Moscow Conference on International Security 2014, part 2: The panels

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 ZarudnitskyThe 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).

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. Taliban seizes power in the absence of a foreign presence. Islamists could begin infiltrating Central Asian states. Likelihood 27 percent.
  3. 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.

 

Does the US have vital security interests in Central Asia?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference in DC, presenting my work on military assistance to Central Asia. During the Q&A, all of the panelists were asked a question that roughly amounted to the following; If you had a minute with John Kerry, what would you tell him were the United States’ vital strategic interests in Central Asia? (I’m terrible at remembering what is said verbatim, so I’m probably getting the wording completely wrong, but that was the essence of the question.) As it happened, I went first. My response basically boiled down to stating that with the impending US departure from Afghanistan, the US had no vital security interests in the region. This turned out to be an unpopular position with the other panelists and with a few members of the audience (to the extent that it was mentioned — though not by name — at a different conference on Central Asia held the next day). So I thought it might be useful to write a short post here in an attempt to justify my position.

First of all, I should make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that Central Asia would not benefit from US assistance. The region on the whole is deeply misgoverned and suffers from a great deal of poverty and repression. I’m all for rectifying that. I am also not saying that the US should completely withdraw from the region. There are various reasons, both humanitarian and strategic, for the US to continue to be involved in Central Asia. However, the question I was asked was neither about how Central Asia might benefit from US involvement nor about whether or not the US should remain involved. It was about what factors would justify a significant expenditure of US government resources on continued involvement in the region.

And I would argue, that there are no such factors, once our troops are out of Afghanistan. The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.

There are other important strategic calculations for the US. Some would argue that it is important to counter Russian and Chinese expansion in the region. My response is that investing US resources in some kind of new Great Game in the region is both wrong-headed and impractical. Russia and China border on the region and have obvious economic and security interests there. On the practical side, the United States is far away. Its leaders have found the region difficult to get to and hard to understand. There’s just no way that it can compete with Russia and China in the region in any sustained way. But even if it could, I don’t think the zero-sum calculations inherent in the great game analogy are the right way to understand international affairs in general or developments in the region in particular. Rather than trying to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, it would make a lot more sense to work with them to promote security and development in Central Asia.

On the other side from the hard-nosed realists are folks who argue that US engagement in Central Asia is necessary in order to improve governance, human security and economic well-being for the people living in the region. I’m very much in favor of this happening, but I question whether the US government is the best positioned actor to carry out such activities. I’m all for engagement on the part of NGOs and international organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of Central Asians. But the track record of the US government in promoting good governance and economic development in Central Asia leaves a lot to be desired. Too often, development and democratization initiatives have been tied to other foreign policy considerations or have taken a back seat to the security needs of the moment. As a result, US initiatives in this area may not be fully trusted at the local level. And there is also the question of sustainability, given the current distaste in Washington for foreign assistance that is not explicitly tied to hard security considerations. For these reasons, it seems to me that development and governance, while important, are best left to other bodies. (Though of course US funding for such bodies and organizations would be inordinately helpful, and would likely be more useful than direct involvement.)

So that’s my reasoning. It’s not so much a call to isolationism, as a recognition that the US government can’t be simultaneously engaged in all parts of the world and that some types of assistance are best handled by non-governmental organizations. I expect that regardless of the wishes of scholars and experts on the region, the US will gradually disengage from the region over the next couple of years. I guess that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t necessarily view this policy change as a bad thing.

 

Great Powers vie for sway in Central Asia

Here’s an Oxford Analytica brief from early February on basing in Central Asia.

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As NATO and the United States prepare to withdraw the bulk of their military forces from Afghanistan in 2014, both regional powers and local actors in Central Asia are preparing for the aftermath. NATO countries have already negotiated short-term access to new and existing military bases in the region to facilitate the step-by-step withdrawal of their troops. At the same time, the United States and Russia are working out deals with local players to maintain their military presence in an effort to preserve regional security, as well as guarantee their long-term influence in Central Asia.

Impact

  • The Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan is becoming more entrenched due to the recent changes in the legal status of its facilities.
  • US influence in Central Asia will decline after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the region is not a US foreign policy priority.
  • Given its de facto economic dominance in Central Asia, China is cautious about stepping up its military involvement in regional affairs.

