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The Rome Conference for Libya

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Photo: State Department

As many as twenty-four countries gathered on February 2 last to finally decide how, to what extent and where to start opposing the Daesh/Isis expansion to Syria-Iraq and particularly to Libya.

Those countries included Turkey, accused by various sources of being part of the problem and not of the solution, as well as Saudi Arabia, which has never hidden its support for some Islamist factions in Syria and Iraq having connections with the Caliphate.

They also included Qatar, the Emirate which directly supports – in opposition to Saudi Arabia – the Muslim Brotherhood and some groups of the insurgency against President Assad in Syria.

Also the United States, however, supported and sometimes trained the Syrian group linked to Al Qaeda, the Jabat Al Nusra Front, with a view to combating Isis, as also recommended by General Petraeus, mindful of his surge in Iraq against Al Qaeda, organized with the mobilization of Al Anbar Sunni tribes.

Using the enemy against the enemy is an old formula of the 15th century alchemy and ruses, but I fear that strategic thinking is another thing.

Furthermore, according to some reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Hillary Clinton – when she was Secretary of State – was supposed to have supported and armed Qaedist and Muslim Brotherhood to combat Isis-Daesh both in Libya and in the crisis region stretching from Iraq to the Syrian coast.

Therefore, within the narrow scope of the war waged against the Caliphate, the meeting held on February 2 last at the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs – officially called “Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh/Isis in the Small Group format” – is not a “coalition of the willing”, but rather a coalition of those who do not want to take actions or which take them so late as to jeopardize any action taken to oppose Isis/Daesh both in Libya and Syria.

In fact, the meeting was not attended by the country which has really taken decisions in the region threatened by Al Baghdadi, namely Russia, which has so far launched thousands of air strikes against the Caliphate, thus reducing its territorial size significantly.

The same holds true for Assad’s Syrian Baathist regime, with the Syrian Arab Army strengthened by the Russian contribution, or even for China which, while refusing to participate in any coalition, supports with weapons, equipment and intelligence the Russian effort that has so far avoided Al Baghdadi’ strategic point: reaching the Mediterranean coast and directly threatening the Atlantic Alliance and the “moderate” Arab countries.

Moreover, the US-led operation Inherent Resolve has so far launched over 20,300 attacks on Isis targets.

Hence why is Daesh/Isis still a terrible threat? Obviously because its territory is limited to the minimum required to manage the operations and also because the Caliph Al Baghdadi has been extraordinarily good at handling complex and differentiated relations between his Islamic supporters.

He has played the enemy with the friend and his enemies with each other.

“Allah (himself) does mock at them, and he leaves them alone in their inordinacy, blindly wandering on” (Surah Al-Baqarah, The Cow, verse 15)

Nevertheless the Caliph Al Baghdadi’s Islamic State has already lost about 14% of its original territory, mainly thanks to the Russian-Syrian and Iranian-Iraqi actions, but still rules essential cities for the passage of fighters, means and resources throughout the region: Mosul, Sinjar, Qaim, a large part of Fallujah, the suburbs of Ramadi and the refineries of Baiji.

Turkey has only waged its regional war, especially against the PKK Kurds, sometimes covertly by supporting the Caliphate so as to combat the Kurds and has then managed some Islamist groups with a view to opposing Russia.

In that region, every country has waged the war it liked most.

In fact, the Turkish leaders’ goal is the de facto annexation of the Syrian Sunni area which accounts for 74% of the population and, starting from there, the hegemonic reunification of Central Asia, by using the many Turkmen minorities , up to reaching China’s borders.

A return to the past of the Turkish civilization – turning from a tribe moving from Northeast Asia towards the sea and the region of the old Argonauts’ Golden Fleece into a civilization returning from the Mediterranean to its Asian roots.

