Russia uses risks of ISIS expanding in Afghanistan to increase its influence on CIS Central Asia states, their armed forces and to expand CDTO membership. Moscow could try to develop NATO analogue of collective defense in the region on the base of Collective Defense Treaty Organization as the core of pro-Russian regional integration model.
The ISIS group is trying to strengthen positions in Afghanistan, winning over a growing number of sympathizers and recruiting followers in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces. The militant group has been trying to establish itself in Afghanistan, challenging the Taliban. Russian leadership considers the probability of moving ISIS to CIS Central Asia states as the main threat for southern borders of Russian Federation and Caucasus stability. Their fears are based on facts of active participation of citizens from Central Asia states in Syria and Iraq on ISIS side.
At October 16th leaders of post-Soviet states in Kazakhstan during the summit of CIS signed a concept of military co-operation until 2020. Russia has been pushing its military presence across the region and this document will certainly fit this policy. Moscow struck deals with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to extend its bases till 2042 and 2032 respectively. It has announced an increase in troops in Tajikistan, its largest foreign 201st base, from 5,900 to 9,000 soldiers by 2020. Russia is planning to renew the fleet of its airbase at Kant, Kyrgyzstan by 2016. It has already sent a dozen of new and modified versions of Su-25 fighter jets to replace older aircrafts. Russian MoD announced upgrading other equipment at the bases: trucks, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and drones. The Central military district recently announced that it will dispatch a helicopter unit to be stationed at the airbase in Ayni, Tajikistan. Moscow has been trying to gain access to this airbase since at least 2004.
Today it is unlikely for Taliban forces to move in the north direction beyond Afghanistan borders. There were no signs of such intentions even in 1996 when Taliban was more powerful and have no centralized opponent as ISIS. So expanding ISIS in Afghanistan depends on its potential to cooperate with Taliban. But for several months violent clashes with the Taliban continued, ending questions about possible alliances. Prospects of such alliance are very weak because of inability to share control over opium poppies plantations, narrow ideology congruence and low ISIS support by local tribal leaders. ISIS numbers are still small in Afghanistan. Though ISIS in Afghanistan has regrouped and recruiting new members the overall conclusion is that ISIS does not yet represent a significant strategic threat to Afghanistan in the next 6 months.
Despite this Moscow justifies building up a military presence in the region by highlighting the threat Central Asia and Russia are facing from Afghanistan and beyond, pointing main risks for the leaders to be overthrown. Kremlin via security and intelligence services underlines the internal risks for Central Asia regimes coming from radical organization operated in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan like Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or the Islamic Jihad Group, Hizb un-Nusrat. In some cases, these risks are exaggerated.
Russia is positioning itself as the only one force to protect Central Asia regimes that make them more pliable. Kremlin counterworks US regional positions intensification endeavoring to keep control over authoritarian leaders, playing on their weakness and fears of losing power as the result of ‘Arab spring’ scenarios and civil war outbreaks. Obviously US efforts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan could not let Washington to compete effectively with Russia in Central Asia.
Russia will try to expand rashly its military presence by intensifying of training programs for regional troops and military supplies. At first this will give Kremlin ‘a legitimate right’ to intervene with Russian troops at the early stage of a conflict. Secondly it could give the opportunity to set loyal and controlled high and middle echelon command staff in armed forces of these states. In third place Kremlin receives a chance to organize military coup d’états in the case of risks to lose influence in the region because of elite/leader changing (due to death or mass protests).
Kremlin can change configuration of the CDTO making an offer to Bashar Assad (Alavite controlled territory) and Iran. The ultimate goal is to build the rapid reaction forces joint staff under Russian command, i.e. the opportunity to control and command the more battleworthy units of national armed forces of CDTO. But this project could face noncompliance by Belarus, Kazakhstan not to mention suppositional membership of Iran.
Nevertheless Russia’s activity in the region means the strengthening bet on military-based integration driver. It is the significant change taking into account economic-based integration driver as Eurasian Economic Union promoted by Kremlin in recent years in the region. It is also the strong sign of totally militarized foreign policy of Moscow that turning back to the Cold War strategy and opposition to the US and the West.