What next

The Western focus on Afghanistan will decline after the NATO operation is completed. The United States will seek to maintain a presence at the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, but the number of personnel there will depend primarily on the supply needs of the US troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014. Russia, on the other hand, will aim to solidify its position as the dominant regional security provider. Finally, China will continue to strengthen military ties with Central Asian states, though it will stop short of the potentially incendiary step of sending its forces to the region.

Analysis

Over the past few months, discussions of post-2014 military bases in Central Asia have resurfaced. Although Moscow and Washington remain the key contenders in their efforts to ensure continued military access to the region, several other countries involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan have sought to secure access to the bases as they are beginning to plan troop withdrawals. For example:

  • Germany wants to maintain its lease on the base in Termez, Uzbekistan; and
  • France recently signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to develop a military transit hub in Shymkent.

Both countries are almost certainly going to pull out of these bases once the withdrawal of their troops is complete. Russia and the United States, on the other hand, will likely stay for the longer term.

US-Russian Manas rivalry

The Manas transit centre in Kyrgyzstan served as the key link in the US effort to bring equipment and troops to Afghanistan. It is poised to play a similar role during the US withdrawal from the region. At the same time, there is a great deal of competition for access to Manas after 2014.

United States

Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev sees the base as a regional airport. The United States appears to support Atambayev’s plan and has already submitted a proposal to transform the facility into a civilian aviation hub. This may prove beneficial in future negotiations with Kyrgyzstan should Washington decide to retain some local military presence. The mid-January visit to Bishkek by the US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake was widely perceived as the first step toward bilateral discussions on the future of the Manas Transit Centre.

Russia

Moscow is also keen to provide assistance for Manas redevelopment as it seeks to ensure base access while, at the same time, hoping to prevent the United States from remaining in the country. A delegation of Russian state officials visited Bishkek in December 2012 for discussions about the possibility of establishing a joint Kyrgyzstani-Russian logistics centre at Manas.

Russia: Access to Kyrgyzstan facilities

In December 2012, Russia succeeded in convincing Kyrgyzstan’s government to allow it to consolidate into a unified military base its existing local facilities. These consist of:

  • a weapon test range in Karakol;
  • a signals centre in Kara-Balt;
  • a radio-seismic laboratory in Mayly-Suu; and
  • an airbase in Kant.

Until now, these facilities were governed by several agreements that made them more vulnerable to political pressure from the Kyrgyzstani side. To reduce the risk, Moscow had been looking to change their status for the last two years. The new agreement will last for at least 15 years.

The deal appears to have ended speculation that Russia was planning to build a second military base in southern Kyrgyzstan near Osh. Although Moscow was keen to build a base in that region for several years, the importance of this initiative diminished after the United States announced in the summer of 2010 that it will not proceed with its plans to establish a counter-terrorism training centre in the area.

Russia: Long-term presence in Tajikistan

In October 2012, Russia finalised with Tajikistan an arrangement to extend its lease on local military facilities for 30 years. Tajikistan agreed to forego significant rent payments in exchange for:

  • 200 million dollars toward the modernisation of its armed forces;
  • additional economic assistance, including Moscow’s help with the construction of hydroelectric power stations; and
  • fewer restrictions for Tajik migrant labourers in Russia.

Fuel supplies hurdles

Several obstacles have been delaying the ratification of the agreement in Tajikistan’s parliament. They include duty-free Russian fuel shipments. Moscow insisted on a clause that would prevent Dushanbe from re-exporting the fuel and, after initial reluctance, Tajikistan relented in late January 2013.

Migration issues

The two sides remain at odds over restrictions imposed on Tajik guest workers. The current migration agreement stipulates that Tajikistan nationals are allowed to stay in Russia for 15 days without registration and are eligible for a work permit of up to three years. Dushanbe is seeking to improve the terms of the agreement while, on its part, Moscow is requesting that Tajikistan control the flow of migrants by sending them through dedicated organisations. Migration law is a critical issue for Tajikistan; remittances from its migrant workers in Russia comprise almost half of the country’s GDP.

Despite delays in negotiations, both sides appear committed to completing the deal, which is likely to be ratified in Tajikistan’s parliament in the next 1-2 months.

China: Military reluctance

Although China has strengthened its military ties with Central Asian states through frequent multi-national exercises and occasional arms sales, it has not attempted to establish a permanent military presence in the region. The strategy is part of an effort to assuage the fears shared by Central Asian leaders of excessive Chinese dominance. It also addresses Russia’s concerns of being displaced by China as the security guarantor, having already been sidelined in the economic realm.