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Censorship or saving grace? Academic Scholarship and Intelligence Vetting

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A new article by The Moscow Times revealed a mixed reaction to supposed FSB ‘vetting’ of academic scholarship.

The Times, which has largely become a holding repository of intense criticism of the Russian government (and no, the irony of a media organization sharply critical of the government for infringing on media freedom has apparently not sunken in yet in Moscow), is clearly siding high on the indignation side of this issue: for the most part the article is a not-so-thinly veiled accusation of Russian intelligence services trying to basically return the country’s academic community to a Soviet-era intellectual censorship system. And while it is true there are examples of Russian academics unfortunately being subjected to investigation and even arrest, there are aspects to this story that are importantly irresponsible and propagandistic.

The past is no help to the Russian Federation in this case. Older generation academics indeed remember all too well a time when literally all academic scholarship had to be ‘approved’ by the KGB. The article that the Moscow Times took from the prestigious journal Nature highlighted how scientists today need to seek ‘permission’ from their home university’s First Department, an entity that supposedly exists in all Russian universities and is meant to be ‘closely associated’ with the FSB. It is at this point that even the Times article gets a bit confusing. Administration officials in the powerful Moscow State University admit that faculty meetings had taken place discussing the need to have original scholarship reviewed, but that this process has long been in place as a source for improving the standards of quality and citation rate and in no way is associated with the FSB. In addition, even at MSU, the vanguard of Russian academic institutions, the practice of First Department vetting seems to be selectively engaged, where certain departments are required to submit scholarship while other departments are not. It is not readily clear, to the Times, Nature, or the faculty of MSU, what decision-making process is involved to determine which departments receive scrutiny. And as one might expect in this situation, wherever there is confusion or ambiguity, there goes suspicion and dread. Given the history of Soviet censorship and contemporary worries about academic freedom, it is not entirely shocking that academic and media groups in Russia would profess concern about the insidiousness of the overall process. But I cannot help but see some less sinister possibilities that explain this situation.

Anyone affiliated with university administration, ANY university administration, is well-acquainted with what can only be called an interminable and seemingly illogical bureaucracy that often eludes the principles of rationality and sanity. The idea that a huge institution like Moscow State University might make decisions that are not standardized or universal, that do not apply to all departments across the board, and even perhaps make decisions that seem contradictory and inexplicable to its faculty, is so commonplace all over the academic globe that it is almost not worth mentioning. The essence of academic bureaucracy often seems to be about good intentions badly performed. The inconsistency of First Department application across Russian universities could and likely is easily explained by this frustrating intellectual reality all scholars face, regardless of a country’s specific history with censorship. But even this is minor compared to the larger issue not being properly discussed in the Times article: standard procedures of oversight on scholarship that deals with sensitive topics and materials.

The Nature journal understandably focuses on the hard sciences, but this issue falls on all academics, even students, who produce material that engage national security interests. The idealistic utopia that some academics proclaim should be the standard for intellectual engagement has ALWAYS been a myth: there is no country and no university where professors and advanced students can simply ‘write whatever they want and go talk to whomever they want whenever they want,’ especially at institutions that have either a connection to government or have persons under their employ or guidance who are also affiliated with government agencies. This is not about Russia slowly creeping back into some weird form of Soviet revanchism. This is about all countries. For example, my own program has had issues with this challenge as it concerns the analytical commentary endeavor, The Caspian Project: given that I run an International Security and Intelligence Studies Program in the United States, it is not outrageous to learn that some of my students are already employed or were formerly employed by the US government or American military. Every single student in my program that has had this affiliation and wanted to contribute to The Caspian Project has had to submit their work ahead of time to ‘vetting services,’ either in the US government or the military, to simply ascertain that no classified information was accessed in order to write the pieces and no secret information was revealed in the pieces themselves. In America, some have derisively referred to this as a ‘post-Snowden reflex,’ implying the United States Intelligence Community still stings from the embarrassment of the theft and release of thousands of classified documents by Edward Snowden. While there may be a small bit of truth to that, the reality is this process has always existed in America and will exist in any other country that considers itself important on the global stage and having significant national security secrets to maintain (ie, every single country on earth, quite frankly). What the derision and suspicion of articles like the one in Nature or the commentary provided by The Moscow Times fail to understand or recognize is just how easy it is to unknowingly violate national security laws in a given country. That is the aspect sorely needed within this debate and what I provide here.

