia to help bring order to a country whose central government had literally collapsed. The United Nations-authorized humanitarian mission was doomed from the start, and U.S. troops spent more than one year fighting a no-win war against feuding warlords. Eventually, both U.S. and U.N. forces were withdrawn, after accomplishing almost nothing and leaving Americans skeptical about intervening in the internal conflicts of developing nations.

Bosnia

The end of the Cold War was brought about by the collapse of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. In Eastern Europe, this development led to the democratization and increased prosperity of such nations as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia–all of which later joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). By contrast, the transformation brought mostly chaos to the Balkans. The death in 1980 of Yugoslavia’s communist dictator, Tito, revealed the tenuousness of the fabric holding together the diverse and mutually antagonistic ethnic and religious groups that Tito’s federation had held together for more than three decades. These tensions were aggravated by the general collapse of communist regimes elsewhere in Europe, and Yugoslavia itself began breaking up in October, 1991, when the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina declared their independence.

In March, 1992, a bitter civil war began in Bosnia between Christian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. Two years later, U.S. troops entered Bosnia, under U.N. auspices, to help restore peace. As was the case in Somalia, U.S. forces could do little to improve the apparently intractable situation, even after more troops entered Bosnia at the end of 1995, under the auspices of NATO. The whole experience merely exasperated Americans and renewed their suspicions that the end of the Cold War was not bringing the stability to world order that they had expected.

World Terrorism

Less than three months after U.S. forces entered Somalia, world terrorism made its presence felt on American shores, when agents of al-Qaeda bombed the lower level of one of New York’s World Trade Center towers. The bombing attack did comparatively minor damage to the gigantic structure but made Americans uneasy about the vulnerability of their open society to terrorism. The attacks that came eight years later would replace uneasiness with something akin to widespread panic.

In August, 1998, the United States again became the target of al-Qaeda attacks, but this time on foreign shores, when the U.S. embassies in the capital cities of East Africa’s Kenya and Tanzania were both bombed. The United States responded quickly by launching missile strikes against suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan and the Sudan. Yet another terrorist attack against the United States occurred in October, 2000, when suicide bombers managed to cripple the U.S. destroyer Cole while the ship was in the Yemen port of Aden, across the inlet to the Red Sea from Somalia.

Finally, on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States mounted by radical Islamic fundamentalists based in the Middle East brought the most serious armed conflict to the U.S. mainland since the U.S. Civil War. Indeed, when the terrorists flew hijacked American airliners into the Pentagon Building and the towers of New York City’s World Trade Center on September 11, more Americans died than had perished during Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Thereafter, September 11–or “9/11”–became a patriotic rallying cry for Americans feeling threatened by little-understood enemies from abroad. It would be difficult to overstate the feeling of alarm that the attacks created throughout the United States.

Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (left) and his oldest son, Uday, shortly before the beginning of the Gulf War. In official portraits, Hussein often posed in military uniforms. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Under the leadership of President George W. Bush, the nation quickly retaliated by launching an invasion of Afghanistan–the nation in which the terrorists were based, and calls for a general “war on terrorism” arose. Much of the alarm was focused on the Middle East, including Iraq. Although no credible evidence has been brought forth to establish a link between the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration fostered the notion that Iraq shared some of the blame and posed a threat to world peace. This notion was reinforced by unresolved questions about the Iraqi regime’s building of weapons of mass destruction, and the United States led another invasion of Iraq in early 2003. However, despite the use of overwhelming force that quickly defeated Iraqi’s formal military units, the United States and its allies failed to gain complete control of the country even after nearly two years of occupation.

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