The article was originally published in Russian on August, 10—before the hasty U.S. military withdrawal and the subsequent takeover of the country and its government by the Taliban. Some parts of the article may therefore contain somewhat outdated vocabulary.
For more than 40 years, Afghanistan has seen non-stop military hostilities, with ten years of the Soviet war in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, another ten years of civil wars—first between the victorious mujahedeen, then between the mujahedeen and the Taliban—with the following twenty years taken up by the military presence of the U.S. and NATO . Today, Afghanistan is reminiscent of a disturbed wasps’ nest.
In India, they call Afghanistan “the heart of Asia” as often as not, since the country stands at an intersection point of many regional and global issues. This is potentially fraught with many security problems for Russia and for those post-Soviet Central Asian states whose security is guaranteed by Moscow either because of their CSTO membership (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) or because of close bilateral ties (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). In early July 2021, Tajikistan officially applied to the CSTO for assistance in protecting its border with Afghanistan.
Here are the three principal episodes in Russia’s recent military history connected with Afghanistan:
- The well-known Soviet-Afghan war (1979–1989).
- Separating the parties in the 1990s during the civil war in Tajikistan; subsequently, Russian border guards were involved in skirmishes on the Afghan-Tajik border. The most dramatic episode involved militants killing 25 Russian border guards on 13 July 1993 at Border Outpost 12 of the Moscow Border Detachment. Khattab, future leader of Chechen militants, was one of the militants’ commanders in that battle.
- Russia’s involvement in the 1999 Batken Conflict in Kyrgyzstan under the CIS Collective Security Treaty. During that mini-war, members of the Al-Qaeda-related Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group, attempted to break through into their native country following large-scale terrorist attacks in Tashkent, and became bogged down in the Batken Region of Kyrgyzstan .
We might also add here the close ties between the more radical wing of North Caucasian militants and the Taliban via Al-Qaeda . The latter was actively involved in the last two Chechen wars. The bombers who carried out many of the terrorist attacks in Russia had been trained by Al-Qaeda instructors sent from Afghanistan. The key person liaising between Afghanistan and Chechnya was the mentioned above Amir ibn al-Khattab, a well-known warlord and Shamil Basaev’s main ally; previously, he had fought against the USSR in Afghanistan (1987–1992), then he transferred his “jihad” to Tajikistan (1993) and Chechnya (1994–1995).
Additionally, before our very eyes, the militants who fought against Russia in Syria (primarily, post-Soviet space natives) are forming a new connection with Afghanistan via the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS – Khorasan Province), an ISIS territorial unit in Afghanistan, as well as via ethnic terrorist groups with ties to Al-Qaeda.
Russia inevitably perceives growing threats in Afghanistan and in Central Asia in the context of the above events.
Interconnected threats of international terrorism in Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Middle East
As the U.S. withdraws its troops and the civil war grows progressively bitter, the instability in Afghanistan is creating major security problems for Central Asian states.
Even if we take the many Taliban statements at face value, believing that they will refrain from attacking the Central Asian states (the latest such statement was made on July 8, 2021, in Moscow), there is still a threat posed by the many extremist ethnic groups consisting of the post-Soviet space natives, who are currently based in the north of Afghanistan, close to the borders with Central Asian states. The Taliban’s recent offensive and its approach to the borders of states in the region has done nothing but exacerbate the problem. Moreover, this is inevitable since Northern Afghanistan is the historical lands of the Emirate of Bukhara populated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Kyrgyz, just like the lands on the other side of the former Soviet border. Regional actors are already being pulled into the Afghan conflict.
On July 8, 2021, Taliban representatives claimed in Moscow that they controlled over 90% of Afghanistan’s borders and 85% of its territory (although control over many districts and administrative centers was contested). According to Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security, the Taliban had seized control of over 70% of the 1,430-kilometre Tajik-Afghan border. The Taliban offensive forced over 2,000 Afghan troops into Tajikistan. About 1,500 residents of Badakhshan also fled to Tajikistan to escape the Taliban, and they were not only ethnic Tajiks but Kyrgyz as well. These events made Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at the Security Council, order mobilization of 20,000 reserve troops to strengthen the defense of the border with Afghanistan. Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s Defense Minister, said Russia was ready to provide military assistance to Tajikistan should any threats emerge from Afghanistan.
The danger for Russia is increasing as terrorist groups defeated in Syria and Iraq (ISIS in particular) are showing a growing interest in relocating to Afghanistan and Central Asia (and Africa). Sergey Shoigu said, “We, certainly, very much hope that some consensus and national reconciliation will be achieved in Afghanistan. Yet, we also see ISIS units very actively moving, relocating there from various regions, including Syria and Libya”.
There is also the issue of “terrorist emigration” by militants of Central Asian origins who might either return home from the Middle East (posing a threat of terrorist attack in their home states), or else go to fight in the neighboring Afghanistan. Central Asian militants present a regional and global terrorist threat. In 2017 alone, they carried out four major terrorist attacks in the U.S., Turkey, Sweden and Russia. Russia, just like the global community as a whole, is therefore interested in preventing terrorist groups from taking root in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
As per the Soufan Centre report, militants from Central Asia fighting in Syria and Iraq number over 5,000. By country of origin, they form the following picture: Kazakhstan – over 500 (11.90%), Kyrgyzstan — over 500 (11.90%), Tajikistan — 1,300 (30.95%), Turkmenistan – over 400 (9.52%), Uzbekistan — over 1,500 (35.71%). Central Asian militants, together with China’s Uighurs and militants from Russia’s Northern Caucasus, fought on the side of ISIS in the Middle East . Central Asia natives also supported several smaller Middle Eastern terrorist groups banned in Russia, such as Imam Bukhari Jamaat, Jaish al-Muhajireen, Sayfullakh Shishani’s Jamaat, Tawhid Wal Jihad, etc.
