My next report is due out on March 1.
The subject: The Eroding Paper Tiger of the Russian Army.
Russia has been touting itself as a powerful military force on a global spectrum. Far from the image they like to promote, Russia and its military are really more of a paper tiger.
Under the thumb of a notorious arms dealer, Sauwa's unique talents are on loan for a mission that will take her from a violent black market world into a covert war between two forces vying for control of Southeast Asia.
My talented cover artist is hard at work. I'll reveal the Cyprus Rage cover in the next few weeks.
Central Africa is the new front of the Islamic insurgency and the new front for the Islamic State. Africa has long been a hotbed for Islamic insurgency with several al Qaeda affiliated radical groups carrying out violent insurgencies in many countries.
Right now, it is the most violent region after Syria and Iraq. However, the chaotic violence in the Middle-East and the threat of ISIS have captured the world’s attention largely overshadowing the violence in Africa.
As the Syrian Civil War winds down, and Iraq comes under control, the radical factions of ISIS have followed in the direction of al Qaeda and begun to franchise their operations abroad creating a whole new front in the countries of Western Africa.
While recent news on the Islamic State centers on the threat in Iraq and Syria, the group’s ideological hold in sub-Saharan Africa has been quietly growing, and not simply in relation to its well-known merger with Boko Haram. Indeed, over the past year-plus, three new Islamic State affiliates have gained prominence in sub-Saharan Africa.
In West Africa, the group known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has gained prominence with a string of deadly attacks in September and October 2016. Simultaneously, across the continent, in the semi-autonomous northern Somali stretch of Puntland, a group known as the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) was recently the first Islamic State affiliate to hold territory in that county, while further south, another Islamic State affiliate known as the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISISSKTU) has raised concerns (ctc.usma.edu/).
The Islamic State branch in the Sahara is led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi. Sahrawi was originally the spokesman and a senior leader for the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Most of MUJAO eventually merged with the forces of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form Al Murabitoon and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. After several leaders of Murabitoon were killed, Sahrawi eventually took the helms and defected with a faction of the group to the Islamic State. Most of Murabitoon, however, did not and eventually re-merged into AQIM (www.longwarjournal.org/islamic-state-in-the-greater-sahara-claims-second-attack-in-burkina-faso.php).
Sahrawi is a member of the Sahrawi people, who are spread across southern Morocco, Mauritania, and parts of Algeria. He is the former spokesman of Mali’s Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), formed in 2011 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In August 2013, MUJAO merged with Moktar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamun (“The Masked Men”) Battalion—another AQIM offshoot—to form al-Mourabitoun. The group released a statement that the region’s jihadist movement is “stronger than ever,” and al-Mourabitoun would “rout” France and its allies in the region (www.counterextremism.com/extremists/adnan-al-sahrawi).
ISGS started with the merging of two other jihadi groups: The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Masked Men Brigade, which created a third group, al-Mourabitoun, in August 2013. Under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar—the infamous, one-eyed commander of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—al-Mourabitoun operated without any official affiliation for the first two years after its founding.
An internecine battle within al-Mourabitoun ensued between Belmokhtar’s pro-AQIM faction and Sahraoui’s pro-Islamic State faction. Reports suggest that the battle may have actually been physical. Shortly thereafter, Sahraoui and other pro-Islamic State members of al-Mourabitoun defected, forming the Islamic State in Mali, which has now become the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Despite Sahraoui’s defection, his group’s May 2015 pledge to the Islamic State went unanswered. ISGS seemingly fell dormant.
In late 2016, the group showed itself to be far from defunct. In the last quarter of 2016, it carried out three notable attacks near the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. The first attack occurred on the nights of September 1-2, 2016, when ISGS targeted a gendarmerie in Burkina Faso near the Nigerien border and killed two guards (ctc.usma.edu/sub-saharan-africas-three-new-islamic-state-affiliates/). The violence has only expanded to further areas of the region.
Burkina Faso has become a pinnacle to this new Islamic front. Geographically, Burkina Faso is the only country that borders all of the following coastal West African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Therefore, those countries’ border security inevitably depends on Burkina Faso.