Many years ago Carl Schmitt had that insight while thinking of rebuilding the great land empires against the North American and British “thalassocracies”.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia’s goal is to destroy a regime such as the Baathist and Alawite one, linked to Iran. Hence Saudi Arabia wants to regionalize and isolate Iran from the Mediterranean – since Iran has not a necessary buffer like Syria, which is useful to control and manage all oil and non-oil trade originating from Iran towards the Mediterranean and the European Union.

And to think that it was the wisdom of Louis Massignon, a distinguished Arabist and agent of the Deuxiéme Bureau, the Second Bureau of the General Staff (France’s external military intelligence agency) to favor the Alawites (also known, in ancient times, as nusayri, Islamic Gnostics influenced by early Christianity) and to support the quasi-Shi’ite Alawites in managing power in Syria, obviously to prevent the Sunni dominance.

And while Iran and its allies follow, for various reasons, the “party of Ali”, the Shi’a, and Saudi Arabia is closed to the north by a Yemen now run by the Houthi, who are also Shi’ites – while in the Eastern provinces of the Wahhabi Kingdom and in Bahrain the Shi’ite uprising of the workers of the largest Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and gas deposits will break out – on the other side of the Persian Gulf, Iran will manage the uprising thus becoming the absolute master of the Shatt el Arab.

For the Islamic Republic of Iran, managing the maritime, military and economic passageway of the sea crossing where over 70% of world seaborne trade transits is a vital objective. It is the culmination of a no longer regional – and even directly religious – hegemony.

Furthermore, together with the P5+1, the United States have accepted the military Denuclearization Plan of Iran, the Russian pivotal ally in the Middle East.

However, regardless of the actual substance of the JCPOA treaty reached by the P5+1 with Iran, this should make the United States think that the strategic equation of the region must be changed.

This means using Iran to oppose the jihadists and achieve a strategic rebalancing with Saudi Arabia, in exchange for a “new deal” with Israel and the creation of a corridor of alliances between the Iranian Shi’ites, Russia, China and the other nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Instead of being tied down to “the Saudi lobby”, the United States could start playing at many tables, thus having greater strategic autonomy and putting stronger pressure on the Greater Middle East.

Hence a large containment action, which would ease tensions in that strategic region and put in place – in addition to SCO – a new possible loose alliance linked to the European Union and the United States.

This is the only way to better manage the next land and maritime Silk Way designed by President Xi Jinping.

But our ruling classes are still hostages to what the 17th century libertines called “the old thinking” and swing between a global strategy of generic economic agreements and the return of the old Cold War, while the global jihad is knocking at our doors and, indeed, has already cruelly entered our homes.

Hence is there someone who can really think of using “moderate” Islamists in the new Cold War? And to what end, given the expansion of China and its economic dominance?

Apart from the Russian Federation and the Sunni countries, in addition to Iran, which actively supports, also with ground forces, Assad’s regime and Russia itself, none of the twenty-four countries gathered at the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs has clear ideas on what to really do against Daesh/Isis both in Syria and Libya.

Obviously the United States want to avoid the Russian mainmise on the Syrian-Iraqi region, but this logically means that they must somehow support a few Islamist groups that claim they are fighting against the Caliphate. Tertium non datur.

It is worth recalling that some US military trainers were precisely those who set up – with moderate “Islamists” somehow linked to the Muslim Brotherhood – the real “Kominform” of the jihad, a sort of 30th Brigade which, in a first phase, after its passage from Jordan, refused to fight against the Al-Qaeda faction in Syria. Later on some members of the Brigade even defected to Isis, starting from Turkey. Hence the result was exactly the opposite of the one initially planned.

Basically the United States do not want a Syrian-Iraqi area where Russia can “give cards” and master the game in view of a new bilateral confrontation between the United States and Russia. But, apart from the old needs of the “military-industrial complex” that also President Eisenhower feared, what is the strategic logic of a new world bipolar structure, with China which is going to be the first global economy?

In fact the US Forces in Europe are increasing in number (by several thousands) and efficiency, so as to “strengthen” the Eastern European countries’ resistance against Russian influence.

A dangerous bipartition of European security, which is either unitary or does not exist.