Another threat is posed by cross-border criminal groups fighting for control over contraband flows, particularly over drug trafficking along the “Northern Route” from Afghanistan via Central Asia to Russia and then to Eastern and Northern Europe. The latter development is particularly important since drug profits are among the sources used to finance terrorism .
In addition to these problems, the following factors enhance the Afghanistan- and Central Asia-related threat to Russia:
- Extensive Islamic propaganda in Central Asia using the latest means of communication.
- The regional identity crisis that emerged after the collapse of the USSR. Kadyr Malikov, an eminent Kyrgyz theologian, notes, “The crisis stemmed from disappointment in secular authorities and in the traditional clergy. The traditional clergy are unable to respond properly to current political issues and confine themselves entirely to performing rites. They are not competent to answer questions about politics or jihad. In addition, we might mention the high level of corruption, particularly in law enforcement, unjust courts, the overall weakness of the state and social problems. All these have a certain impact. In that respect, Central Asia has all the conditions for radicalization.”
- There is a “risk group” for Islamist recruiting that includes migrant workers, millions of whom travel from Central Asia to Russia to earn money. These people are particularly vulnerable to jihadist propaganda.
- Several factors categorize some regional states as “fragile” ones. Their “fragility” (see, for instance, the Fragile States Index) creates a potential for them to become “failed states.”
- There is an obvious connection between the region’s rampant corruption and drug trafficking, transport of drugs from Afghanistan to Russia along the northern route. The endemic corruption among the region’s secular institutions is the principal target for Islamist propaganda.
- Poverty is spreading among the agrarian overpopulation, overlapping with a shortage of water and fertile soil, while Soviet-era education, healthcare and social security systems are falling apart. Population density in the Fergana Valley is among the world’s highest, having grown 32% over the last ten years. Today, Salafism and Wahhabism are popular in the valley, and foreign preachers and recruiters are very active there.
- Major conflicts between states, particularly in the Fergana Valley, including those between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which exacerbated in the spring of 2021 and resulted in large-scale military clashes.
- In some cases, going underground and further radicalization are the only way to survive for proponents of political Islam. In Kyrgyzstan, the authorities permit Pakistan’s Tablighi Jamaat to function, though this Islamic organization banned in many CIS states.
- The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the problems of inefficient governance in some regional states.
ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Danger they pose to Central Asia
The danger for Central Asia’s post-Soviet states is typically linked with the activities of the most sinister global terrorist groups, ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Let us then consider an ISIS penetration into Afghanistan and a step-up in Al-Qaeda activities. We will look at these developments specifically in connection with the situation in the north of Afghanistan and on the borders of Central Asian states.
Small individual groups supporting ISIS appeared in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the autumn of 2014. The first extremist ideologues in Afghanistan were probably foreign militants from among Pakistanis, Chechens, other natives of Northern Caucasus and Central Asia (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz) and of China (Uighurs). At the next stage, groups that had split off from Pakistan’s Taliban played an important role in the entrenchment of ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military conducted the massive Zarb-e-Azb operation. As a result, large numbers of Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist groups were pushed from Pakistan’s Waziristan and Baluchistan into Afghanistan, thereby spurring a massive penetration into Afghanistan by ISIS-connected militants and making some Pakistani Taliban change allegiance. Pushed into Afghanistan, large numbers of Pakistani Taliban pledged loyalty to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Russian and Tajik experts noted in their report, “Now, in Afghanistan, one frequently hears and reads that, in the spring and summer of 2014, the first Pakistan’s intelligence agency (ISI) and CIA members, and then the ISI and leaders of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban concluded a secret agreement on redeploying militants. Allegedly, as armed groups are “pushed out” of Pakistan, they are, under this agreement, offered a corridor to retreat to Afghanistan; they are even encouraged to move to north-eastern, northern and western provinces of Afghanistan.” 
Over a very short period, ISIS largely managed to become entrenched in Afghanistan as well as turn into an important local actor. In the assessment provided by Dr Mirwais Balkhi of Afghanistan’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, ISIS – Khorasan Province differs from other terrorist groups, including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, in that it is more belligerent and better at ensuring its economic independence, recruits mostly educated young people, is more pragmatic on a whole range of issues, forms more efficient and decentralized terrorist networks, and is more active on the Internet.
As militants were pushed out of northern Pakistan into Afghanistan in the winter and spring of 2015, new logistics corridors were created for providing supplies to these groups. Members of the Afghan power structures are convinced that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has a hand in ISIS militants appearing in Afghanistan and supports them. Abdul Qadeer, Deputy Speaker of the Lower House of Afghanistan’s parliament, states that militants had been transported by unmarked mysterious helicopters. In January 2016, four unidentified helicopters landed in a district of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province controlled by the militants. In the summer of 2021, Sergey Shoigu said, “ISIS movements appear to be fairly well organized.”
Massive funding from the Middle East became an important recorded factor behind the penetration of ISIS militants into Afghanistan. In particular, Zamir Kabulov, Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan, said that ISIS receives up to 70% of its funding from abroad, while profits from its activities in Afghanistan (including drug trafficking) cover about 30% of its spending. Many Afghan observers note ISIS’s excellent supplies. For instance, Abdul Zahir Qadeer, First Deputy Speaker of the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament, voiced concern over how well-armed the militants in Nanganhar province were. As he said, they had everything apart from tanks and helicopters.
ISIS did not penetrate into Afghanistan incidentally or spontaneously. This process has been supported by major regional and possibly global forces. It is, therefore, impossible to ignore the factor of ISIS-Khorasan Province as the key threat to regional security. There are many conspiracy theories in this respect in the region itself as well as in the East and in the West; we shall not analyze them now, as a separate study would be needed for this.