Burkina Faso, shares borders with peaceful countries on the West African coast, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Those countries have largely been spared from jihadist violence, with the exception of the 2016 Grand Bassam attack in Côte d’Ivoire that left 16 dead. Now, however, they appear to be on the verge of suffering from jihadist spillover from Burkina Faso into the northern regions of their countries. AQIM networks have also begun penetrating Burkina Faso and probably have cells that have reached the borders of coastal West African countries or operate there. Nevertheless, Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants have been heavily active in those areas, with that group having, among others, attacked a school and a bar not far from the border with Benin in Tapoa province, Burkina Faso.
What is more troubling is that jihadists may double as bandits and vice-versa. Crossover between militants in ISGS and AQIM groups in Burkina Faso also likely exist, considering they do not appear to be fighting each other; they come from a similar historical lineage with AQIM; and are operating in the same places.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the populations in the northern regions of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin are predominantly Muslim and some people—especially in northern Benin and parts of the other three countries—are ethnically and linguistically linked with northern Nigerian Hausas. These populations could enable not only positive trade exchanges but also the spread of negative jihadist ideologies. Shaykh Jaafar Mahmud Adam, who was a mentor of former Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf, for example, conducted preaching (dawa’) in Benin, Togo, and Ghana (jamestown.org/burkina-faso-and-the-looming-jihadist-threat-to-coastal-west-africa/).
Jihadi attacks in northern Burkina Faso have been steadily on the rise. These have largely been attributable to a newly established but understudied jihadi group, Ansaroul Islam, which has its roots in the ongoing insurgency in Mali and is linked to al-Qa`ida’s network in the Sahel. Its budding insurgency greatly threatens the security of Burkina Faso and neighboring countries. State responses to the violence have been heavy-handed, which only furthers the cause of Ansaroul Islam.
In the fall of 2014, a series of events shook Burkina Faso that paved the way for the jihadi insurgency in the north of the country. The then president, Blaise Compaoré, attempted to amend the constitution ahead of the 2015 presidential elections in order to extend his 27-year rule7—sparking a popular uprising that forced Compaoré to resign and flee to neighboring Ivory Coast. The events that followed included a further destabilizing power struggle.
While Burkina Faso did not endure attacks during Compaoré’s regime, parts of its territory served as a recruitment ground and logistics hub for jihadis in the Sahel region. In the early 2010s, AQIM and its allies made several attempts to establish a more permanent presence in Burkina Faso and on its borders.
In addition to its recruitment efforts, al-Qa`ida has been able to conduct several attacks inside Burkina Faso since 2015. This includes the aforementioned kidnapping of a Romanian security guard, as well as the kidnapping of an Australian couple in January 2016. The same day of the couple’s kidnapping, gunmen belonging to AQIM carried out a large-scale terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, killing at least 30 people at the Splendid Hotel and a café popular with foreigners.23 In August 2017, at least 18 were killed at a Turkish restaurant in Ouagadougou popular with expats in another terrorist attack. While no group has claimed the assault yet, it is widely suspected to have been carried out by al-Qa`ida-aligned jihadis.
After the French military intervention in Mali and the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, the jihadi insurgency in Mali was largely confined to its northern regions. AQIM, its local front group Ansar Dine, and MUJAO routinely mounted assaults on French and U.N. peacekeepers. From 2015, the violence spread southward. According to data compiled for the Long War Journal, there were at least 30 notable attacks in central and southern Mali in 2015. The following year, there were 51. And in 2017, there were at least 90 attacks in central and southern Mali.
Concurrently, the rise in violence in northern Burkina Faso has been directly correlated to the growing violence in central and southern Mali. As the jihadis began to move southward into the regions closer to the Burkina Faso border, more operating space was made for cross-border raids into neighboring Burkina. The jihadis made use of several forested areas and the largely unprotected borders to their advantage. And they had new opportunities to train and facilitate the growth of a local Burkinabe jihadi faction (ctc.usma.edu/ansaroul-islam-growing-terrorist-insurgency-burkina-faso/). It is not just AQIM and ISGS that is posing such a threat.
Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), formerly (and to a degree, currently) known as Boko Haram, has also been rapidly growing its operations in the region. ISWAP has two factions: the al-Barnawi-led faction that controls territory in the Lake Chad Basin area in northern Borno state and the Shekau-led faction, which controls land in central and southern Borno state, including in the group’s historical stronghold of the Sambisa (ctc.usma.edu/sub-saharan-africas-three-new-islamic-state-affiliates/).