Unjustified Hope of Iran’s Central Asia Policy
The Washington factor has been and remains, if not the main obstacle, then at least a deterrent to Iran’s strengthening in Central Asia over the past thirty years. The former Soviet Central Asian Muslim republics – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – collectively known as the “Five Stans”, is a scene of the big game and intense rivalry. In view of geopolitical and geo-economic conditions, these countries have experienced ups and downs in collaboration with Iran. Amid the background of the intensifying Iranian crisis, this article presents a brief analysis of the cooperation between Iran and Central Asian countries, whose people are regional neighbors and have close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities.
Iran’s “soft power” in Central Asia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran was among the first countries to recognize the independence of the five Central Asian republics, intending to spread its influence through cultural, historical and religious commonalities. The establishment of the first diplomatic relations fell on Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was identified in Central Asia as a relatively moderate leader. He was well aware that after 80 years of communist influence, these “Stans” secular regimes would not accept any Islamic ideology. Therefore, in the late 1990s, his government sought to consolidate the foundations of cultural and historical ties as a tool of “soft power” of Iran’s Central Asia policy.
The main executive body for promoting Iranian “soft power” in the region has become the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), a parastatal agency that is subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This organization was considered Iran’s de facto public diplomacy organization and is under the control of the Supreme Leader’s office. By opening Iranian cultural centers in all Central Asian capitals, it has sought to institutionalize elements and patterns of its Persian language and culture in the region. Today, leading Central Asian faculties sufficiently promote Persian language courses that are supported by the Islamic Republic embassies.
In the light of the objectives of the present study, particularly Tajikistan case is seen as a tool of Iranian ‘soft power’ to create a “bridge” between Tehran and Central Asia and become a regional leader. These two ethnicities are considered relatively close, sharing the same Persian roots and constituting the basis of the “Great Persian World.”
Accordingly, with the financial support of Iran’s government, Research Projects such as the Tajik-Persian Culture Research Institute, the “Alhoda” bookstores and “Payvand” magazine have also had an important role in the regional influence. In accordance with the agreement on cooperation in the field of higher education, Tehran funded Tajik students to study at Iranian universities, especially in the modern Persian language and literature. In addition, in 2009, the Iranian state-run Persian News Agency opened its first office in Dushanbe. Correspondingly, Iran was able to represent itself as the main defender and provider of Persian heritage to the Tajik nation.
Additionally, Iran has solidly invested in the Tajik economy, ranking itself as the second foreign investor after China. This was particularly seen during the rule of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who due to the growing confrontation with the West, preferred cooperation with the northern post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. His government funded the construction of the Anzob/Istiqlol tunnel through the Pamirs, and the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant. Alongside its economic support, the Tehran government has been trying to implement its own nuclear project and receiving political support from Tajikistan.
A single geographical territory in the past made these countries to have closer cultural, economic and political integration. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to use the national-cultural identity as a starting point for creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Its first joint summit was held in Dushanbe onJuly 2006, when they decided to establish a jointly-run Persian-language TV channel called “Navrooz-TV”. Also Ahmadinejad’s initiative, the three states established the Economic Council of the Persian-Speaking Union in March 2008.
The shift of political soft power is taking place at a time of intensified geopolitical uncertainty for Iran. Therefore, it is imperative to question whether Tehran’s ambitions to break out of international isolation was indeed successful. At first, the person spearheading this debate the most was none other than Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai, when the U.S. and NATO forces ensured country’s military, economic and financial stability of the country. Therefore keeping excessive close ties with Iran would damage its connections with powerful western partners. Secondly, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was negatively viewed at the new Persian Union as it has military and political leverage in Tajikistan. Consequently, Russia was firm in ensuring that Tehran would not strengthen its role in the region. Moreover, Iran’s activities in the Middle East, which caused inter-religious tensions between Sunni and Shia Islam, also affected the sentiments of Central Asian Muslims. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s historical rival, has taken active steps to reach out to Sunni Tajiks to bring them to its side. Over the past thirty years, the Gulf monarchy has spent billions of dollars on spreading radical Islam in the “Five Stans” and Iran’s retention.