Several groups of foreign militants were particularly inclined to abandon the Taliban for Al-Qaeda, especially groups connected with post-Soviet states. In August 2015, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, previously believed to be part of Al-Qaeda, published a video with some of its members announcing they were joining ISIS. Part of the Jundallah group—previously financed from Saudi Arabia and based in Pakistan—pledged allegiance to ISIS, with this playing an important role in this terrorist group’s penetration into Kunduz Province. In late 2015, there were reports coming from Baghlan Province (Borka District) of ISIS militants appearing there, whereas Jundallah militants played an important part in this development as well.
Besides, Afghanistan authorities connected ISIS’s interest in the north of Afghanistan with the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria. In October 2016, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s Senior Vice President, citing reports by special services, warned that ISIS was planning to move thousands of militants from Iraq and Syria to the north of Afghanistan by the spring of 2017. Dostum said they were mostly natives of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the North Caucasus . Both in the north and in the east of Afghanistan, foreign militants play a major part in ISIS penetrating into the country. Governor Mohammad Omar Safi believes that militants from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and the North Caucasus have, in particular, been seen in Kunduz Province.
Following its defeat in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is currently expressing a growing interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Essentially, the growing instability in Afghanistan provides ISIS with an opportunity to regain a territorial base it had lost in the Middle East.
As was noted by Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, several northern Afghan provinces have militant training centers connected with various international terrorist groups. The latter are affiliated with the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, various ethnic groups (natives of Central Asian states and the Caucasus, Uighurs, Arabs).
Even Afghanistan’s formerly trouble-free north is subject to increasing chaos, as is confirmed by reports by various anti-government units periodically exchanging the Taliban’s white flag for the ISIS black flag and vice versa. This change of flags depends on various situational factors—particularly, money coming in from outside sponsors—or on other short-term political interests.
Various ethnic groups connected with Al-Qaeda present, alongside ISIS, a no less serious danger for the post-Soviet space. Such groups are also gathering in Northern Afghanistan. In this connection, we should note that the Afghan authorities and representatives of the international coalition spoke about Al-Qaeda stepping up its activities in Afghanistan as far back as 2015–2016, while Russian and Central Asian experts confirmed this. Currently, there are also many reports of Al-Qaeda militants fighting against Afghanistan’s government armed forces in the north of the country, among other regions. The Taliban never officially announced it was cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, while the latter’s representatives in Afghanistan repeatedly pledged allegiance to the Taliban leaders.
Will the Taliban oppose ISIS and Al-Qaeda?
The key issue connected with ensuring security for the post-Soviet Central Asia is whether the Taliban will interact with ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the many ethnic groups linked to these two terrorist organizations and include post-Soviet space natives. The Taliban has repeatedly claimed their opposition to ISIS, stating that they would not attack the Central Asian states. They repeated that statement at the press conference in Moscow on 8 July. We shall not forget that this does not apply to Al-Qaeda or ethnic post-Soviet groups.
If the Taliban is, indeed, able and willing to oppose ISIS effectively, this could be very positive for Russia as an aspect in resolving the Afghan problem, as was particularly pointed out by Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov.
Afghanistan’s future is hard to predict. We can only attempt to list the takeaways from expert discussions concerning confrontation or, on the contrary, cooperation between the Taliban and ISIS.
As the militants pushed out of Pakistan made their way to Afghanistan, ISIS launched a propaganda campaign to convince the Afghani Taliban to pledge allegiance to ISIS. On January 25, 2015, ISIS “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called the Taliban leader mullah Omar “an illiterate and uneducated militant.” ISIS subsequently announced it was establishing ISIS–Khorasan Province spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of India and Iran, the post-Soviet Central Asian states and China’s Xingjian.
Following the appearance of ISIS–Khorasan, some Taliban units went over to its side owing to, among other factors, the influx of funds from the Middle East, support for ISIS along logistics channels from northern Pakistan, and conflicts between various Taliban units over control over the profits from poppy plantations and heroin-producing labs. Terror and intimidation by former Taliban militants played an important role in their transfer to ISIS.
Currently, the global expert community is debating the fundamental factors that hinder former Taliban militants from joining ISIS ranks or, on the contrary, encourage them to do so.
On the one hand, most experts agree there are significant ideological differences between the Taliban and ISIS, which makes the ISIS ideology alien to Afghanistan in general and its Pashtun population in particular. The Taliban follow the fairly moderate Hanafi Islam that allows folk traditions. Moreover, along with Islam, a key part in the Taliban ideology is played by the traditional Pashtun code of honor (Pashtunwali). ISIS members are the most hard-core and intransigent Salafists who reject all folk traditions and customs in the name of “pure” Islam.
Besides, ISIS and the Taliban have significant political differences. The Taliban’s goals are generally confined to Afghanistan. It is essentially a nationalist Pashtun movement, be they Afghan or Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban’s goal is to establish a Pashtun Islamic emirate, expelling foreigners and ensuring Pashtun domination of non-Pashtun territories in Afghanistan. ISIS represents the most radical Jihadism and Salafism, and its goal is to establish a global Islamic caliphate, which requires all-out war against outside infidels and domestic “heretics.” Moreover, the essence of ISIS ideology is expecting the impending “end of the world”, a tenet making Taliban’s nation-building tasks rather pointless.
Yet, does this mean that the Taliban and ISIS cannot cooperate at all? A closer scrutiny of their ideologies and political goals uncovers a large number of indirect links. As improbable as an alliance between individual groups within the Taliban and ISIS might appear at first glance, it is in fact quite likely.
Point 1. Just like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Taliban, when in power, did fight “non-Islamic” folk traditions and cultural monuments—the large-scale destruction of historical monuments and the Buddhas of Bamiyan are worthy of particular attention.