The Nigerian militant Islamist group has caused havoc in Africa's most populous country through a wave of bombings, assassinations and abductions and is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, regardless of whether the president is Muslim or not - and it has extended its military campaign by targeting neighboring states. The group then began to carry out more audacious attacks in northern and central Nigeria, including bombing churches, bus ranks, bars, military barracks and even the police and UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja. It has a force of thousands of men - CIA officials have estimated around 9,000 - and cells that specialize in bombings. Through its raids on military bases and banks, it has gained control of vast amounts of weapons and money
African governments have responded to this threat. Amid growing concern about the escalating violence, the government declared a state of emergency in May 2013 in the three northern states where Boko Haram was strongest.
Eventually the deployment of troops and the formation of vigilante groups drove many of them out of Maiduguri, their main urban base and they retreated to the vast Sambisa forest to the south and the Mandara Mountains, close to the border with Cameroon. From there, the group's fighters launched mass attacks on villages and towns, looting, killing, abducting women and children and conscripting men and boys into their army. Boko Haram has outlived other militant groups in northern Nigeria and has built a presence in neighbouring states where it has carried out attacks and has recruited fighters (www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501). Nigeria has also deployed additional 2,000 policemen from the Police Mobile Force, Counter-Terrorism Unit, bomb squads and the Sniffer Dog Section to join forces with the military to combat the threats in the stronghold regions North-East (https://punchng.com/bharam-2000-police-deployed-in-north-east/).
The Islamic insurgency has been a threat in West Africa for several years. In the twilight of the Syrian civil war and the subsequent failure of ISIS, it has gained serious momentum as the new front of the movement. Despite this, it still has not achieved the same levels seen in the Middle-East. Many of the recent IS organizations are either breakaways from pre-existing insurgent groups or existing groups that have simply transitioned into the IS franchise. The changing allegiances have led to a lot of internal conflict as loyalists to the old al Qaeda network have taken to battling those who have pledged to the IS.
While the IS and AQ groups have intensified their campaigns and spread into neighboring countries, none have yet reached the level of strength seen by ISIS in the Levant. They have stepped up a terror campaign of bombings, raids, and assassinations. Yet, none of them have shown the ability to mount large scale military operations or seize territory for any long period of time.
In addition, many of the African states threatened, such as Nigeria, have significantly better security forces than that of the Syrian or Iraqi militaries, which started out in bad condition. They have proven capable as a responsive force quickly taking back towns and villages held by insurgents and directing energies to hostile areas in a rapid timeframe. Additionally, public attitudes have yielded their own negative response to the insurgency. Several vigilante groups have taken to combating Islamic militants on their own.
In the interim, it is unlikely that the Islamic insurgency will gain the level of power seen in the Middle-East with all the resources working against it. However, that could change over time. They are recruiting heavily within the remote communities and trying to establish a new base of power for the movement. They are connected to the greater IS and al Qaeda movements abroad. Many of the African countries currently being threatened host a great deal of natural resources that could give financial capital to the movement. It is more likely that at some point, they could gain the ability to overpower security forces in regions of these countries, creating autonomous zones that could shelter groups working more actively abroad.
Western militaries have for some time been offering the support of advisors and Special Forces tactical teams largely aimed at combating Boko Harem. For now, this should suffice. However, greater emphasis must be placed on Africa as it is destined to be the next front of this conflict.
For years the Lebanese based radical organization known as Hezbollah has held a significant presence in South America. Its activities have ranged from terrorist acts waged against the Jewish community to working through criminal groups to further its goals.
Hezbollah has been building a presence in South America for years. Hezbollah has been linked to the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29, and the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 (jta.org).
Analysts today say Hezbollah represents a threat to Latin America and the world. In the Latin America region, Hezbollah works with local organized crime, facilitating their work while bribing politicians and officials. Hezbollah is locally involved in crimes including smuggling, violence, and corruption. For decades, the Lebanese arm of the terrorist organization, Hezbollah, operated relatively freely in the tri-border areas of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It does this through a series of front groups.
Governments in the region are now taking concrete measures against the Iran-backed Shiite militia. It does this through a series of front groups. One of these groups is Barakat Clan which is reputed to be involved in smuggling, counterfeiting money and documents, extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and terrorism financing, UIF-AR stated in a release. It is suspected that the group raises funds for the Lebanese organization Hezbollah. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Barakat as one of the most prominent and influential members of Hezbollah (dialogo-americas.com).
