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To Sequestrate, or Not to Sequestrate: The Impact of Covid-19 on Military Budgets

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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic combined with the resulting economic crisis is already affecting behaviors of most countries in the world, including leading military powers. Thus, the adjustment of state expenditures, such as military budgets, is almost unavoidable in this situation. At the same time, a number of countries will inevitably try to support their technology leaders, as a rule, major weapons and equipment manufacturers included. This article attempts to forecast possible reactions of the planet’s military leaders with a focus on their priorities in the event of a deepening crisis.

In case of positive developments (i.e. limited damages and the rapid economic recovery), military programs on all sides stay practically intact and more attention is given to the automation of some processes and further “depopulation” of the military sphere.

An interim option suggests that the global restoration will last a few years and only the United States can avoid serious revisions by taking advantage of its position as the issuer of the world currency; however, some plans will likely be revised in favor of more effective employment and development of the national industry.

A negative scenario involves a serious collapse, including a number of global financial corporations becoming bankrupt. Behaviors of the military leaders and countries of the Second or Third Echelon will differ dramatically: the latter will practically stop the procurement of new equipment and in some cases be forced to make substantial reductions in the armed forces; the former will consider the military industry, first of all, in the context of saving their own economies, which implies significant changes in priorities, the preservation of serial productions of equipment, albeit in reduced production volumes, and the slow-down of expensive and promising R&D, which in early stages mainly generates costs.

The USA: More Money for Each and Every One!

The U.S. behavior in financing military programs will generally be determined by its macroeconomic policy, which so far has been within the expected range: the Federal Reserve has already announced extensive new measures to support the economy, including the explicitly stated program of supporting a generous lending to businesses. US President Donald Trump, in turn, decides against the nation-wide quarantine in order to ensure the functioning of economy, though, a final decision on this issue is yet to be made.

Given statements made and the memorandum issued by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen M. Lord on the need to maintain the production of armaments and military equipment, it can be assumed that the United States, at least in the nearest future, intends not to reduce its military production programs.

Nevertheless, the memorandum outlines some priorities and the following areas were identified in this capacity: aerospace; mechanical and software engineers; manufacturing/production workers; IT support; security staff; intelligence support; aircraft and weapons systems mechanics and maintainers; suppliers of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals; and critical transportation.

Based on these priorities, it can be concluded that, most likely, all programs on upgrading the U.S. Air Force as well as space programs will be preserved. In addition, existing contracts concluded for the production of military equipment for other types of armed forces will be executed in order to provide support for production enterprises. At the same time, it is possible that some R&D expenses will be reduced in early stages of the cycle as they require substantial funds and not give a large number of jobs and man-hours in the short term.

This approach cannot be called new. A support for the economy through government spending, including the military one, was characteristic of the American leadership in the midst of the Great Depression in the early 1930s. The economic crisis did not obstruct financing of the construction of almost two dozen cruisers, four aircraft carriers, and a large number of ships of other classes for the U.S. Navy during this period; at the same time, the polit-military situation at that moment did not necessitate strengthened procurement; however, a few projects in initial stages of development were put on hold, which subsequently led to a shortage of modern equipment in the U.S. Army and military aviation in the first period of World War II.

The key difference with the current situation is the transition of priorities from the fleet to the Air Force and the space group. The fleet can still get its share in the form of increasing the production volume of existing types of ships and vessels. Previously announced plans to increase the number of U.S. Navy ships of main classification types to 355 are likely to remain in the category of intentions, especially taking into account the probable early disposal of various obsolete assets and the ability to order new ones to replace them.

Russia: Revising Priorities

Given the general economic environment, the situation for Russia is different: the ruble is not a world currency or a universal medium of exchange, which limits possibilities of supporting the national economy by emission methods, the way the United States is trying to do. A fall in budget revenues, due both to the collapse of oil prices and the reduction in tax revenues because of the economic downturn aggravated by the current pandemic, will inevitably require a revision of the state armament program priorities, even if nominal costs do not change.

Taking into account the traditional prioritization of the Russian military development in the post-Soviet period, objects of the defense spending sequestration are totally clear. Most likely programs for the Navy, which is already at the bottom of the military priorities pyramid, will be reviewed, including the development of new projects of capital ships (the new generation of aircraft carriers and Leader-class destroyers) and the reduction in infrastructure renovation costs in several districts, such as the Arctic. The program of modernization of ships and submarines built in 1980–1990s is also at risk, given the previous tendency to exceed funding figures and shift work timeframes. In face of quarantine measures, plans to construct new ships within the framework of the state defense order for 2020 are sure to be tilted.