Point 2. Both the Taliban and Takfiri Salafists have never shied away from using mass terror against their opponents within Islam. For instance, they treated Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiites and certain other representatives of non-Pashtun minorities with particular cruelty. ISIS penetration into Afghanistan tends to go hand in hand with active terrorist attacks against Shiites (particularly the Hazaras, with their Iranian connections).
Point 3. In Afghanistan, ISIS is already becoming “Afghanized” and “Pashtunized.” The leaders of “Khorasan Province” are Pashtuns rather than Arabs (primarily, of Pakistani origin). In this “Pashtunized” form, ISIS ideology and practices prove far more acceptable for Afghani Pashtuns.
Point 4. Predecessors of the Taliban and ISIS have long been engaged in cooperation and subject to mutual influence; historically, these two structures are closely linked. We are talking about the multiple training camps set up in Pakistan by bin Laden during the war against the USSR. In the Arab world, Al-Qaeda ultimately grew out of these camps while ISIS emerged from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Similar camps in Afghanistan were the predecessors of the Taliban already in the 1990s. Both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were initially closely connected with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and with sponsors from among radical Arab Islamic foundations. Al-Qaeda shares many elements of ISIS ideology (historically, ISIS split off from Al-Qaeda). Simultaneously, Al-Qaeda quite successfully co-operates with the Taliban.
Point 5. The claim that the Taliban wish to confine themselves to Afghanistan and Pashtun lands in Pakistan is quite debatable. Short-term, the Taliban were not strong enough for anything else but they did have expansionist plans (at least, indirectly by aiding Al-Qaeda) . Officially, the Taliban claim they will not wage war against Central Asian regimes (this claim was repeated during the Taliban representatives’ visit to Moscow in the summer of 2021). Indeed, there had been no direct Taliban incursions into Central Asia in the 1990s, when the Taliban approached the borders of the former Soviet republics. Yet, the Taliban, via Al-Qaeda, have always actively supported the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian extremist groups, maintaining an allied relationship with them throughout the years. And those groups, in turn, carried out incursions and terrorist attacks in Central Asia (suffice it to recall the terrorist attacks in Tashkent and the Batken Conflict in Kyrgyzstan in 1999).
Point 6. ISIS, as Al-Qaeda before it, has certain advantages over the Taliban in the north of Afghanistan and in Central Asia. This terrorist organization might appeal not only to Pashtuns; it could thus attract people from non-Pashtun ethnic groups in Afghanistan as well as numerous international terrorists coming to Afghanistan (particularly, after being pushed out of the north of Pakistan). Therefore, ISIS in the north is becoming a valuable ally for the Taliban, and it is no accident that these two organizations are locked in conflict only in the east of the country.
Point 7. There are already suspicions that the Taliban and ISIS are vying for control over drug trafficking in only a very small area, namely, in the east of Afghanistan (in the lands populated solely by the Pashtuns). In the non-Pashtun north, there is no confrontation between them; rather, both organizations there oppose the government forces and the remainders of the Northern Alliance. Most Russian experts are in agreement on this. Essentially, even Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, acknowledged this fact in September 2015. At a multimedia roundtable in Kabul, he noted, “There are places where there are actually fighting between the Taliban and ISIS because they do not share some of their belief systems in the way things should be done and then there are other places where there doesn’t appear to be fighting and so these are all things that we are going to have understand in the future.”
Point 8. Both ISIS and the Taliban receive supplies along the same logistics corridors passing through Pakistan, and these corridors are generally most likely to be held by the Taliban rather than ISIS. So, an ISIS unit appearing in any Afghanistan district—particularly, so far away from Pakistan—means that ISIS members have at the very least reached agreement with the Taliban on letting their weapons-carrying caravans through Taliban-controlled lands. This provides grounds for the many rumors circulating in Afghanistan about collusion between ISIS and the Taliban.
Viewing the situation in dynamics, we see that the existence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda additionally stimulate the Taliban’s radicalization. If the Taliban leadership concludes a peace agreement with the government, the Taliban’s most radical part—primarily, its younger members—might go over to ISIS in droves.
Last Argument of Kings
What could and should Russia do to combat the threat of instability around Afghanistan and Central Asia?
Once prime minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu ordered that the words “Ultima ratio regis” (Latin for “Last argument of kings”) be inscribed on French cannons. The meaning of this inscription is that every diplomatic avenue should first be explored to prevent a conflict, so weapons become the final argument only if diplomacy fails.
As Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov recently noted at a RIA Novosti briefing, the threat to Russia from Afghanistan will only materialize if nothing is done to counteract it.
A rational analysis of Russia’s stance on Afghanistan reveals two levels of effort to neutralize this threat.
The first is the efforts made by Russia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs to resolve the tangled net of global and regional knots that has tightened around Afghanistan so that the exacerbating conflict surrounding this country would not affect Russia. This is an extremely complicated task requiring both wisdom and flexibility.
We shall briefly describe the complexity of the tasks Russian diplomacy is facing. Afghanistan found itself at the center of regional differences between 1) the U.S. and Russia and 2) China and the U.S. There are several regional conflicts adjacent to Afghanistan: 1) the India–Pakistan conflict; 2) partially, the conflict between India and China (as Pakistan’s key ally); 3) the conflict between Iran and the Persian Gulf monarchies, Shiites and Sunnis in the Greater Middle East; 4) contradictions between the Pashtuns and Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities, with Tajiks playing the key part, and the problem of the Pashtun people divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Contradictions between the U.S., on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other (particularly when Moscow and Beijing agreed to connect China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the EAEU, which is particularly important for Central Asia) are well-known. Less so are regional frictions that are fraught with a big war of “all against all”, like in Syria or Libya.