Tit for tat
Relations between Tajikistan and Iran seriously deteriorated in 2015 as Tajik authorities accused Iran of supporting the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), attempting a coup d’état in the country and training Tajik Islamic militants in Iran. Iran incurred Tajikistan’s profound rage in December 2015, when Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei received IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who left the country due to political persecution of the authorities. Dushanbe saw the hand of Iran in a terror act on July 2018, in Danghara where 4 foreign tourists were killed. Notwithstanding, Iran has diplomatically rejected the accusation, which deteriorated the relationship between the two Persian-speaking states.
The growth of anti-Iranian sentiment, accompanied by demonstrations in front of the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe, putting an end to Tehran’s initiative in creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations based on close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities. Due to the opposition of regional players and the absence of a broad Shia base, Iran failed to implement the project of the “Great Persia” in Central Asia, as it tries in the Middle East.
As a result of growing tensions, Iran significantly reduced investment in the Tajik economy and closed its economic and cultural offices in the north of Tajikistan. To hold on to its strong lineage of refuting sanctions, Tajikistan banned the import of Iranian food and goods “due to poor quality”, abolished a simplified way of obtaining visas for Iranians, and closed the branch of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.
After reaching the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and partial withdrawal of the international sanctions, the Rouhani government sought to resume broken relations with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and East Asia. The result of this policy was a significant reduction in Iran’s trade with all the countries of Central Asia since 2016. According to official data, trade between Tajikistan and Iran decreased substantially more than three times, while Iran’s trade with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan experienced a significant loss in numbers.
Iran’s nuclear agenda in the Central Asian multilateral cooperation
The “diplomatic quarrel” and a “trade war” between Tajikistan and Iran negatively influenced Tehran’s ambition to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even though Iran filed a formal application for membership in 2008, Tajikistan twice vetoed its admission and promptly placed its harsh posture against Iran. At the last SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on June 2019, Russia and China firmly supported Iran and stated that the other members, despite the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, should respect the nuclear deal. Now that the temperature of tension between Tehran and Washington has reached its highest point, as the SCO has become one of the international platforms for Iranian President Rouhani, who accused the US of “serious” threat to regional and global stability.
Governments of the “Five Stans” seek to maintain a middle position on the Iranian nuclear issue, affirming the right of Iran to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Today, as the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy has cornered Iran and its economy has been in terrible pain, the new president of Kazakhstan, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, called for the resolution of nuclear contradictions through diplomacy. Being the country’s top diplomat and Prime minister in the 90s, Tokayev played a key role in eliminating Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal, inherited from the USSR, and gaining the status of a non-nuclear power. In the past, Kazakhstan has repeatedly called Iran to follow its example.
In addition, Iran and the Central Asian countries also cooperate within the framework of the OIC, the ECO and the CICA, whose platform Iran uses to accuse “American imperialism” and defend its nuclear ambition.
The ups and downs of bilateral and multilateral cooperation of Iran with the “Five Stans” over the past quarter-century have shown that Tehran failed to establish its zone of influence in Central Asia, in the same way as it has created Iranian proxy Shia groups in the Middle East. The main reason for Tehran’s inability to prove itself as an attractive economic partner in Central Asia is the US long-term strategy to contain Iran through economic sanctions and its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program. Therefore, despite the advantages of geographic, religious and cultural commonalities, Iran remains unable to open a “window” to Central Asia in conditions of international isolation and emerge as a regional power.
Shifting Sands: Chinese encroachment in Central Asia and challenges to US supremacy in the Gulf
China and Russia are as much allies as they are rivals.
A joint Tajik-Chinese military exercise in a Tajik region bordering on China’s troubled north-western region of Xinjiang suggests that increased Chinese-Russian military cooperation has not eroded gradually mounting rivalry in Central Asia, long viewed by Moscow as its backyard.
The exercise, the second in three years, coupled with the building by China of border guard posts and a training centre as well as the creation of a Chinese security facility along the 1,300 kilometre long Tajik Afghan Border, Chinese dominance of the Tajik economy, and the hand over of Tajik territory almost two decades ago, challenges Russian-Chinese arrangements in the region.
The informal arrangement involved a division of labour under which China would expand economically in Central Asia while Russia would guarantee the region’s security.
The exercise comes days after China and Russia operated their first joint air patrol and months after Tajik and Russian forces exercised jointly.
