Russia strengthens its hand in Central Asia

Putin in Tajikistan October 2012. Photo Хадамоти матбуот, Office of the President of Tajikistan

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Dushanbe in October with Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmonov

By John Drennan, Research Assistant, IISS-US

Russia is using military aid and basing deals to shore up its strategic position in Central Asia, ahead of NATO’s 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. A $1.1 billion military aid package to Kyrgyzstan was finalised recently, and in November Moscow announced a plan to provide $200 million in Russian assistance to upgrade Tajikistan’s air-defence system.

The Russian government has also signed two new deals trading economic assistance for basing rights in Central Asia. In October, the Tajik government agreed to extend the lease on Russia’s base in Dushanbe until 2042, in exchange for a nominal sum plus military training and better access to the Russian labour market for Tajik citizens. (Currently, almost half of Tajikistan’s GDP comes through remittances.) In September, Moscow announced a 15-year extension of its air base in Kyrgyzstan in return for $489m in debt settlement and an agreement for energy infrastructure upgrades. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament officially ratified the agreement on 13 December.

These developments strengthen Russia’s position in Central Asia at a time of great uncertainty about the future role of the United States, which has had a basing footprint in the region as part of NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan since 2001.

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Life post-Taliban: solving local grievances key

Former Taliban members cut past ties, return to Afghan society during reintegration shura

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

As NATO prepares to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a key part of the transition to Afghan security leadership will be persuading members of the Taliban insurgency to reconcile with the government in Kabul. The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP) designed to do this has so far encouraged 5,000 insurgents to give up their weapons, according to Major General David Hook of the Royal Marines.

Hook told the IISS this week that only 20% of Taliban interviewed as they entered the programme claimed to be fighting for ideological reasons. Often, they were motivated instead by local grievances.

‘Part of the design of the APRP was to address these local grievances,’ said Hook. ‘If you address [the grievance] locally, you can pull them in.’ This was particularly important because analysis also showed that more than 75% of ordinary fighters remained within 20 miles of their village. About 78% of all those joining the APRP process said they did so because they were tired of fighting.

The APRP, an Afghan-led social reintegration process backed by international funding, is one of three related reconciliation-and-reintegration ‘tracks’ in Afghanistan, alongside political negotiations towards a ‘grand bargain’ between the government and Taliban leaders, and so-called ‘high-level reintegration’ seeking to persuade insurgent leaders to stop fighting the government and support it instead.

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Staying on-message in Afghanistan

Major General Carsten Jacobson, former ISAF spokesperson, at the IISS.

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

Despite their objections to the proliferation of mobile phones and social media among the Afghan population, the Taliban are increasingly adept at using them, says former ISAF spokesperson Major General Carsten Jacobson (above). Afghan Taliban tweeting ‘is quite a challenge, one that we have tried to counter’, he said at the IISS this week, adding that this was obviously not an easy task for a military organisation. (This Washington Post article has more on the subject.)

A media-savvy Taliban was just one of the challenges facing ISAF during Major General Jacobson’s time as the organisation’s spokesperson from June 2011 to May 2012. Responsible for coordinating ISAF’s message on its activities in Afghanistan, he found that the subject of the security transition from NATO to Afghan forces defined his tenure. Very soon after Jacobson took up his post, then-ISAF commander General David Petraeus (who resigned as CIA head last week) announced that the US would begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with the goal of a full drawdown by the end of 2014.

Transition meant not just an effective transfer of administration in security and government but also in civilian matters, Jacobson said. ‘Transition is the key driver of everything that happens … [it should be] an Afghan process driven from the bottom to the top … from villages to provinces.’

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India’s foreign policy in a globalised world

By Mona Moussavi, Editorial Assistant

India’s foreign policy is an ‘enabler’ in the country’s transformation, Ranjan Mathai, the Indian foreign secretary, said at the IISS last week. At the Keynote Address to the Fifth IISS–Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Dialogue, the foreign secretary discussed Afghanistan’s ‘neighbourhood’ towards 2015 and beyond, emerging Arab developments and the ways in which the India-UK strategic relationship could grow.

Mathai said India is increasingly ‘plugged in’ to a globalised world, and that a peaceful periphery is essential. Almost half of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is now linked in one way or another to foreign trade, up from 20% in the 1990s. Specifically, India depends on ‘energy and critical raw materials from abroad’.

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Afghanistan – A bloody weekend, but not necessarily a tipping point

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E' Ali, Helmand.

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E’ Ali, Helmand. Photo Credit:UK Ministry of Defence

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

It has been a week of bad news from Afghanistan, after further ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, fallout from video protests sweeping the Middle East and NATO announcing a temporary retreat. But in reality, the picture is more nuanced and there are reasons to be optimistic – provided tensions arising from the video can be diffused.