For instance, with Iran’s help, Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiites established the Fatemiyoun brigade, a highly battle-worthy militia. It is battle-tested (in Syria, in particular) and can be used against the Taliban since the Hazaras had a very negative experience of terror against Shiites during the Taliban’s short-lived rule. During the war with the Americans (this is a debatable question since the Taliban themselves rather speak of ISIS in this context), the Taliban frequently carried out terrorist attacks against Shiites in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Sunni-Shia conflict can thus easily spread from the Middle East to Afghanistan—owing, among other things, to the money that regularly flows into Afghanistan from the Persian Gulf states.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two countries divided by the conventional Durand Line drawn by the British colonial authorities. The majority of Pashtuns (Afghanistan’s titular ethnic group) live in Pakistan. Consequently, Islamabad is interested in a government in Kabul that would not broach the question of Pashtunistan’s independence. In turn, India will, to the bitter end, support any Afghan government that will steer an independent course in relation to Pakistan. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is a special actor, and its different branches are connected with such variegated forces as China, the U.S., and the Persian Gulf states (where many Pakistani military serve in local armies by way of a “side hustle”) . Hence comes the tendency of Afghan political forces to blame all their country’s problems on Pakistani intelligence.
Afghanistan is being riven by inter-ethnic problems between the Pashtuns and ethnic minorities. Should the situation destabilize further, a new confrontation might develop between the Taliban and the renewed Northern Alliance. Different forces will turn to different actors for assistance. Pashtuns, for instance, will turn to Pakistan, possibly also to China, the U.S. or the Persian Gulf states; the Hazaras will turn to Iran; Tajiks will turn to Tajikistan, Russia and possibly India; Uzbeks will turn to Uzbekistan, Turkey and Russia. Such developments already took place in the 1990s during the civil war between Tajik and Pashtun mujahedeen and then between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
The second direction in Russia’s Afghanistan policy is the efforts undertaken by the Defense Ministry and the CSTO to strengthen the defense of Central Asian states whose security is guaranteed by Russia. This means shaping a sort of external “rampart” to protect Russia should the situation in Afghanistan suddenly exacerbate. Given all the difficulties with the diplomatic settlement, this direction is of crucial importance.
In the CSTO, Russia delivers arms to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at subsidized prices or even gratis. Members of the military from the CSTO states are given training at subsidized prices. Russia has military bases in Tajikistan (base 201, former Division 201) and Kyrgyzstan (the airbase in Kant); there are also other military facilities in the CSTO states. The CSTO holds regular exercises intended to counter militants possibly breaking through the border (the Border exercises) and to combat drug trafficking into Russia, which could also be used to finance militants (the Channel exercises).
Recently, there has been a rapprochement between the stances of Russia and Uzbekistan. In particular, there are the August 5–10, 2021 joint exercises by the militaries of Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Kharb-Maidon range 20 km from the Tajik-Afghan border.
Importantly, as Russia aids Central Asian states in ensuring their security, it also assists in ensuring Europe’s security. Afghanis already constitute one of the three main refugee groups in Germany (together with Syrians and Iraqis). So far, the waves of Afghani refugees have not affected the northern (Russian) direction. Yet, this is a possible development in the event of a major destabilization on the borders of Afghanistan and Central Asia (as already happened in the 1990s when first the supporters of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and then refugees from the Tajikistani civil war fled to Russia). Tajikistan is already getting ready for this new wave of refugees, with the U.S. having specifically inquired whether Central Asian states could take some of the refugees. In this case, a new wave of refugees will most likely overrun Europe as well.
- The Taliban is a terrorist group banned in Russia.
- The terrorist group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is banned in Russia.
- Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.
- Particularly zealous ISIS warlords included Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was half-Georgian and half-Chechen, and former SWAT Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, a Tajik.
- See: Andrey Kazantsev. Scenarios and Trends in Central Asian CSTO Collective Security After 2014. IIS MGIMO: Analytical Papers 2 (37). July 2013. (in Russian)
- Akbarsho Iskandarov, Kosimsho Iskandarov, Ivan Safranchuk. A New Stage of the Afghan Crisis and Tajikistan’s Security. A Report. Valdai Discussion Club. Moscow. August 2016. P. 3, 4-5.
- Report on the situation in Afghanistan delivered at ICWA, New Delhi, 2016.
- Reported in the Hashte-Subh newspaper, 16 October, Kabul.
- For more detail, see: W. Muzhdah. Afghanistan in five years of Taliban’s sovereignty. Nay Publication, Tehran, 1382/2004.
- Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
From our partner RIAC
In 2022, military rivalry between powers will be increasingly intense
“Each state pursues its own interest’s, however defined, in ways it judges best. Force is a means of achieving the external ends of states because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy.” – Kenneth Waltz,
The worldwide security environment is experiencing substantial volatility and uncertainty as a result of huge developments and a pandemic, both of which have not been experienced in a century. In light of this, major countries including as Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and India have hastened their military reform while focusing on crucial sectors. 2022 might be a year when the military game between big nations heats up.
The military competition between major powers is first and foremost a battle for strategic domination, and the role of nuclear weapons in altering the strategic position is self-evident. In 2022, the nuclear arms race will remain the center of military rivalry between Russia, the United States, and other major countries, while hypersonic weapons will become the focus of military technology competition among major nations.
The current nuclear weapons competition between major nations will be more focused on technological improvements in weapon quality. In 2022, the United States would invest USD 27.8 billion in nuclear weapons development. It intends to buy Columbia-class strategic nuclear-powered submarines and improve nuclear command, control, and communication systems, as well as early warning systems.
One Borei-A nuclear-powered submarine, two Tu-160M strategic bombers, and 21 sets of new ballistic missile systems will be ordered by Russia. And its strategic nuclear arsenal is anticipated to be modernized at a pace of more than 90%. This year, the United Kingdom and France will both beef up their nuclear arsenals. They aspire to improve their nuclear forces by constructing new strategic nuclear-powered submarines, increasing the quantity of nuclear warheads, and testing new ballistic missiles.