Hezbollah’s fundraising network operates extensively in the area known as the Triple Frontier crossing between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The Triple Frontier often is mentioned as a place linked to Hezbollah and the Barakat group and has been investigated over the past two decades as a source of money for Hezbollah and other groups’ activities related to terrorism. Argentina’s Financial Information Unit identified at least 14 people linked to the Barakat Clan who registered multiple crossings to Argentina, mainly through the Tancredo Neves International Bridge in the Misiones province. Once in Argentina, the clan members would cash in charges at a casino in Iguazú exceeding $10 million without declaring neither the income nor the discharge of funds when crossing the border (jta.org).
The Brazilian-Argentinian border in the TBA experiences approximately 40,000 transits per day. These include tourists visiting both sides of the world-famous Iguazu Falls and cross-border workers. Given such numbers, authorities cannot control each vehicle without bringing traffic to a halt. Without real-time intelligence, it is virtually impossible for Argentina’s authorities to catch large quantities of undeclared cash and thus prevent the exploitation of the casino, merely a hundred yards beyond Argentina’s customs station, for money laundering purposes. Members of the Barakat criminal network crossed the border hundreds of times with large quantities of cash and used the casino to convert the cash into chips and back – sometimes adding gambling wins in the process. Significant sums of money pass through the casino – more than 18 million Argentinian pesos, or about US$660,000. U.S. neglect of the region since the last round of designations in 2006 meant that U.S. sanction deterrence eroded over time. Hezbollah financiers continued their activities largely unmolested. Local authorities did little to stamp out Hezbollah’s terror finance networks once it became clear that the U.S. lost interest in the TBA (terrorism-info.org).
The activities of these criminal organizations extend beyond generating revenue for Hezbollah. Their practices also include activities aimed at a more discreet means of threatening the United States.
In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicted Ayman Saied Joumaa, a Lebanese-Colombian dual national whose global network of companies operate out of Latin America, West Africa, and Lebanon laundered money for Mexican and Colombian cartels to the tune of $200 million a month of drug proceeds. Joumaa worked with Hezbollah as the kingpin in one of many networks Hezbollah runs globally to sustain its financial needs. When his case came to light, the New York Times quoted a DEA official as saying that Hezbollah operated like “the Gambino’s” on steroids.
Increasing quantities of Schedule 2 drugs like cocaine invade the U.S. from Latin America, adding fuel to the opioid pandemic that has already cost so many lives. Cocaine consumption is as much a national epidemic as opioids and Hezbollah helps make it available to U.S. consumers.
This makes Hezbollah, its senior leadership, and its numerous operatives involved in running illicit drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations on a global scale the perfect candidates for Kingpin and Transnational Crime Organization designations, in addition to the terrorism and terror finance designations already in place. Hezbollah’s involvement in Latin America’s drug trade is significant and expanding. The group – often referred to as the “A-Team” of international terrorism – has reportedly formed partnerships with several of the region’s most notorious crime syndicates, including Mexico’s Zetas, Columbia’s FARC,5 and Brazil’s Primeiro Comando de la Capital. Drug trafficking cases involving Lebanese with suspected ties to Hezbollah are increasingly frequent. Evidence indicates that Hezbollah has ties that span the entire illicit narcotics supply chain. U.S. sanctions, as well as court cases in the United States and overseas, have targeted Hezbollah-linked operatives acting as logistical and financial service providers, traffickers, drug barons, distributors, and, most recently, suppliers of precursor chemicals used to refine cocaine. It seems only a matter of time before Hezbollah-run drug labs emerge, too – the kind that has long been at the center of the group’s operations in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (docs.house.gov)).
Syrian national Nasif Barakat and the Barakat Transnational Criminal Organization has been connected, along with other groups, as a tentacle of the whole Hezbollah organization. The Barakat TCO is a human smuggling organization based in Homs, Syria, that facilitates the smuggling of Syrian and Lebanese nationals to the United States border using a variety of travel routes.
Since 2013, the Barakat TCO has facilitated the smuggling of hundreds of individuals to the Southwest border of the United States. Nasif Barakat is being designated for materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, the Barakat TCO, and for acting on behalf of the Barakat TCO (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Barakat and members of his TCO operate a global network of human smugglers that coordinate the smuggling of foreign nationals to the United States for an average cost of approximately $20,000; this sum includes fees to obtain fraudulent and/or counterfeit documents. Nasif Barakat often provides travelers with fraudulently obtained passports from many different countries, including European Union countries, to facilitate his clients’ global movement and smuggling to the United States.