Land forces are also among the likeliest victims. The high cost of finalizing and launching a series of new models of armored vehicles on promising Armata, Kurganets, and Boomerang platforms has already forced lifting the large-scale production of these vehicles, and they again become the first in line for budget cuts in the current situation. At the same time, artillery weapon modernization programs will most probably be unaffected, given the growing role of long-range artillery systems equipped with the guided ammunition and the target designation from unmanned aerial vehicles, among other things.

The nuclear deterrence and aerospace forces remain as priorities for the Russian military construction, but a revision of expenditures is inevitable here too. In the area of strategic nuclear forces, projects for the revival of railway-based ICBM most likely will be canceled. They are currently represented by Barguzin ICBM, the need and serial prospects of which have repeatedly arose doubts. Developing the Burevestnik nuclear-armed cruise missile with a nuclear propulsion system will be certainly postponed (if not completely canceled). At the same time, serial productions of ballistic missiles Yars and Bulava, as well as Sarmat, all of which are in late stages of development, will continue per program.

As of procurement for the aerospace forces, the first to suffer will be early-stage developments: promising Long-Range Aviation and Transport Aviation branches (PAK DA, PAK TA). A reduction of funding is also possible for a number of other projects, such as the upgrade of Su-30 fighter aircrafts and Su-34 bomber/strike aircrafts, the development of a promising medium military transport aircraft, the new product family of Marine Corps helicopters, etc. At the same time, the military department and the industry leadership will probably strive to maintain the serial production of modern aircrafts, so the termination of the procurement of aircrafts under construction is implausible.

With respect to air defense and missile defense technologies, the S-500 missile system, encountering high expectations as a promising air defense/missile defense weapon in the theater of operations, will certainly go into serial production. A shift to the right is also possible for the large-scale delivery of S-350, a non-critical element in the Russian air defense system production line, as its range of operations is covered by other systems from above and from below.

Space vehicles will inevitably preserve, and possibly improve, their positions in the priority list, given the vital role of space reconnaissance, navigation, and communications in ensuring the country’s defense capabilities, as well as prospects for the deployment of anti-satellite weapons by leading global actors. In this regard, the development of electronic technologies for space military equipment almost unavoidably becomes a top priority, the procurement of imported equipment being even more complicated than ever before.

To the detriment of traditional weapon systems, the share of spending for unmanned vehicles, especially battlefield UAVs, will significantly increase on account of capabilities they have demonstrated in local conflicts, particularly in Syria. The availability of workable reconnaissance-strike systems, including reconnaissance-strike UAVs, space-based systems, long-range artilleries, and the aviation with high-precision weapons, can drastically reduce the number of traditional weapons systems needed to solve most tasks on the battlefield.

Europe: At Whose Expense?

Military budgets of European countries are very difficult to compare, primarily because expenditures of Germany, the top 5 world economy, for instance, and Estonia, one of the world’s smallest economies, are formed on the basis of completely different priorities. European countries in the Second or Third Echelon have already begun to reduce military spending during the ongoing crisis, for example, the Czech Republic envisages postponing the purchase of military equipment worth CZK 2.9 billion (about USD 120 million). Defense budget corrections are expected in other NATO countries as well. At the same time, Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg encouraged the member states not just to maintain but even increase their military spending.

Potential effects of the current crisis on the stability and prospects of the NATO Alliance as a whole is a separate topic worthy of reflection, but within the framework of this article a primary focus will be given to expected behaviors of European countries and leaders of the Alliance, whose military spending can be a tool to save their own and the pan-European economy.

From this point of view, one should await a reduction in expenditures for exercises, as not creating additional jobs their costs only bring losses in a crisis situation. The ongoing pandemic has already led to such a reduction by forcing to cancel scheduled series of NATO exercises, and given economic prospects, no one is expecting large-scale exercises the following year.

NATO leaders will also have to solve the complicated issue of supporting their arms and military equipment manufacturers, that is technology leaders of the European industry, and this pie will need to be cut for several eaters at once. The simplest case is Great Britain, which stopped being a EU member this year, as the support of BAE Systems is its, and partly the U.S.’s, national task; however, within the continental Europe the competition among manufacturers for a share in military spending and anti-crisis packages will sharply increase.