The “exercise represents a next step in China’s overall encroachment upon Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘sphere of influence’ in Central Asia,” said Russia expert Stephen Blank.
“Moscow has given remarkably little consideration to the possibility that China will build on its soft power in Central Asia to establish security relationships or even bases and thus accelerate the decline of Russian influence there,” added Eurasia scholar Paul Goble.
The perceived encroachment is but the latest sign that Russia is seeking to balance its determination to ally itself with China in trying to limit US power with the fact the Chinese and Russian interests may be diverging.
The limitations of Russian Chinese cooperation have long been evident.
China, for example, has refrained from recognizing Russian-inspired declarations of independence in 2008 of two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia that recently sparked anti-government protests in Tbilisi.
China similarly abstained in a 2014 United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution that condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Meanwhile, Chinese dependence on Russian military technology is diminishing, potentially threatening a key Russian export market. China in 2017 rolled out its fifth generation Chengdu J-20 fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia SU-57E.
Perhaps most fundamentally, Chinese president Xi Jinping opted in 2013 to unveil his Belt and Road initiative in the Kazakh capital of Astana rather than Moscow.
By doing so and by so far refusing to invest in railroads and roads that would turn Russia into a transportation hub, Mr. Xi effectively relegated Russia to the status of second fiddle, at least as far as the Belt and Road’s core transportation infrastructure pillar is concerned.
China’s recently published latest defense white paper nonetheless praised the continued development of a “high level” military relationship with Russia that is “enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability.”
In a bid to ensure Russia remains a key player on the international stage and exploit mounting tension in the Gulf, Russian deputy foreign minister and special representative to the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov this week proposed a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defense umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.
The concept would entail creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region and promote mutual security guarantees. It would involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British and French forces and bases.
Mr. Bogdanov’s proposal called for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions” and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance.
The coalition to include the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India as well as other stakeholders, a likely reference to Iran, would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.
It was not clear how feuding Gulf states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arb Emirates and Iran would be persuaded to sit at one table. The proposal suggested that Russia’s advantage was that it maintained good relations with all parties.
“Russia’s contributions to the fight against Islamic terrorist networks and the liberation of parts of Syria and Iraq can be regarded as a kind of test for the role of sheriff in a Greater Eurasia” that would include the Middle East, said political scientist Dmitry Yefremenko.
Mr. Putin this week asserted himself as sheriff by signalling his support for embattled former Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev, a Putin crony who has been charged with corruption. Following a meeting in Moscow, Mr. Putin urged Mr Atembayev’s nemesis. president Sooronbai Jeenbekov, not to press charges.
At the same time, Mr. Putin, building on his visit to Kyrgyzstan in March, offered Mr. Jeenbekov a carrot.
Kyrgyzstan “needs political stability. Everybody needs to unite around the current president and to help him develop the state. We have many plans for cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and we are absolutely determined to work together with the current leadership to fulfill these plans,” Mr. Putin said.
Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement during the visit to expand by 60 hectares the Kant Air Base 20 kilometres east of the capital Bishkek that is used by the Russian Air Force and increase the rent Russia pays.
Mr. Putin further lavished his Kyrgyz hosts with US$6 billion in deals ranging from power, mineral resources and hydrocarbons to industry and agriculture.
Mr. Putin also allocated US$200 million for the upgrading of customs infrastructure and border equipment to put an end to the back-up of dozens of trucks on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border because Kyrgyzstan has so far been unable to comply with the technical requirements of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyaev last month gave the EEU, that groups Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Belarus, and Armenia, a boost by declaring that Uzbekistan would need to join the trade bloc to ensure access to its export markets.
EEU members account for 70 percent of Uzbek exports.
Said Russia and Eurasia scholar Paul Stronski: “China’s deft diplomacy towards Russia — along with both states’ desires to keep the West out of their common backyard — has kept tensions behind closed doors. But with China now recognising it may need to strengthen its security posture in the region, it is unclear how long this stability will last.”
Chimes from Tashkent
Located at the new center of global attraction for economic activity, Pakistan and Uzbekistan share a long string of relations. After the independence from the soviets, Pakistan was among the first countries to recognize it. In 1992, Pakistan established their first diplomatic sanctuary in Tashkent. Since then delegations from both the countries paid visits to each other.