Barakat engages in bribery to facilitate human smuggling. The Barakat TCO often utilizes a common route of travel which begins in Syria and transits Lebanon, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates subsequently arriving in and transiting certain South and Central American countries before reaching the Southwest border of the United States. The Barakat TCO’s smuggling activities are linked to other crimes including document fraud which can significantly impair appropriate vetting processes (home.treasury.gov).
In January 2017, the southern U.S. border was very porous. Border Patrol was standing down for the most part from arresting or holding illegals. There were reports of radical Islamic followers sneaking across our southern border often without often without challenges from media or Congress. In addition, there were more than a few sightings of bus and planeloads of “refugees” being transported by night and dropped at locations across the U.S. This may actually be continuing today as some reports are still being made by observers (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Hezbollah’s services come with a fee – and the money collected for acting as the cartels’ middlemen fuels their war machine in Syria, their arms buildup in South Lebanon, and their efforts to carry out terrorist plots abroad. Targets include both Latin America and the U.S., as illustrated by at least two known, recent cases (docs.house.gov).
Hezbollah has had a deep foothold in South America for decades. It has been a powerful threat to the United States as a terror organization. However, the danger it presents has been largely overshadowed by the more audacious acts carried out by the al Qaeda and ISIS organizations. This has allowed Hezbollah and the networks of Shia affiliates to develop and proliferate virtually unmolested by any security forces. A radical organization that receives significant support and training from Iran, Hezbollah operates extensively on a global scale with abilities to carry out highly sophisticated attacks as it has demonstrated several times in the past.
Though the organization has carried out several terrorist attacks in the region in the past, its current interests are not necessarily oriented towards such activities. Hezbollah’s primary political interests are Lebanon and service to Iranian intelligence. It is not likely that they will carry out any audacious attacks outside of the Persian Gulf. Based on intelligence, Hezbollah intends to use its South American networks for financial gain. The threat it will largely pose to the United States will be through its criminal activities transporting large quantities of narcotics, weapons, and people across the borders. However, this could change if Iran’s strategy shifts towards how it engages the United States or any other country in the Western Hemisphere. If that happens, Hezbollah becomes a powerful threat already thoroughly embedded in the American backyard.
See you in January. Have a Happy Holiday. J.E. Higgins
In recent years India has gradually shifted its position from supporting the U.S. policy towards Iran to re-establishing long held relations with its neighbor. This has led India to develop economic relations that openly violate the current sanctions held against Iran.
India has emerged as a serious economic power on a global scale making them, along with Russia, powerful allies that severely curb the effectiveness of U.S. economic power as a tool of diplomacy dealing with Iran.
External Affairs Minister of India had, during her annual press conference in May, stated very categorically India’s consistent political position that India does not recognize unilateral sanctions. Foreign Minister Zarif had visited India in May. As far as Iran’s nuclear program is concerned, India maintains a long-standing position which is to recognize Iran’s right to nuclear energy as well as the interest of the international community to see that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. India is not a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA].
We have seen the developments which have taken place regarding the JCPOA, and it is our hope and desire that these issues would be resolved in a constructive manner. The two countries have a historical relationship. One they have been working to expand their economic and trade ties. When Iran was subjected to sanctions last time, India continued their cooperation to the extent they could (www.tehrantimes.com).
In October it was announced the implementation of the Chabahar port project. Chabahar is a joint project between India, Afghanistan, and Iran to develop the port located on the energy-rich Southern Coast of Iran. The port is designated as a primary transit and transport hub for all three countries that would allow them means to expand trade with the rest of South Asia. The project came into being after Pakistan closed off access to its own ports to India. This made a needed partner for the latter two countries and would provide Iran with significant influence in the region (economictimes).
The initiative between India and Iran is the long-planned Indian investment in the expansion and development of the port of Chabahar on Iran’s Arabian Sea coast. The project is central to India’s hopes to open a new transport corridor for Indian exports into Central Asia and Afghanistan that would bypass its main rival, Pakistan. India committed $500 million to the project as soon as it was clear that UN sanctions on Iran would be lifted.
