In addition to the plenary panel, the MCIS conference included two panel discussions, one on the Middle East and North Africa and the second on Afghanistan.
The panel entitled “Finding Ways of Stabilization in the Middle East and North Africa” was moderated by Vitaly Naumkin of the Institute of Oriental Studies. Participants included Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, General Vladimir Zarudnitsky — the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, Deputy Syrian General Staff Chief Mahmoud Abdul Wahab Shawa. Deputy Director of the Israeli Institute for National Security Udi Dekel, Director of the Iranian Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies Kayhan Barzegar, Chief of Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence of the Lebanese Army Fadel Edmond, and CIS Executive Secretary Sergey Burutin.
Since I am not a MENA specialist, I was primarily interested in how the region influenced Russian foreign policy. The only speech directly relevant to this topic was by Vladimir Zarudnitsky. The Russian language text of his remarks is also available. Like the plenary speakers, Zarudnitsky focused on the military aspects of colored revolutions. He argued that while the West considers colored revolutions to be a peaceful way of overthrowing undemocratic regimes, events in the Middle East and North Africa have shown that military force is an integral part of all aspects of colored revolutions. This includes external pressure on the regime in question to prevent the use of force to restore order, the provision of military and economic assistance to rebel forces, and if these measures are not sufficient, the conduct of a military operation to defeat government forces and allow the rebels to take power. Colored revolutions are thus a new technique of aggression pioneered by the United States and geared toward destroying a state from within by dividing its population. The advantage of this technique is that it requires a relatively low expenditure of resources to achieve its goals.
Zarudnitsky argues that since this type of warfare is based on the network principle, it has no front line. It is used primarily in urban areas, frequently using civilians as shields. Commonly accepted rules of warfare are ignored, since official state-run armed forces are not used. Instead, criminal and terrorist forces and private military companies are allowed to act with impunity. Counter-guerrilla warfare tactics are required to defeat this type of warfare.
The key question for military planners is which state will be targeted next. Weak states with poor economies are generally the most vulnerable to these tactics, but the main factor in determining targets is the geopolitical interest of the provoking state. For this reason, such revolutions are organized primarily in countries with significant natural resources or ones that have an important strategic position and conduct an independent foreign policy. The destabilization of such countries allows for a major shift in the balance of power in a particular region (in the case of the Arab Spring — the Middle East and North Africa).
The final panel covered the situation in Afghanistan and its impact on regional security. It was moderated by Deputy Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. Speakers included GRU Chief Igor Sergun, Special Representative of the Russian President for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, First Deputy Kyrgyz Defense Minister Zamir Suerkylov, Deputy SCO Secretary General Keneshbek Dushbaev, President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute Sohail Amin, and Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis Senior Fellow Phunchok Stobdan.
Zamir Kabulov described the security situation in Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban is active in all parts of the country and has parallel organs of power. Most Afghans are opposed to the Taliban but fear and insecurity make it difficult for people to express their opposition. He also mentioned that there are more than one kind of Taliban fighters, including nationalists fighting against foreign occupation, local religious activists, and global jihadis of the younger generation.
Igor Sergun‘s speech was made available on the conference website. He noted that the Taliban views the withdrawal of ISAF forces as a success. They expect victory, so see no reason to bother with negotiations at this point. He discussed the three most likely scenarios for future developments in Afghanistan, including some fairly ridiculously exact percentage likelihoods for each scenario:
- Balance of political forces within the country remains relatively unchanged, supported by a limited Western presence. Afghanistan remains a source of terrorist, extremist, and drug threats for Central Asia. Likelihood 39 percent.
- Taliban seizes power in the absence of a foreign presence. Islamists could begin infiltrating Central Asian states. Likelihood 27 percent.
- Afghanistan disintegrates and is divided into ethnic enclaves. This scenario leads to an increase in battle for influence by local and regional powers. Likelihood 31 percent.
In the second part of this speech, Sergun discussed the logistics of the ongoing withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan. Given the amount of equipment present in the region, his analysis showed that Western states would not be able to withdraw their equipment in the allotted time frame. He argued that while the 40,000 personnel could be withdrawn by the end of 2014, it would be impossible to complete the withdrawal of 40,000 vehicles and 300 helicopters any earlier than 2017. As a result, he claimed that Washington will soon need to start a propaganda campaign to convince the international community that U.S. presence in the region will need to be extended at least through 2024 in order to ensure regional stability. However, this will not change the threat posed by the Taliban to Central Asian states.
(A small editorial comment on this score. While I claim no expertise in logistics and have no idea whether the GRU analysis is valid or not, it does seem clear that it ignores the fact that a large part of US equipment in Afghanistan is being scrapped on site, rather than removed. That seems likely to change the calculations of how much equipment can be removed by what date.)
And, to conclude, a few key points from other speakers and from the Q&A.
Sokhail Amin‘s key points
- The drawdown in Afghanistan is well-planned and being done gradually
- If it is done right, Afghanistan will be stable for the future
- The process of reconciliation in the country must be led by Afghans
Phunchok Stobdan‘s key points
- It would be best to have power-sharing between the leading candidates for president of Afghanistan
- The West is preparing for future activity in Central Asia
- Sectarian conflict is spreading from the Middle East to Afghanistan, in part through the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia
- There are training camps in Central Asia, Chechnya, and Pakistan’s FATA region that have been negatively affecting Afghanistan’s security
Key points from Q&A
- A journalist asked about the fate of the joint NATO/Russia helicopter project for Afghanistan’s military. The cancellation of this project was described as a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (Actually, the project was not canceled, the U.S. just chose to not pick up the option on additional orders — DPG) Stopping other NATO/Russia cooperation, such as counter-narcotics work and training in demining, is also not helpful.
- It seems that NATO is removing itself from responsibility for Afghanistan, handing it over to the international community.
- Alexei Arbatov noted that the U.S. operation in Afghanistan was the greatest blow against the success of the operation to stabilize Afghanistan. It gave comfort the the Taliban. Now, the Taliban is trying to maximize civilian casualties to increase discontent and fear. They have lots of financing and can stay in the field indefinitely. He argued that if they win in Afghanistan, the Taliban will definitely try to destabilize Central Asia.
- Yevegeny Kozhokhin argued the the Taliban threat to Central Asia is overstated. When the Taliban previously controlled Afghanistan, they showed no intention to attack Central Asia and instead sought talks with Russia.