Academics who do not have familiarity with or exposure to working with the government often have a ‘Hollywoodized’ vision of national security and what it means for information to be Top Secret and classified. The old American Supreme Court adage in the 1970s about pornography (what is porn? I’ll know it when I see it) does not apply here, though most academics unwisely think it does. Unfortunately, the process of classification and designation of Top Secret is not intuitively logical or easily surmised. An academic can easily be working on materials or topics that seem far-removed from issues of national security and yet the conclusions and originality devised from said sources end up pushing the work incredibly close if not beyond the standards under which the government works and is beholden to. This is why preemptive vetting is a much safer process for the academic: failing to get that formal approval exposes the scholar in question to the accusations seen in the Times article. It is not a question of how many times the material has been discussed in public or whether or not it has been published previously. The Times uses that fact to show the unjustness of the system, intimating that something was first ‘fine’ because it was presented previously and then later on the academic falls under the thumb of FSB suspicion. In my world, here in the United States, this is an area where it is most assuredly not better to ‘ask forgiveness rather than seek permission.’ Too many academics working in important areas of national security, whether directly or indirectly, cannot be so cavalier: put simply, asking forgiveness does not usually go over so well when dealing with a country’s intelligence community. I know for a fact that is the case for America. There is no reason it would be any different for the Russian Federation. The fact that information can go unnoticed at first just means it is a failure of bureaucracy, which is why academics in every country are usually charged with the responsibility of seeking the vetting themselves. Host governments are basically de facto admitting they do not believe in the efficacy of their own bureaucratic institutions. And rightly so.

This is what leads us to the final important point about academics in general: while on the whole wonderfully engaged and purely intentioned when tackling new scholarship, our naiveté as a group can get a bit overwhelming. When tackling scholarship that clearly cannot touch in any way national security interests, this trait can be endearing if also eccentric. When researching issues that do matter to national security, this trait makes us dangerous to ourselves. In such a way the existence of a First Department at a university (an organ that does not exist in American universities and thus makes the still required vetting process more labyrinthine and unknowable for scholars and students alike) can potentially speed up what no doubt will always be an excruciating example of bureaucracy run amok. But dealing with an inefficient, illogical, and sometimes inexplicable bureaucratic organ ahead of time is far superior to dealing with the unemotional, ruthless, and cutting professionalism of your country’s law enforcement. This reality should be considered when we read articles like the one in the Times. Is this censorship rearing its ugly head back into the world of the academy or is this a saving grace helping academics avoid their own worst habits? Bureaucracy can indeed often be dumb. But that doesn’t always automatically mean it is also a demon.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website:

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Who Masterminded the Suicide Attack on Hazara Students’ Educational Center Kaj in Kabul?

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According to explicit intelligence information, last Friday, September 30, 2022, a suicide attack on Hazara students in an educational center called (Kaj) in the western part of Kabul was carried out by the Ministry of Education and the so-called ministry of Evil Forbidden of the Taliban in coordination with the leadership of Kandahar. Apparently, Afghans’ feelings were torn apart by the news of the Taliban’s former Minister of Education Maulvi Noorullah Munir that he had signposted in Uruzgan Province, followed by the Minister of the Evil Forbidden of the Taliban, Sheikh Muhammad Khalid Hanafi, claimed that letting women educated is opposed to Sharia law.

After his comments, he was rigorously criticized by the internal and external media, women activists, youth, the UN and the international community. Which is why the masterminds contacted the GDI of the Taliban’s intelligence agency followed by the meeting between the Akhundzada Taliban and Sheikhs of the South West Zone, while giving them permission and sharia fatwa/decree to suicide attacks on women’s schools and all institutions that encourage women to come out of their homes across Afghanistan.  In such manner they wanted to be free of international denunciation, since, the responsibility of such attacks is always claimed by the ISIS group in order to gain influence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban are in contact with the ISIS group in the east of Afghanistan, so that the two groups are coordinating in such assaults to happen.

Hence, the Taliban by applying this method want to upsurge the risk and threat towards the female strata of the Afghan community getting them scared, in order to prevent them to go to schools.    Learning that, the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban government are forced to take such measures, since in the absence of such attacks, women will not stop studying, especially non-Pashtun Geno.      If girls go to school and the Taliban leaders do not stop them, then the low-ranking members and fighters of the Taliban will start rebelling against their own leaders.

As a result, there will be more internal strife and the group will become weak and eventually disappear, which is not in the interest west, who wants to employ the Taliban government and other non-state international armed groups in Afghanistan as an unofficial private militia against China and Russia. Furthermore, the Taliban’s foreign supporters are also forcing the ISIS group to take responsibility for some of the current and potential crimes committed by the Taliban, while paving the way for the Taliban to achieve their goal, subsequently, the external pressures will be  reduced and internal differences and resentment of low-ranking fighters will be avoided.

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Ethnic War a Newfangled Pakistani Forward-policy for Afghanistan

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According to the intelligence information, Pakistan’s ISI is trying to start ethnic and maneuvering war again in Afghanistan, of which distinct objective is to refurbish the age-old enmity between the Achakzai and Noorzai tribes in the southwest zone. Besides, they want to start an ethnic war among Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns across Afghanistan, and between the northern and southern directions, thus, the prominent leaders of the Taliban, who are led by the ISI, have been entrusted with the task. As in the east and north of Afghanistan, Pashtun Taliban militants are oppressing other Non-Pashtuns, raiding their homes; however, no high-ranking Pashtun Taliban officials are preventing them because the ISI network leads this strategy. In order to revamp a civil war in Afghanistan, score of influential figures have been summoned by the Pakistani military establishment. 