Many see the proposed project as India’s answer to China’s development of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which lies barely 100 km east of Chabahar on the Pakistani coast. India has also proposed ambitious investment plans for Chabahar’s development, including financing to build railways, roads, and fertilizer plants that could eventually amount to $15 billion. The deal is of interest to landlocked Afghanistan because the TTA would provide it with an alternative route to the seas, and hence strengthen its bargaining power with Pakistan by reducing its current dependence on the Karachi port (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/).
The other significant issue at stake is the concern for energy. In October and November, India placed orders for around 1.25 million metric tons of oil each month. This works out to roughly 300,000 barrels per day. There are some Indian companies, particularly in the private sector, which have exposure to the American financial system and have stopped buying Iranian crude; that is to be expected. The U.S. has also announced exemptions to eight jurisdictions/countries and India is one of them. Despite this, India expects to continue buying Iranian crude around the above figure. (www.tehrantimes.com/news/).
Another major project is India’s proposed International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), which would develop a network of ship, rail, and road routes for moving goods over 7,000 km from India’s western ports up to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, run north through Iran to its Caspian seaport of Bandar Anzali, then across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan and on to markets in Russia, Europe, and Central Asia.
The INSTC, which is also seen as an Indian response to China’s BRI, would greatly reduce costs over the current shipping route which runs through the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar, and around the top of northern Europe (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk).
Iran and India have a deep and intertwining relation that is often misunderstood by the West. Historically, Iran and India have shared social, political, and economic ties. Until the British colonization of India, the court language of India was Persian. During colonization, relations between India and the rest of the world were subject to drastic changes and, consequently, contact between Iran and India decreased. Postcolonial political and cultural ties between the Shah of Iran and India were strong (www.mei.edu).
The West tends to view India and Iran one at a time, each in isolation. Until the partition of the sub-continent and creation of Pakistan in 1947, India and Iran had long shared a common border as neighbours with cultural and linguistic ties between the two ancient civilizations going back thousands of years. Following the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, bilateral relations between India and Iran improved, and the two nations signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2002. In 2006, the U.S. led an effort at the UN to impose international economic sanctions against Iran after it refused to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.
Following this, India was pressured by the U.S. to curtail its purchases of Iranian crude oil, despite its dependence on such imports. At one point, in 2009, India was pressured by the U.S. to vote against Iran and support sanctions at the UN. Despite this, India got the U.S. to give it waivers to continue purchasing oil from Iran, which the Obama administration allowed for a certain period. Additionally, India was forced to deposit Iranian payments in a bank account in Kolkata while it waited for sanctions to ease before being allowed to transfer the payments. These difficulties sometimes reduced trade relations to simple bartering in which India traded its rice for Iranian oil.
Following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union in 2016 which saw Iran agree to scale back its nuclear programme, the UN sanctions against Iran were finally eased and India began increasing its purchases of Iranian crude oil. India was also finally able to transfer nearly $6 billion in back payments for Iranian oil, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a bilateral summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in May 2016 in an effort to renew relations. However, because separate unilateral U.S. sanctions remain in place, Indian banks with exposure in the U.S. remain reluctant to finance new Indian trade and investments in Iran (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk).
Several key issues shape the Iran-India relationship. Iran and India have the largest and the fourth largest Shi`i Muslim populations in the world, respectively. Therefore, they share a mutual concern over Sunni-Shi`i conflicts, especially in Pakistan. Through emphasizing these conflicts, New Delhi sees an opportunity to limit Pakistan's influence in international Islamic forums. In addition, Iran’s geopolitical position is significant for India, as it can counteract China's increasing presence throughout Asia and boost India's regional influence.
New Delhi is working with Tehran to open the Iranian port of Chabahar. The development of this port as well as Indian investment in infrastructure along Iran's border with Afghanistan not only helps India to counter the massive Chinese investment in Pakistan's Gwadar port but also boosts India's influence in Afghanistan which counters Pakistan's influence there. Lastly, Iran is rich in oil and gas reserves and thus can help meet India’s domestic energy needs and aid it in avoiding an overreliance on Saudi Arabia, which has had traditionally close ties with Pakistan.
Iran considers India significant for a number of reasons. First, India, like Iran, is an Asian country, and the two share historic, cultural, and ethnic links. India's foreign policy is also congruent with that of Iran; they are both opposed to U.S. unilateralism and a unipolar world. Following the New Delhi Declaration of 2003, Iran and India referred to each other as “strategic partners” and embarked on joint military exercises (www.mei.edu).