A substantial part of the military budgets will certainly be redirected to sustain Airbus. Provided the expected many-fold reduction in Airbus deliveries, the fall of the company, which was very likely to happen, will leave Europe without its own civilian aircraft manufacturer. The rescue of Airbus will require, among other things, the participation of Great Britain, whose industry is equally interested in maintaining the existence of a pan-European manufacturer of civilian aircrafts.

What is anticipated for combat aircrafts is, first, braking the work process on existing European perspective fighters (French-German FCAS, British-Italian Tempest) and second, a possible revision of current procurement plans by a number of countries, especially with regard to the U.S. 5th Generation F-35 fighter, shifting the timeline to the right: Europe’s participation in this program is not so extensive and makes no warranties in the period when belts must be tightened.

The work on the promising Franco-German tank project KANT, which has been underway since 2015, will be postponed as well. The project involves the creation of a single main battle tank for the armies of the two countries. At this stage, the project requires further investment, but hardly creates production orders or jobs, unlike serial armored vehicles.

Still, this is a longer-term prospect; for now the epidemic is slowing down the ongoing working process. Fincantieri (Italy) and Navantia (Spain) shipbuilding groups, for example, have already reduced their activities. Considering serious damages that the epidemic has already caused to both countries, especially in terms of declining tourism revenues in GDP, it can be assumed that further activities of the defense industries in Italy and Spain will be revised based on their states of the economy in the post-epidemic period. French shipbuilders, who have not yet stopped productions but have reduced their activities and changed some work protocols, too will have to revise their plans. The priority task for the Naval Groupi is to maintain the combat effectiveness of French nuclear submarines and the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. That said, it is thus far difficult to say what kind of impact the crisis will have on the scheduled test program of Suffren submarine, the newest Barracuda class attack submarine.

Nonetheless, according to Petr Topychkanov, Senior Researcher at SIPRI, there is no reason to expect big changes: “The current crisis is another reason for NATO to urge its members to integrate more and increase military capabilities and expenditures. In addition to the traditional threat in the form of the eastern neighbor, whose name was mentioned in connection with the information policy allegedly pursued to spread disinformation and panic over COVID-19, there are now new threats like the virus itself, and the Alliance members were not quite ready for it (but who was ready?). While European countries are only approaching the peak of the epidemic, it is difficult to predict its long-term effect on military spending and the development of the defense industry. So far, we have not heard about the serious need to reduce military spending in favor of restoring the socio-economic sphere. The absence of such rhetoric, together with signals from NATO, suggest that the Alliance members will try to maintain or even increase military spending. Because of the crisis, they will have to adjust priorities, revise schedules, but these changes are unlikely to lead to a long-term decline in military expenditure or the withdrawal of large companies from the arms market”.

A Scenario Check

Any forecast should describe a future scenario that can later be checked for compliance with real events, further assessing the given forecast. The above outlined provisions can briefly be summarized as follows:

In case of positive developments (i.e. limited damages and the rapid economic recovery), military programs on all sides stay practically intact and more attention is given to the automation of some processes and further “depopulation” of the military sphere;

An interim option suggests that the global restoration will last a few years and only the United States can avoid serious revisions by taking advantage of its position as the issuer of the world currency. Some plans, tough, will likely be revised in favor of more effective employment and development of the national industry;

A negative scenario involves a serious collapse, including a number of global financial corporations becoming bankrupt. Behaviors of the military leaders and countries of the Second or Third Echelon will differ dramatically: the latter will practically stop the procurement of new equipment and in some cases be forced to make substantial reductions in the armed forces; the former will consider the military industry, first of all, in the context of saving their own economies, which implies significant changes in priorities, the preservation of serial productions of equipment, albeit in reduced production volumes, and the slow-down of expensive and promising R&D, which in early stages mainly generates costs.

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Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race

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A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.

North Korea ramps up tensions

According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.

Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.

South Korea joins in on the missile testing

Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.

Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.

Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”

The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.

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HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds

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Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.

The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.

Shared goals

Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.

Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.

Shared enemies

In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.

HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.

Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.

The bottom line

Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.

To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.

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To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.

Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.

The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’  of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.

Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.

Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”

Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.

Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia  as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.

China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.

Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”

The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.

Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.

Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.

Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.

Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for  “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.

Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.

The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”

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