But here the strategic equation becomes trivial: either Russia is opposed at global level – and hence the Caliphate’s wound in Syria and Iraq is left open – or a new type of relationship between NATO and the Russian Federation is redefined so as to have a political project and sufficient human and material resources to eradicate the jihad from Syria and Libya.

Once again, tertium non datur.

It is also worth recalling that the magnitude of terrorist attacks will certainly increase, along with their apparent randomness and their distribution throughout the world.

It is a war for infra-Islamic hegemony between the jihad and the Koranic “apostate” areas, but the end point is also domination over Western countries and over their immigrant populations, as well as over the “infidels.”

And we must not forget that this is the real stake.

In the case of Libya, we are faced once again with an almost total lack of strategic and geopolitical vision.

Meanwhile, the various Libyan factions have no interest in coming together to then accept military aid from Italy, Great Britain, Holland, the United States and France.

Indeed, it is now likely for the tripartite territory of post-Gaddafi’s Libya to remain what it is today: Fezzan, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and the areas of the Toubu and the Tuaregh, with further internal differentiations.

It is true that some Europeans maintain we could intervene also without the official request for a joint Libyan government, but obviously our alliance with one single Libyan force on the field would automatically mean that the others are at war against us.

As is well-known, the Parliament of Tobruk – which is the only internationally recognized one – has not accepted the list of Ministers proposed by Al Serraj, the candidate as Prime Minister of the “national unity government”.

The official excuse regards the excessive length of the list of Ministers – as many as thirty-two – but the essence and the substance of the political conflict is different.

It regards the tough opposition of General Khalifa Haftar, the Head of Operation Dignity and Supreme Commander of the Army of the same Parliament in Tobruk.

Meanwhile Caliph Al Baghdadi’s “sword jihad” is organizing itself along the coast; it targets oil infrastructure and therefore aims at biting the jugular vein of the European system.

It does so through oil and, in particular, the jihad strategic point is the management of the over ten million migrants who will leave Mesopotamia to come to Europe according to the pace and time-schedule set by the jihadists.

And Turkey will demand a high price by using its three million refugees as an indirect strategic weapon against the European Union, the Middle East and Libya.

A demographic bomb intended, at first, to destroy the EU Welfare State and later to destabilize our democracies.

Obviously, behind the superficial idea of a “surgical” action in Libya, there is mainly the EU governments’ desire to reduce the tension and concern of their publics, still worried by the para-terrorist attacks in Paris and in many other nations: just think of the 635 women in Cologne who reported to the police the rape attempts and the other offenses perpetrated by over a thousand Maghreb Arabs.

But “feelings” and psychology do not define a strategy.

And the jihadists in Libya already range between 2,800 and 3,500 – including 1,600 in the Sirte region, in the Libyan “oil crescent”.

The Daesh/Isis members are not so many, but quite enough to trigger off a mesh of power similar to the Syrian-Iraqi one: the management of some cities and points of contact between them, without expanding on a desert territory which is useless to retain.

The Caliph Al Baghdadi is the Islamist and jihadist revival of Lawrence of Arabia: the British lieutenant was not interested in land. For him the desert was to be militarily intended as sea: only the lines and routes, and not the entire and huge expanse of water, are to be controlled.

I would define the Isis/Daesh war as an interdiction war – hence the issue does not lie in “eating” the territory away, but in developing a strategy and a tactic which are equal and opposite.

We must organize the resistance and protection of the cities that Isis needs to conquer, as well as the very tough management of connection and communication lines, and finally make the enemy drown into the void stretching between our nerve centers and their lines.

Furthermore, considering that the Isis/Daesh strategy is asymmetrical and “hybrid”, we, too, should do the same.

We can and we must use against Daesh/Isis what is improperly called “terrorism” (which is, in fact, the jihad) so as to destabilize it, intimidate and frighten its militants and especially eradicate its covers among civilians, as well as finally restrict the terrorists’ scope of action.