Between 2011-2012 both countries held several rounds of negotiations to discuss joint cooperation. During the meetings, views were exchanged on combating global terrorism, energy security, North South Transport Corridor, developments in Afghanistan and regional security and stability. During the visit, both sides exchanged the Instrument of Ratification for the Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners signed in July 2010 thereby operationalizing the Agreement (mea.gov.in).
It is not solely economics that is driving India’s current policies with Iran. Beyond these distortions caused by the India-US-Iran triangle, there is a range of important proposed infrastructure projects on the horizon, all of which provide a window into other shifting geostrategic relationships across Asia.
All of them are a response to the super-ambitious China-led infrastructure plan to develop an expansive set of roads and railways that would cut across the Central Asian heartland and link China’s eastern seaboard with Russia and Europe as well as all of South Asia, known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, or now called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As the biggest infrastructure project ever proposed, the plan is historic, carries tremendous geostrategic implications, and could ultimately include over 60 countries.
However, the Indian government has refused to join the China-led endeavour. India is particularly angry that one small portion of the BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, cuts across the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir, which India claims is legally part of its state of Jammu and Kashmir. Japan, which shares India’s concerns about the growing economic and military strength of China, is likely to partner with India on the development of the Chabahar port in Iran, as well as an adjoining special economic zone. In fact, as part of their response to China’s BRI, India and Japan are partnering in what they call the Freedom Corridor, which would create a new road, rail, and shipping routes that would stretch from South East Asia to Sri Lanka, Iran, and Africa (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk).
India is facing a complicated geopolitical situation that is forcing a relationship with Iran despite the objections of the U.S. The fear of an encroaching Chinese power in the region coupled with Pakistan’s hostility, cutting India off from their seaports makes it essential for India to make power plays for their own security and economic protection that go against U.S. interests.
This does not necessarily indicate that the power of U.S. economic sanctions are eroding. However, it does signify that the geopolitics India is dealing with in the region are taking precedence. And this does suggest that economic sanctions are becoming more problematic for the U.S. to use in situations dealing with Iran.
Inevitably, the U.S. must reevaluate its strategy to embrace the economic and strategic needs of allied countries. Otherwise, the long-term ramifications are that India may be driven further into an alliance with Iran. Given that Russia has been quick to capitalize on U.S. economic sanctions by offering itself as a seller and trading partner to sanctioned countries. The dangers of India being driven into such arrangements has the potential to undermine the U.S. strategy by giving rouge countries alternatives to conduct business. It could also undermine the U.S.’s own interest by narrowing the markets American companies have access to.
During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States used arms transfers and military assistance as one element in foreign and security policies that was primarily intended to further a political and ideological competition. But with the end of the cold war, the international arms trade no longer has the same politico-military underpinning.
In the late 1980s, the changes in foreign policy initiated by President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze transformed the pattern of Soviet arms exports. After 1992, decisions by Russia about foreign, domestic and economic policy altered the size and pattern of arms exports even further. According to the Office of the President, in 1996 military-technical cooperation generated $2.5 billion in revenue of which $2.1 billion was in convertible currency and the rest in currencies that could not be freely converted. Russia also delivered arms and military equipment against debts owed to several foreign countries (www.sipri.org/publications/1998/russia-and-arms-trade).
The exports of black and gray arms represent between 5-15% of total weapons exports from Russia. For example, when the official exports of weapons and military equipment from Russia amounted to $3.8 billion in the early 2000s, the black and gray export was closer to $380 million. Russian merchants of death also have a large scale operation in the Middle East. Russia was accused of supplying arms to terrorist organizations such as Hamas, IG, and Hezbollah with the ruling Assad regime in Syria acting as an intermediary.
Syria has been in a state of civil war for many years with rebels trying to overthrow the pro-Kremlin regime. Since the beginning of the war, Russian arms supplies to Syria have grown exponentially. Moscow officially claims that deliveries are made on previous contracts, but it cannot explain why the number of these contracts suddenly increased many times over. In this case, there is real doubt that the weapons contracts are paid for, since it is no secret that the Assad regime is bankrupt and unable to buy the mountains of weapons supplied over these years from Russia, including small arms, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, C-SAM (ZRK S-300), tanks T-72 and T-80, and MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. And that doesn’t even include the cost of ammunition.