The latest examples are as follows: Two days ago, the Pashtun Taliban killed the former police chief and an influential tribal leader in Mandol district of Nuristan province, which caused many emotions against Pashtuns especially about southwest zone of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in order to afresh the years of hostility between the Noorzai and Achakzi tribes in the southwestern region of Afghanistan, the ISI network raised the issue of a mass grave by several leading Taliban militants, especially by the current governor of Kandahar province and Noorzai tribe leading leader, Haji Mohammad Yousef Wafa.

Qari Aslam Noorzai call for by Pak security forces

At a time when the former leader of the Noorzai tribe, the leading smuggler of drugs and heavy weapons in Central and South Asia, and the financial supporter of the first Taliban regime, Haji Bashar Noorzai was released from the US prison in Guantánamo. The Noorzai tribe once again became twice as strong and dominant in Afghanistan, especially in the southwest zone.  Resulting threats towards the Achakzai people, on the other hand, ISI has started rapid efforts to recommence the years of enmity between these two tribes.

Hajee Feyzullah Khan Noorzai meets Pak military Intelligence

Recently, Pakistan’s intelligence network ISI, with the help of some leading social media and high-ranking Taliban officials, has kept the issue of finding a mass grave in Kandahar province in the southwestern zone of Afghanistan broiling, namely by inducing  the blame-game. Meanwhile, local tribal leaders and residents of Spin Boldak district claim that such a grave is the grave of those who were taken out of their homes by the Taliban after August 15.  Since, they were connected to Achakzai tribe and on the other hand, they served in the security departments of the overthrown Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that is why the Taliban night raided their houses, and massively killed them.

Moreover, mass murdering Hazaras at their educational institutions via suicide bombing and meantime blowing up the worship places of Sufi-Muslims, who preach the non-violent form of Islam, while calling for De-weaponization and De-politicization of Islam.

Consequently, by applying such a forward-policy, Pakistan will achieve its fancied strategic-depth in Afghanistan, while subjugating the Afghan Nation.

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Pakistani Intelligence Agencies ignite Tribal Conflicts in Pak-Afghan Region

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According to the intelligence information, Pakistani intelligence community supported by some international rings want to once again spread dispute and disharmony among the tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan; subsequently the centuries-old evils and wars between the tribes will once more take a new color and become fresh. Recently, rumors of the discovery of a mass grave in Kandahar province in the southwestern zone of Afghanistan are spreading; the blame for this mass murder falls on the former police chief of Kandahar province and the former leader of the Achagzai tribe, General Abdul Razaq Achagzai.  In order to afresh raising the reaction of the Norzi tribe against the Ackzai and anew the evil and war between these two tribes. Even though the current governing body of Afghanistan is completely under the control of the Noorzi tribe, because most of the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban, including the leader of the Taliban, Sheikh Haibatullah, are related to the Noorzi tribe, so there is a greater threat posed to the Achakzi tribe.

Even now, in spite of such menaces, more than 6000 Achakzi families live in Kandahar province, whose members served in the security departments under the command of General Abdul Razaq Achakzi, a staunch opponent of the Taliban.  Currently, in such a tense situation that the Taliban administration has control over Afghanistan and the head of this administration is connected to the Nurzi tribe, the harsh criticism of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai’s mass killings is logical, which can cause international and internal outcries.  As a result, the major victims will be the youths and leading tribal leaders of the Achakzai tribe.

By the advent of Taliban on August 15, 2021, in the first four months, more than 600 youths and tribal leaders from the Achakzi tribe were killed in the southwest zone of Afghanistan, while applying night operations or raids by the Taliban. The most famous case happened to the family of Haji Fida Mohammad Achakzai in Spin Boldak district. Haji Fida Muhammad Achakzai, known as Haji Fida Aka, is a leading leader of the Achakza tribe of Spin Boldak district and had close relations with the family of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai.

 When Kandahar province fell to the Taliban before August 15, the two young sons of him were killed by the Taliban on the first night, unfortunately none of the Taliban officials took any action to prevent the tragedy. Nevertheless, this time, there is a plan going on at the international level to renew the age-old differences between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes, which the international media warmly supports.  If this time the internal differences and conflicts between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes in Afghanistan get sturdier, then it will have damaging effects not only in Afghanistan, but also, serious negative measures will be taken against the Norzai under the leadership of Mahmoud Khan Achakzai, the head of the Achakzai tribe, in the Pakhtunkhwa provinces of Pakistan.

In the meantime, the decision of the Pakistani government to hand over the Pashtun areas in Pakhtunkhwa provinces to the Taliban was approved and supported by the Nurzi tribe, conversely, this action of the Pakistani government was strongly condemned by Mahmoud Khan Achakzai and PTM leader Manzoor Pashtun.

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