Wars en dentelles or the old cry of the French captains during the Thirty Years’ War, Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers!, are no longer possible.

I dare not even imagine what will be written on the Rules of Engagement (ROE) of a possible Euro-American action on the Libyan territory.

I am reminded of the Italian ROE in the first phase of our engagement in Afghanistan, which seemed written by Monsignor della Casa, the author of the famous treatise Il Galateo overo de’ costumi.

As experienced by Russia during its actions in Ukraine, in modern warfare we cannot make too many differences between civilians and the military, between soldiers and uniformed officers and guerrillas, between psywar actions and real war operations.

Moreover, what should Western troops do in Libya?

Should they curb or wipe out the excessive power of Isis, which can rely on de facto alliances which would remain in place, like the one with “Libyan Dawn”, which is also the enemy of General Haftar’s forces?

Should they carry out the usual UN “State-building” activity, although many local people do not want a State but only their political system? Furthermore, who would participate in this State-building activity?

The forces which are now fighting each other bloodily or the usual “moderate jihadists” revived for the occasion?

Should our troops perhaps organize the protection of cities from ISIS (which is not only a military, but also a political problem) or the protection of oil infrastructure, without considering the network of people traffickers?

In short, there is a fact which has become clear: the West can no longer wage war, hence it will never be able to achieve real peace.

And here we are at war on a ground and with actions defined by our enemy – an opponent we have left basically undisturbed for three years.

Therefore the strategic asymmetry plays completely against us.

And I do not even rule out the possibility that some of the governments which want to take action have already thought of negotiating with some Libyan Islamist forces, with a view to avoiding the worst and minimizing the presence of our military in the country

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Terrorism

Taliban Takeover and Resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan

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As a Security and International Relations student and someone who lived in Afghanistan, I believe that the withdrawal of the U.S and NATO troops will help Al-Qaeda reorganise its activities in Afghanistan and in a very short period. The group will be able to relaunch its activities.

After several years, the resurgence of Al-Qaeda is becoming evident in the post-US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Like many other non-state actors, the year 2021 is a year of hope for Al-Qaeda because it provides an opportunity for them to launch their halted global terrorist mission.

The U.S withdrawal will limit its ability to strike the al-Qaida core in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it will be a turning point for the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and from where they can expand their activities. Familiarity with the rugged terrain of Afghanistan and northern Africa will help Al-Qaeda to re-merge and assemble their forces quickly if there is no strong censorship on Al-Qaeda activities.

The relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is inseparable, and the victory of one group will pave the way for the resurgence of another group. Al-Qaeda and its adversary, Daesh داعش (IS) دولت اسلامی عراق وشام, will seek to extend their operations in Afghanistan in post-US and NATO withdrawal.

It is always very likely that terrorist groups are willing to help other terrorist organisations and provide them safe-havens. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are very interested in conquering Afghanistan. They are not having other interests in Afghanistan; however, they believe that the Islamic Army will come from Khurasan, which is current day Afghanistan, and the last battle will take place in Syria, therefore, for that reason, without any doubt the resurgence of the Al-Qaeda is taking place in the world, and the starting point for that resurgence will be Afghanistan.

Looking to the future, it is very likely that the increasing connections between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will lead the groups to work on long-term strategic partnerships. These terrorist groups will play their disrupting roles in terrorising civilians and government officials. The U.S and NATO intervention in Afghanistan had crippled Al-Qaeda. Still, the current withdrawal will give the group momentum to maximise the power vacuum created by the foreign troops in Afghanistan.

To conclude, I believe that the current grim situation in Afghanistan is paving the way for the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which can pose a serious threat to the international community. However, the scale and scope of terrorist activities of Al-Qaeda would be different from the 9/11 attacks due to strategic shifts in the strategic culture of the group. The group will always use its influence and strengthen ties with other terrorist groups stretching from Asia to Europe and Africa to America’s.