Russia will commission the Zircon sea-based hypersonic cruise missiles this year and continue to develop new hypersonic missiles as a leader in hypersonic weapon technology. To catch up with Russia, the US will invest USD 3.8 billion this year in the development of hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons are also being researched and developed in France, the United Kingdom, and Japan.
Surviving contemporary warfare is the cornerstone of the military competition between major countries, and keeping the cutting edge of conventional weapons and equipment is a necessary condition for victory. In 2022, major nations including as Russia and the United States will speed up the upgrade of primary war equipment.
The United States will concentrate on improving the Navy and Air Force’s weaponry and equipment. As planned, the US Navy will accelerate the upgrade and commissioning of weapons and equipment such as Ford-class aircraft carriers, Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines, and F-15EX fighter jets, as well as develop a high-end sea and air equipment system that includes new aircraft carrier platforms and fifth-generation fighter jets.
Russian military equipment improvements are in full swing, with the army receiving additional T-14 tanks, the navy receiving 16 major vessels, and the aerospace force and navy receiving over 200 new or better aircraft. The commissioning of a new generation of Boxer armored vehicles in the United Kingdom will be accelerated. India will continue to push for the deployment of its first homegrown aircraft carrier in combat. Japan will also continue to buy F-35B fighter jets and improve the Izumo, a quasi-aircraft carrier.
The US military’s aim this year in the domain of electromagnetic spectrum is to push the Air Force’s Project Kaiju electronic warfare program and the Navy’s next generation jammer low band (NGJ-LB) program, as well as better enhance the electronic warfare process via exercises. Pole-21, Krasukha, and other new electronic warfare systems will be sent to Russia in order to increase the automation of electronic warfare systems. The electronic warfare systems of the Type 45 destroyers, as well as the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates, will be upgraded by the United Kingdom. To build combat power, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will continue to develop the newly formed 301st Electronic Warfare Company.
Around the world, a new cycle of scientific, technical, and military upheaval is gaining traction, and conflict is swiftly shifting towards a more intelligent form. Russia, the United States, and other major countries have boosted their investment in scientific research in order to win future battles, with a concentration on intelligent technology, unmanned equipment, and human-machine coordinated tactics.
This year, the US military intends to spend USD 874 million on research and development to boost the use of intelligent technologies in domains such as information, command and control, logistics, network defense, and others. More than 150 artificial intelligence (AI) projects are presently being developed in Russia.
This year, it will concentrate on adapting intelligent software for various weapon platforms in order to improve combat effectiveness. France, the United Kingdom, India, and other countries have also stepped up their AI research and attempted to use it broadly in areas such as intelligence reconnaissance, auxiliary decision-making, and network security.
In the scope of human coordinated operations, the United States was the first to investigate and has a distinct edge. The US intends to conduct the first combat test of company-level unmanned armored forces, investigate ways for fifth-generation fighter jets to coordinate with unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and drone swarms, and promote manned and unmanned warships working together on reconnaissance, anti-submarine, and mine-sweeping missions.
Russia will work to integrate unmanned equipment into manned combat systems as quickly as feasible, while also promoting the methodical development of drones and unmanned vehicles. Furthermore, France and the United Kingdom are actively investigating human-machine coordinated techniques in military operations, such as large urban areas.
Spotlight on the Russia-Ukraine situation
The United States of America and Russia have recently been at loggerheads over the issue of Ukraine.
Weeks ago the leaders of the two superpowers behind the Ukrainian situation convened a meeting on the crisis. Although they both drew a clear line between them during the meeting, they made no political commitment, thus showing that the political chess game surrounding Ukraine has only just begun.
In what was seen as a “frank and pragmatic” conversation by both sides, President Putin made it clear to President Biden that he was not satisfied with the implementation of the February 11, 2015 Minsk-2 Agreement (which, besides establishing ceasefire conditions, also reaffirmed arrangements for the future autonomy of pro-Russian separatists), as NATO continues to expand eastward. President Biden, in turn, noted that if Russia dared to invade Ukraine, the United States of America and its allies would impose strong “economic sanctions and other measures” to counterattack, although no US troop deployments to Ukraine were considered.
Although they both played their cards right and agreed that they would continue to negotiate in the future, the talks did not calm down the situation on the Ukrainian border and, after the two sides issued mutual civilian and military warnings, the future development on the Ukrainian border is still very uncertain.
Since November 2020 Russia has had thousands of soldiers stationed on Ukraine’s border. The size of the combat forces deployed has made the neighbouring State rather nervous.
The current crisis in Ukraine has deepened since the beginning of November 2021. Russia, however, has denied any speculation that it is about to invade Ukraine, stressing that the deployment of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border is purely for defensive purposes and that no one should point the finger at such a deployment of forces on the territory of Russia itself.
It is obvious that such a statement cannot convince Ukraine: after the 2014 crisis, any problems on the border between the two sides attract attention and Ukraine still has sporadic conflicts with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.
Firstly, the fundamental reason why the US-Russian dispute over Ukraine is hard to resolve is that there is no reasonable position or room in the US-led European security architecture that matches Russian strength and status.
Over the past thirty-two years, the United States of America has forcibly excluded any reasonable proposal to establish broad and inclusive security in Europe and has built a post-Cold War European security framework that has crushed and expelled Russia, much as NATO did when it contained the Soviet Union in Europe in 1949-1990.
Moreover, Russia’s long cherished desire to integrate into the “European family” and even into the “Western community” through cooperation with the United States of America – which, in the days of the impotent Yeltsin, looked upon it not as an equal partner but as a semi-colony – has been overshadowed by the resolute actions of NATO, which has expanded eastward to further elevate its status as the sole superpower, at least in Europe, after its recent failure in Afghanistan.