The bond shared between the two countries, that lie in close proximity, is strengthened by similar eastern culture and fortified by the religious ties. This sharing of cultural and religious values is clearly visible in the national language of Pakistan which borrows thousands of words from Uzbekistani language. This nexus is now getting even stronger with the increase in co-operations in social and economic sectors.
Relations between both the states saw an unprecedented growth in recent times and this social integration is ever growing. During the last year only,
63events such as seminars, presentations and business forums were arranged for general public. Whereas, the Uzbek Embassy had a significant number of bilateral meetings with the top tier of business community including several associations and unions. The same sentiment was reciprocated by Pakistani side when more than 50 companies paid visit to Uzbekistan with the purpose of investment. There were a number of exhibitions, events and investment forums in Tashkent, Jizzakh and Bukhara. Eight different Pakistani companies participated in such events.
Uzbekistan and Pakistan have also been working on 38different joint ventures for launching import/export operations.
In economic sphere, Islamabad and Tashkent hold great trade potential. In just 2018, the mutual trade between both countries crossed USD 98.4 million’s mark, which means a raise of around 170%.Prior to 2018 in 2017 numbers of economic activity between two states were low and accounted for just USD 36.6 million.
In 2018 Pakistani export to Uzbekistan increased for 150% and amounted 66 million USD (in 2017 – 26 million USD).
Last year Ambassador of Uzbekistan to Pakistan Mr. Furqat A. Sidikov while addressing business community at Islamabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry expressed that trade volume between Pakistan and Uzbekistan has the potential to rise up to USD 1billion in next 5-6 years. It clearly signifies that both countries can provide enormous benefit to each other’s socio-economic segment. Pakistan has been exporting edibles like mango, citruses, raw and refined sugar. Furthermore, chemical products, pharmaceutical products, and leather and textile goods are major exports of Pakistan to Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is also a hub for petrochemical goods, cotton and silk goods. Its exports to Pakistan includes: leather raw materials, petrochemical products and mineral fertilizers, cotton yarn, cotton fiber, raw silk, plastic products, agricultural machinery, clothing, etc. Not only this, dry fruits and vegetables are also exported from Uzbekistan to Pakistan.
In 2018 Uzbekistan-Pakistan Business Council was established in Islamabad in order to facilitate and support the business community in two countries. Apart for this, several forums are also established in main cities of Pakistan to boost up the economic potential.
Accessibility remains a key subject in establishing people to people relations thus recognizing this flight route from Tashkent-Lahore-Tashkent was resumed in April of 2017. Both states also look forward to initiate new routes from Islamabad and Karachi as well. Earlier in May Uzbekistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan had a meeting with Chairman Senate of Pakistan to discuss the inter-parliamentarian cooperation between Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Sideways to expanding parliamentarian relations it was also discussed to further strengthen the cooperation on transport sector to provide uninterrupted route to trade of goods.
Both countries share many economical and regional platform and are member of Organization of Islamic countries (OIC), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and Economic Cooperation organization (ECO)and others. Multiple times these platforms were used to freshen up the relations between two countries. Based on mutual trust both countries can have free trade agreements to amplify the relations between them.
Enormous potential lies in social, economic and political sectors on which both countries can work. Both countries can play a key role in bringing peaceful non-military solution to misery in Afghanistan as well as in the region. Pakistan needs to explore new avenues for cooperation with countries like Uzbekistan and extract the maximum benefit for itself.
Uzbekistan understands importance of Pakistan in keeping stability and prosperity of the whole South Asian region. Both countries are interested in continuing bilateral partnership on all key issues of the regional security and stability agenda, including the conflict resolution in Afghanistan and expansion of infrastructure, trade and economic ties between Central Asia and Pakistan.
Uzbekistan initiated logistic project that project will include the construction of the massive railroad transport corridor “Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan”. In details, this corridor will compose the rail line “Uzbekistan-Mazarisharif” which has been already realized between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan as well as construction of new rail road “Mazari-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar”.
In perspective, full realization of this unique transport corridor, will make Pakistan as a Central regional trade hub between South Asian and Central Asian regions.
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