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Trends of Online Radicalization in Bangladesh: Security Implications

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Online radicalization poses a formidable threat to the stability of the country. With the imposition of lockdown in the last year, the nefarious fundamentalist   factions have ramped up their activities. As the country’s law and enforcement agencies are playing a vigilant and commendable role in combating heinous fundamental radicalism in Bangladesh, these radicals have instead resorted to the online mediums to recruit, sensitize and radicalize the youths of the country.

Bangladesh has historically been a bastion of pluralism as the country’s constitution provides primacy to the secular character of the republic. However, in keeping with the global trend of militancy Bangladesh had also witnessed spate of militant activities in the preceding decades culminating in the seige of Holi Artisan Bakery.

Since the catastrophic militant activities in 2016,Bangladesh government has taken  a slew of stern measures to combat the budding radicalism in the Bangladesh and to safeguard the country’s pluralist character.Hence, terrorist and radical factions didn’t gain ground in the succeeding years and last few years Bangladesh has enjoyed enviable stability from the untoward disturbances of these militants.

However, with the technological revolution in the country, it turns out that militants have adapted their tactics to the needs of the new epoch. While previously militants had a hard time in radicalizing people owing to the vigilance of the law enforcement agencies, in the realm of the online media militant find their fortress and esconsced themselves in various social media and web platforms.

In contrast to the traditional process of radicalization, militants found online radicalization much advantageous as it provided them with the opportunity to disseminate their diabolical propaganda to more people and help them conceal their identity.

Parallel with the acceleration of the online radicalization efforts, the character of the militants victims has also changed significantly.Previously, militants sprung mainly from the disadvantaged and destitute section of the country who were ridden by poverty and devoid of traditional schooling. Radical outfits found these militants easy prey  in their efforts to mobilize gullible youths to destabilize the country.

However, with the changing mediums of radicalization, the socioeconomic background has also witnessed c. In contrast to the impoverished background of militants, the  militants radicalized through online mediums represented instead deviated youths from very affluent backgrounds and these youths possessing modern university education. 

The radicalization of these urban university-educated students has baffled the policymakers and law-enforcement agencies of the country as the motivation of these youths don’t have any compelling rationale to join these militant organizations peddling medieval agendas.

The online radicalization is attributed as the  reason for the proliferation   of more urban educated militants. These urban credulous youths are allured by the rhetoric and propaganda of the militant leaders.

The online radicalizers remain within the shroud of online platforms and try to radicalize the youths with inflammatory speeches which seek to vilify the western liberal ideals and the democratic government.

They rail against the intention of the democratic government and attribute all the blame of muslim plights to the western machination. They selectively portray  the violence in conflict ridden nations like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan and cherry-pick the graphical images and videos to sensitize the deviant youths that their religion is in peril and only the youth can safeguard the religion from the clutches of western imperialism through radical activities. This evokes a kind of jihadi zeal in the youths which persuade them to engage in millitant mission to safeguard the honor of their religion . 

 These factors prod the youths to join the radical forces  which takes huge toll on the stability of the country.Besides, online radicalization also exacerbated the comunal rifts in the country which is manifested in frequent assault on country’s minority groups based on fictitious allegation of desecration. These attacks on minority is orchestrated by shrewd fundamentist to vitiate the prevailing communa

Regulating online platforms is much more difficult than traditional platforms which make combating these propaganda very arduous. 

One of the scapegoats of their propaganda is the democratic government in the country. These propagandists portray the democratically elected government in bad light through advancing their conspiracy theories and propaganda. These propaganda distort the conception of the general people about the government even when the people don’t engage in radical activities. 

 Waging wars through propaganda have also  become an attractive option for these radicals as these radical outfits launch smear-campaigns against the government and vitiate the government image to the general people through heinous propaganda machinery. Besides, these online radical outfits peddle conspiracy theories and a simplified understanding of the history and economics of the world. Unfortunately, even the majority of the educated young youths believe in these conspiracy theories and possess a skewed vision about  liberalism and modernity. 