The headlines have suggested setbacks to the joint NATO/Afghan strategy of transition to Afghan leadership of security and withdrawal of NATO combat forces by the end of 2015.  In addition to the violent protests against the provocative ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, there was a well-planned and determined attack on the UK/US base at Camp Bastion in which six US and UK troops were killed by men in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) uniform.

NATO’s announcement that ‘in response to elevated threat levels…ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks’ has resulted in a reduction of low-level tactical partnering with the Afghan forces below battalion level has caused a predictable flurry of commentary and speculation in Western media.

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Mullah Omar’s Eid message

Muslims from throughout the world gather at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 16, for the start of Eid al-Adha, a religious holiday beginning after Hajj.

Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Eid al-Adha 2010. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/isafmedia

By Hameed Hakimi, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

A statement released by Taliban leader Mullah Omar to mark the end of Ramadan conveyed a tone of optimism for the Taliban’s tactical achievements, as well as a vision for the future and a statement of commitment to the Afghan people.  In the following weeks, facts on the ground have challenged both Mullah Omar’s assessment of Afghanistan and his claims about the Taliban’s intentions. But these realities should also serve as a reminder that ordinary citizens face conflicting messages and broken promises from both the Taliban insurgency and Afghanistan’s political leadership.

Mullah Omar’s Eid-ul-Fitr message was published on the Taliban’s website on16 August 2012.  In 34 points, it set out his vision for a post-2014 Afghanistan, and reiterated the movement’s criticisms about the presence of Western troops and the government in Kabul.  For those who lived under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a direct message from the reclusive Mullah Omar is a rarity. During its control of the country until 2001, the Taliban leadership’s communication with ordinary Afghans was restricted to public order commandments and moral judgments on points of Sharia law.

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Is Tashkent clearing the decks for the US?

A crew chief guides in a C-17A Globemaster III at Khashi-Karanabad air base in Uzbekistan on Dec. 16 2005. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

By Dr Nicholas Redman, Senior Fellow for Geopolitical Risk and Economic Security

Uzbekistan has once again suspended its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the alliance of former Soviet states that also includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tashkent is saying it took this step because it wishes to develop relations with Afghanistan bilaterally, rather than as part of the CSTO bloc, and because it opposes efforts to deepen military cooperation within the CSTO.

Yet Uzbekistan’s fellow CSTO members suspect the decision has more to do with a wish by President Islam Karimov to reopen the Karshi-Khanabad air base to US forces.

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Paving a new Silk Road

India's PM Singh and Afghanistan president Karzai sign a Strategic Partnership. Photo PM of India's office

By Mona Moussavi, Editorial assistant

India has big plans to increase its involvement in Central Asia, including rebuilding Afghanistan into a trade hub along a new Silk Road between the sub-continent and the energy-rich ‘Stans’. Analysts frequently speak of a ‘new great game’ in Central Asia, where Russia, China, Iran and Turkey are already competing for political influence and access to vast reservoirs of oil, gas and other natural resources. With the new ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy that it unveiled in Kyrgyzstan last month, Delhi has signalled its intentions in the region.

Fleshing out the new policy at the IISS this week, Asoke Mukerji, Special Secretary at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said that it would range from closer military cooperation and more proactive diplomacy through bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and  the Eurasian Economic Community to banking, agricultural and construction projects, including new hospitals and hotels.

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Eikenberry: Lessons from Afghanistan

At the end of his Fullerton Lecture on the future of Afghanistan, former US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was asked to reflect on the lessons he had drawn from the US intervention. His first lesson was the importance of clear political goals for the use of force; he suggested these had been lacking before President Barack Obama’s review of Afghanistan policy in 2009. The second was the problem of unintended consequences of intervention and occupation. Finally, he told a story about how village elders in southern Afghanistan remembered USAID and Peace Corps volunteers from the 1950s and 1960s, and reflected on ‘those brave Marines who had fought so hard’, who ‘sadly would not be remembered’ so fondly.

Watch the complete Fullerton Lecture: The Future of Afghanistan

Lesson 1: Clear political goals

Lesson 2: Second- and third-order consequences

Lesson 3: Roger & Bob


Eikenberry on Afghanistan’s future

Those of us in the London office who missed the early-morning broadcast from Singapore this week have really enjoyed watching Karl Eikenberry’s recent Fullerton Lecture on video. Before he gets down to the very serious issues at hand, the former US Ambassador to Kabul tells an amusing anecdote that is also a helpful reminder about the potential for misunderstanding for Westerners working in this Central Asian nation.

Eikenberry takes a very measured view of the upcoming transition to Afghan control of security at the end of 2014. He lists four potential obstacles…

Four obstacles

… and four reasons to be positive about the future. You can read more about both the security challenges and the advances in education, infrastructure and other socio-economic factors in the IISS’s Adelphi Book Afghanistan to 2015 and beyond.

Four reasons for optimism


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