Maintaining a lasting peace after the great wars (including the Cold War) in the 20th century was based on treating the defeated side with tolerance and equality at the negotiating table. Facts have shown that this has not been taken on board by the policy of the United States of America and its Western fawners and sycophants. Treating Russia as the loser in the Cold War is tantamount to frustrating it severely and ruthlessly, thus depriving it of the most important constituent feature of the post-short century European security order.
Unless Russia reacts with stronger means, it will always be in a position of defence and never of equality. Russia will not accept any legitimacy for the persistence of a European security order that deprives it of vital security interests, wanting to make it a kind of protectorate surrounded by US-made nuclear bombs. The long-lasting Ukrainian crisis is the last barrier and the most crucial link in the confrontation between Russia, the United States of America and the West. It is a warning to those European countries that over the past decades have been deprived of a foreign policy of their own, not just obeying the White House’s orders.
Secondly, the Ukrainian issue is an important structural problem that affects the direction of European security construction and no one can afford to lose in this crisis.
While Europe can achieve unity, integrity and lasting peace, the key challenge is whether it can truly incorporate Russia. This depends crucially on whether NATO’s eastward expansion will stop and whether Ukraine will be able to resolve these two key factors on its own and permanently. NATO, which has continued to expand in history and reality, is the most lethal threat to security for Russia. NATO continues to weaken Russia and deprive it of its European statehood, and mocks its status as a great power. Preventing NATO from continuing its eastward expansion is probably the most important security interest not only of Russia, but also of European countries with no foreign policies of their own, but with peoples and public that do not certainly want to be dragged into a conventional war on the continent, on behalf of a country that has an ocean between Europe and itself as a safety belt.
The current feasible solution to ensure lasting security in Europe is for Ukraine not to join NATO, but to maintain a permanent status of neutrality, like Austria, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. This is a prerequisite for Ukraine to preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty to the fullest extent possible, and it is also the only reasonable solution for settling the deep conflict between Russia and the United States of America.
To this end, Russia signed the aforementioned Minsk-2 Agreement of 2015. Looking at the evolution of NATO over the past decades, however, we can see that it has absolutely no chance of changing a well-established “open door” membership policy.
The United States of America and NATO will not accept the option of a neutral Ukraine, and the current level of political decision-making in the country is other-directed. For these reasons, Ukraine now appears morally dismembered, and bears a striking resemblance to the divided Berlin and the two pre-1989 Germanies. It can be said that the division of Ukraine is a sign of the new split in Europe after Cold War I, and the construction of the so-called European security – or rather US hegemony – ends with the reality of a Cold War II between NATO and Russia. It must be said that this is a tragedy, as the devastating consequences of a war will be paid by the peoples of Europe, and certainly not by those from New England to California.
Thirdly, the misleading and deceptive nature of US-Russian diplomacy and the short-sightedness of the EU, with no foreign policy of its own regarding the construction of its own security, are the main reasons for the current lack of mutual trust between the United States of America – which relies on the servility of the aforementioned EU – and Russia, terrified by the nuclear encirclement on its borders.
The United States took advantage of the deep problems of the Soviet Union and of Russia’s zeal and policies for the self-inflicted change in the 1990s – indeed, a turning point – at the expense of “verbal commitment” diplomacy.
In 1990, on behalf of President George H. W. Bush’s Administration, US Secretary of State Baker made a verbal promise to the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that “upon reunification, after Germany remaining within NATO, the organisation would not expand eastward”. President Clinton’s Administration rejected that promise on the grounds that it was its predecessor’s decision and that verbal promises were not valid, but in the meantime George H. W. Bush had incorporated the Baltic States into NATO.
In the mid-1990s, President Clinton indirectly made a verbal commitment to Russia’s then leader, the faint-hearted Yeltsin, to respect the red line whereby NATO should not cross the eastern borders of the Baltic States. Nevertheless, as already stated above, President George H. W. Bush’s Administration had already broken that promise by crossing their Western borders. It stands to reason that, in the eyes of Russia, the “verbal commitment diplomacy” is rightly synonymous with fraud and hypocrisy that the United States of America is accustomed to implementing with Russia. This is exactly the reason why Russia is currently insisting that the United States and NATO must sign a treaty with it on Ukraine’s neutrality and a ban on the deployment of offensive (i.e. nuclear) weapons in Ukraine.
Equally important is the fact that after Cold War I, the United States of America, with its mentality of rushing to grab the fruits of victory, lured 14 small and medium-sized countries into the process of expansion, causing crises in Europe’s peripheral regions and artfully creating Russophobia in the Central, Balkan and Eastern European countries.
This complete disregard for the “concert of great powers” – a centuries-old principle fundamental to ensuring lasting security in Europe – and the practice of “being penny wise and pound foolish” have artificially led to a prolonged confrontation between Russia and the European countries, in the same way as between the United States of America and Russia. The age-old trend of emphasising the global primacy of the United States of America by creating crises and inventing enemies reaffirms the tragic reality of its own emergence as a danger to world peace.
All in all, the Ukraine crisis is a key issue for the direction of European security. The United States will not stop its eastward expansion. Russia, forced into a corner, has no other way but to react with all its might and strength. This heralds Cold War II in Europe, and lasting turmoil and the possible partition of Ukraine will be its immutable destiny.
The worst-case scenario will be a conventional war on the continent between NATO troops and Russian forces, causing millions and millions dead, as well as destroying cities. The war will be conventional because the United States would never use nuclear weapons – but not out of the goodness of its heart, but out of fear of a Russian response that would remove the US territory from the NBC security level.
To the point that that we will miss the good old days of Covid-19.
Why shouldn’t Israel Undermine Iran’s Conventional Deterrence
When Naftali Bennett took over as the prime minister of Israel, it was expected that he would take a different approach compared to Netanyahu. This could be a probable expectation, save for the issue of Iran, since Iran is considered a consistent strategic and existential threat in the eyes of Israeli political and military officials same way that Israel has always been considered an enemy in the strategic culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, with the resumption of the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Israel has intensified its campaign for an imminent military strike on Iran. On the other hand, Iran has tried to create a balance of missile threat against Israel based on valid deterrence during the past years.