 During the Covid-19 era with the imposition of the repeated lockdowns, numerous such online platforms sprung up. Under the facade of providing Islamic knowledge they are pedding nonsensical and harebrained propaganda and conspiracy theories to mobilize the youth in their efforts to destabilize the country and vitiate development.

During the  languorous lockdowns the youths provided prolific idle times which have come as a windfall to these radical outfits as they have accelerated their heinous propaganda amidst Covid-19 lockdown. There are several reasons for the sudden rise in online radicalization in Bangladesh. Firstly, as mentioned above the young people are compelled to spend more time online as the day to day activities including the education of the university has shifted to online platforms. Therefore, this extra time significantly amplifies the vulnerability of the country’s youth to these terrorist activities. 

 Secondly, Covid-19 induced pandemic has unmasked the cleavages of our societies as the middle class youth find their family income shrinking and face difficulties. Besides, the pandemic has worsened the depression and grievances of the youths with the prevailing system which further increase their vulnerability to the radical impulses. 

 Thirdly, unemployment remains one of the persistent blights in youth vitality. While the country has been  significantly developed in the previous decades, the economic prosperity didn’t translate to adequate job creation which has failed the country to channel youthful energies to the further development of the country. Instead, unemployment has reached epidemic proportions. The Covid-19 pandemic has further thrown into uncertainty the future of the country’s youth, exacerbating the employment scenario of the country and disrupting education for a prolonged period. These unemployed youths find the radical ideologies attractive as these ideologies are capitalized on the grievances of these disenchanted youths. Therefore, unemployment greatly heightens the risk of youth falling prey to radical preachers. 

 Against this backdrop, the government needs to take adequate measures to counter the surging trends of  online radicalization. To that end, the government should enact proper legal measures to incorporate the online area into the laws. Besides, the government should avert the heinous propaganda campaigns by meting out proper justice to nefarious propagandists. Moreover, the government should ensure a counter sensitization of the country’s youth with the ethos of liberation war and the pluralism of the country. 

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Terrorism

Russia’s War on Terror(ism)

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The chaotic US exit strategy from Afghanistan, the quick Taliban takeover, the resurgence of Isis-K attacks and the rise of militant factions have emphasized the need for other international actors to fill the void left by the United States and map out a strategy for Central Asian stability. In the words of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the US withdrawal has opened “a Pandora’s box full of problems related to terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and, unfortunately, religious extremism”. What if Afghanistan turns out to be a hotbed for international terrorism?

Terrorism in Russia has always been a pain in the neck since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not by chance that the very word “terrorism” is mentioned at least fifteen times within the new 2021 Russian National Security Strategy. In late August, Putin took a hard line against the West’s proposal of housing refugees in Central Asia before they apply for visas to move to the United States and Europe. The message was pretty clear: “we don’t want to experience again what happened in the 1990s and the beginning of 2000s”. The traumatic years of the two Chechen Wars, the 1999 apartment bombings or the Dubrovka theater hostage crisis are still considered to be haunting phantoms. The question came up again especially in mid-2015, when the Kremlin began to fear North Caucasian returnees who had joined the Islamic State’s insurgents in the Syrian conflict.

If it is true that Russia may not have recovered from the Afghan syndrome yet; still, the risk of a fresh terrorist wave truly seems to be around the corner. In the last weeks, three special operations were conducted by the Federal Security Service (FSB) which ended up in the detention of a group of fifteen terrorists coming from Central Asia in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. Another similar operation was carried out in Ingushetia, where some supporters of the Islamic State planning attacks.

The formation of a new Taliban government ad interim itself poses serious threats to the stability of the entire region. The new Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund and the Minister of Internal Affairs Sirajuddin Haqqani are considered “terrorists” by the United Nations. The latter is the leader of the renowned Haqqani network which is said to have ties with Al-Qaeda. Last but not least, the Taliban themselves as an organization are still officially believed to be a terrorist group in Russia under a 2003 Russian Supreme Court’s ruling. According to the Russian political scientist Andrey Serenko, the Taliban victory may be a factor pushing for radicalization in other countries such as Russia.

