Top 10 international stories that never made the front page in 2008

It’s time for the annual parade of top stories of the year to come marching through. In Colorado we had a doozy of a year, with a historic national election roosting right in our backyard, not to mention a huge ballot and further Democratic gains in what was, just a few short years ago, a decidedly red state. But what of the rest of the world?

This month Foreign Policy magazine identified the top 10 international stories that you probably missed this year. That’s right, despite their importance, they got buried under an avalanche of other coverage. Here’s a synopsis of their year in review:

1. The Surge in Afghanistan Starts Early

Along with reducing troop levels in Iraq, President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to dramatically increase the U.S. presence in Afghanistan with a strategy similar to the “surge” that proved so effective in reducing violence in Iraq. Although the wisdom of such an approach will surely be hotly debated in the coming months, the truth is that the Afghanistan surge has, to a certain extent, already begun. In the first half of 2008, the Bush administration boosted U.S. forces in Afghanistan by more than 21,000, or nearly 85 percent, with significant increases in the presence of Air Force and Marine personnel. Even reluctant NATO members have pledged to kick in a few thousand troops.

2. Colombian Coca Production Increases

Coca is a serious destabilizer—keeping Colombia’s rebels armed and the country’s progress in check. But after almost a decade, U.S.-assisted efforts to reduce the crop’s production in Colombia haven’t just failed; they’ve been downright counterproductive. Plan Colombia was meant to improve security, stamp out drug cultivation, and improve law and order after a decades-long conflict with leftist militants. But coca cultivation rose 15 percent between 2000 and 2006, an October 2008 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found. A separate U.N. study found that in 2007 alone, the area of land hosting coca crops rose 27 percent. To put it mildly, something is not working.

3. The Next Darfur Heats Up

The conflict in Darfur still may not be getting the attention it deserves, but another crisis in Sudan threatens to become the country’s newest humanitarian catastrophe. The flash point is Southern Kordofan, a state created in 2005 to encompass the Nuba Mountains, just north of the autonomous southern zone. Central government forces, South Sudanese forces and local groups are all arming and recruiting troops with the hope of securing victory in the upcoming local elections. As the Small Arms Survey, a research organization, documented in August, “[D]iscontent … is turning to anger, and many now view war in the Nuba Mountains as inevitable.”

4. United States Helps India Build a Missile Shield

The controversy over U.S. missile defense these days tends to focus on Russia’s increasingly strident objections to proposed U.S. installations in Eastern Europe. But a more volatile situation might be brewing farther east. On Feb. 27, 2008, after two days of meetings in New Delhi, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates quietly announced negotiations between the United States and India to develop a missile defense program on Indian soil. Although still in its early stages, a missile shield on the subcontinent could have long-term implications for U.S.-China relations and regional stability.

5. Russia Makes Play for Africa

China’s recent adventures in Africa have been well-publicized, as have the West’s attempts to keep up. Now add one more player to the mix: Russia is moving into Africa in a big way, snatching up gas and oil deals with an eye on winning even greater leverage over the global energy market.

6.Greenhouse Gas Comes From Solar Panels

Think switching to solar energy will make you green? Think again. Many of the newest solar panels are manufactured with a gas that is 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide at contributing to global warming.

7. Shanghai Steel Fails Basic Safety Tests

Shanghai’s futuristic skyline—the city has more than 900 high-rises, with hundreds more under construction—is one of the most potent symbols of China’s economic rise. But the materials undergirding all that growth might be shakier than anyone can imagine. In March, the English-language Shanghai Daily reported that fully half of the steel sold to construction companies in Shanghai’s wholesale markets failed basic quality tests. Nearly a quarter of the tested samples failed tension tests, meaning structures built with them would not be able to withstand earthquakes and would be more likely to decay over time.

8. Aid to Georgia Finances Luxury Hotel in Tbilisi

In September, the United States pledged $1 billion in aid to Georgia to help the country recover from its August war with Russia. The money was intended to “help Georgia sustain itself,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. With several Georgian towns badly damaged by Russian bombing and 20,000 refugees from South Ossetia still unable to return home, there were seemingly many worthy causes for all that cash. So why was $176 million of the aid money earmarked for loans to businesses—including $30 million to a real estate developer for a luxury hotel: the 127,000-square-meter Park Hyatt in downtown Tbilisi, an area that was not at all damaged in the war? The 183-room, five-star hotel will include 70 luxury condominiums, a fine-dining restaurant, conference facilities, and a health spa with juice bar.

9. For First Time, U.S. Citizen Convicted of Torture Abroad

Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice has had the right to prosecute U.S. citizens on U.S. soil for crimes of torture committed abroad. But it wasn’t until a highly unusual case this year that the law saw its first conviction. Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., son of the former Liberian president, was convicted of torture, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm by a federal grand jury on Oct. 30. War crimes clearly run in the family. His father is currently on trial at The Hague.

10. American Company Sells ‘Sonic Blasters’ to China

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the United States took action by imposing a strict arms embargo on China. So how, exactly, was it legal for a U.S. company to sell China a powerful tool to incapacitate and injure protesters in advance of the Olympic Games in Beijing?