However, the level and the nature of performance and deterrence of these two influential actors of the Middle East are fundamentally different. While Iran has defined its deterrence based on hybrid missile deterrence concepts—including direct and extended deterrence—, Israel’s deterrence is based on preemptive warfare, a.k.a. “immediate deterrence,” irrespective of its nuclear capabilities, policies of “strategic ambiguity” and “defensible borders strategy.”
From a direct deterrence perspective (i.e., the strength of a large missile fire from within Iranian territory) and given the extended and asymmetric dimensions (i.e., strengthening missile capabilities of the axis of resistance), the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that Israel will gradually become weaker and more fragile defensively, considering the importance of objective components in the area of deterrence—such as geographical depth and population, and this will derive Israeli leaders to consider their fragile security and survival before any attempt to take on a direct military confrontation with Iran. For instance, when the tensions over Iran’s nuclear program escalated between 2010 and 2013 during the Obama administration, none of Iran’s nuclear facilities was attacked, despite Israel’s repeated expression of its willingness to do so. Former defense minister Ehud Barak justified this inaction with the pretext of Barack Obama’s opposition and lack of support. In fact, the Netanyahu administration sought to instill this idea to the world that Israel has both the “determination” and the “ability” to attack Iran should this preemptive action not have been faced with Washington objection. The fact that Netanyahu still failed to implement the idea even during Trump administration—as John Bolton points out in the first chapter of his book—despite his overwhelming support for Israel, indicated the fact that Israel does not have independent military capabilities and determination to take such hostile action at no cost without the support of the US.
Therefore, despite the constant claims of Israeli officials, this country’s general strategy so far has been to avoid direct military confrontation with Iran and to focus on less intense and covert warfare. This has changed since 2017 due to Israel’s objection to pro-Iranian forces regaining the control over Al-Bukamal Qa’im border crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border, and the consequent lack of a proportionate and retaliatory response from Iran to Israel’s ongoing operations in Syria. In fact, inaction of Iran has allowed Israeli army to expand its campaign from northern borders and the Golan Heights (as the first ring) to the province of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, then to the depths of Iraq in cooperation with the US (as the second ring), and eventually, inside the Iranian territory (as the third ring). The expansion of Israel’s subversive actions deep inside Iran is an effort to discredit Iran’s deterrence as well as undermining Iran’s strategic stability, while also dismantling Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities.
In the meantime, Israel’s embark on the strategy of Third-Circle Directorate based on intensifying low-level but effective military actions on Iranian soil has played a greater role in undermining Iran’s conventional deterrent advantages. Israel’s repeated operation and its recklessness in accepting responsibility for such actions has taken Israel’s belief and determination that it can target Iran’s assets and strategic resources inside and outside of Iran with numerous intermittent actions to a new level. Therefore, it can be said that while the previous positions of Israeli officials regarding the bombing and cessation of Iran’s nuclear capabilities were mostly focused on the assassination of Iranian scientists, targeted cyberattacks, sabotages, and bombings of industrial, security, and military facilities, there is no guarantee that the Third-Circle Directorate would not extent to explicit and direct entry of Israeli fighters, bombers or ballistic missiles to bomb Iran’s nuclear and military facilities in cooperation with the United States or independently.
If Israel mistakes Iran’s inaction with inability to respond and decides to extend Mabam Campaign to air or missile strikes inside the Iranian borders, it should not be sure of the unpredictable consequences. Iran has not yet responded decisively to cyber-attacks, the assassination of its scientists, and the Israeli sabotages due to the fact that these actions have been designed and carried out in such a way that Iran has assessed the damage as compensable. That is, a long set of low-level attacks were conducted to change the state of the field without taking actions that justifies an extensive reaction. Iran’s failure to respond to the recent Israeli attack on the port of Latakia is a clear example of the success and effectiveness of Salami Slicing strategy. Such strategies are designed to engage Iran in a polygonal dilemma: that it cannot respond to every individual military actions and small-scale sabotage, while inaction against these multiple small and non-intensive attacks will gradually result in losing its strategic position and deterrent credibility.
This very, unique Israeli strategy in military confrontation with Iran has reinforced the assessment of the Bennett administration about the serious weakness of Iran’s conventional deterrence. As a clear case Foreign Minister Yair Lapid claimed that “Israel could attack Iran if necessary without informing the Biden administration, which is looking to rejoin the nuclear deal”. This problem became more apparent after the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, especially in the last months of Donald Trump’s presidency. In other words, if Tehran decided to respond directly to various Israeli actions, such as the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and attacks on its military and industrial centers, the risk of a war with Israel with the support of the US would increase. By the same token, this has in fact given Tehran an opportunity not to retaliate based on the concept of conventional strategic stability. That is, at this level of conflict, Iran’s confidence in its ability to retaliate makes it easier for this country to limit and delay the response. From Iranian perspective, therefore, conventional strategic stability means preventing armed conflict in the Middle East, especially a level of conflict that directly threatens its security and territory.
However, if Israel tries to discredit Iran’s conventional deterrence and strategic stability by launching a direct air strike into Iranian territory, Iran’s retaliatory response will not be as limited and symbolic as the attack on the US base of Ain al-Assad in Iraq, because Tehran would face the so-called “Sputnik moment” dilemma, which forces it to test its missile credibility. In such a situation, Iran will be forced to first, launch a decisive comprehensive missile response against Israel and then change its deterrent structure from conventional to nuclear by leaving the NPT in order to contain pressure of domestic public opinion, maintain its credibility with regional rivals such as Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and even the Republic of Azerbaijan, and to reassure its proxy forces in the axis of resistance.
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