In the last days, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov took part in a discussion hosted by the new government in Kabul with the representatives of China and Pakistan. Terrorism was among the covered topics. Immediately after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban sought to reassure the neighboring countries that the Afghan soil would not turn out to be a mushrooming ground for militant groups. However, as both Lavrov and Peskov stated, Russia is so far watching how their security promises will be kept before attempting any risky move. While keeping an eye on Kabul, Moscow is not sitting back.

Peace Mission-2021

Between September 20 and 24 the annual drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization were hosted by the Russian Federation at the Donguz training ground in the Orenburg Oblast. According to the commander of the troops of the Central Military District, Colonel General Aleksander Lapin declared that about 5,000 troops took part in the exercise.

Nine countries were involved, among which Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan. The exercise simulated the scenario of a sudden escalation of tension in Central Asia due to terrorist threats. In Colonel General Lapin’s words, the exercise was as a complete success as it showed joint combat readiness and proved to be the largest drills in the history of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Peace Mission-2021 shows the need for Russia to engage with relevant actors in Eurasia such as China. As the Chinese fear about their Wakhan corridor and the risk of extremism increases in the Xinjiang province, both Moscow and Beijing highlight the strength of the Russo-Chinese entente also in the field of anti-terrorism.

Building a thick security belt

Just as the SCO drills were unfolding, some Russian troops were involved in another exercise at the Doytym An practice range in Mongolia. No need to say that the annual drill Selenga 2021 between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar focused right on fighting international terrorism. At the beginning of September, a major counterterrorism exercise, Rubezh-2021 (Frontier-2021), together with Kyrgyz and Tajik units. Such an extensive commitment from the Mongolian steppe to the Edelweisse training range is indicative of Moscow’s will to build a thick security belt around its borders.

However, the five Stans are now not acting as a unified bloc against the Taliban threat. Kyrgyzstan has decided to send a delegation to Kabul and Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan has shown its readiness to do business with the Taliban. Tajikistan, instead, is now holding the lead of the anti-Taliban front.

As there is no “Central Asian way” to deal with the newly formed government in Kabul, Moscow is trying to tighten its grip on the region especially by betting on Dushanbe. As the risk of extremist spillover appears to be increasingly tangible, Moscow has equipped its 201st military base in Tajikistan with a batch of 12.7-mm large-caliber machine guns Utes to strengthen its combat capabilities. Moreover, after a CSTO high-level meeting in Dushanbe and the assessment of an exacerbating security situation in Central Asia, the member states decided to deploy troops along the 1300-kilometer border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Despite this, looking at the Afghan developments only as a threat is misleading. This is a unique opportunity for Moscow to reaffirm the importance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and to secure its role as top security provider in Central Asia. Despite talks between Rahmon and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to safeguard regional peace and stability, Moscow’s towering military presence and influence in the region is hard to overcome.

Resuming international cooperation?

Russia’s commitment within its backyard, however, seems not to be enough in order to fight international actors such as terrorist groups. On the anniversary of the 9/11 twin towers attacks, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov released a statement in which he called for the revival of anti-terrorist cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Back in 2018 and 2019, the Foreign Ministries of the two countries had in fact contributed to build bilateral dialogue on counterterrorism despite a conceptual gap about the nature of this threat.

In July, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned that Moscow would not approve any US troops deployment in Central Asian countries. Despite this, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and the Chief of Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov met in Helsinki to discuss joint ways to fight terrorism and extremism.

Still, resuming dialogue on anti-terrorism does not reveal a total opening toward the United States. During the UN General Assembly, in fact, Lavrov did not miss the opportunity to criticize the US for its withdrawal. The Finnish meeting must be rather understood as a sign of the Kremlin’s pragmatism in foreign policy. A few weeks after the seventeenth anniversary of the Beslan school siege, Russia is firmly committed to fight any direct or indirect threat by all means. The War on Terror(ism) continues.

From our partner RIAC

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