Israeli intelligence agencies have repeatedly implicated the Kremlin in the supply of weapons to Hezbollah, including rockets, ammunition, and small firearms. In fact, the IDF has actively prevented completion of several Kremlin plans for the armament of Hezbollah brokered by Assad. Israeli aircraft have repeatedly destroyed the anti-aircraft missiles S-300, anti-ship missiles Yakhont, and ground-to-ground missiles on Syrian territory that were intended for Hezbollah. Israeli forces seized Russian-made weapons, the ATGM Cornet, from Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Russian smuggling in the Middle East is not limited to the supply of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. There are reasons to believe the Kremlin is also supplying weapons to the terrorist group ISIS. Russians could not transfer weapons to militants openly, because it officially recognized ISIS as a terrorist organization. Then there was a scam—a series of staged assaults by militants on the bases of Syrian government troops. Assad’s army retreated without a fight, leaving the entire base along with loads of weapons. Hence, this was a way to deliver arms under the guise of trophies. It is noteworthy that when the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime went sour, attacks on government troops became violent and the weapons were destroyed (informnapalm.org/).
By 2015, the US was first in value of all arms deliveries made around the world, at a value of $16.9 billion or 36.62% of the total. The US and Russia made up just over half of all arms transfer agreements to developing world countries. Each year, between 2008 and 2015, two or three major suppliers made most of the arms transfers to that market. It was the eighth year in a row that the US was first in this category, and Russia was second in each of those eight years.
Russia is able to offer a variety of munitions, from low-tech gear to advanced weapons systems. It has sold combat aircraft and main battle tanks to China and India and made arms deals with the likes of Malaysia, Burma, and Algeria. Moscow has focused its recent arms-sales efforts on Latin America, where Venezuela has been a principal buyer. Russia has also worked to make it's weapons deal terms more flexible and to improve its follow-on services to clients (www.businessinsider.com/us-russia-global-arms-sales-2016-12).
Recently the issue that has come between the US and Russia is the sale of the S-400 air defense system. The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) is an air defence missile system developed by Almaz Central Design Bureau of Russia. The S-400 Triumph air defence system integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and control centre. It is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence. The system can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km. The system can simultaneously engage 36 targets. The S-400 is two-times more effective than previous Russian air defence systems and can be deployed within five minutes. It can also be integrated into the existing and future air defence units of the Air Force, Army, and the Navy. Russia intends to supply export versions of the S-400 Triumph system to the armed forces of China. Turkey also expressed interest in purchasing S-400 air defence systems (www.army-technology.com/projects/s-400-triumph-air-defence-missile-system/).
Russia’s ability to sell its S-400 air defense system to several different countries in different theaters illustrates the geopolitics of this particular system. Despite US sanctions on the Russian defense company Almaz-Antey, Moscow is offering or has sold the S-400 to a number of countries, including NATO member Turkey. The US is also watching closely for other S-400 sales to countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Iran, and Vietnam, thus reducing the American sphere of influence and boosting Russia’s ability to arm, equip, and train other countries’ air defense capabilities regardless of the theater. The key issue here is what the US will do given the defense requirements of other countries who want to continue to do defense business with Moscow. Both Turkey and, in particular, India now stand out (www.arabnews.com/node/1390056). The U.S. aggressive stance has also set it at further odds with China.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military on Thursday for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia in breach of a sweeping US sanctions law punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 US election. The US State Department said it would immediately impose sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD), the military branch responsible for weapons and equipment, and its director, Li Shangfu, for engaging in “significant transactions” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter. The sanctions are related to China’s purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the State Department. In Beijing, the Chinese government expressed anger and demanded the sanctions be withdrawn (www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions/u-s-sanctions-china-for-buying-russian-fighter-jets-missiles-idUSKCN1M02TP).
This intelligence site has previously reported that Russia is building its economic base and influence in the world by availing itself to countries under US or UN sanctions as a viable trading partner. Based on this strategy it is using its arms business to further undermine the effectiveness of US sanctions and bolster its own position as a sphere of influence in the world.
It is also a source of revenue for the Russian economy they will continue to foster through both legitimate sales and black-market deals. In the long run, Russia’s arms sales will constitute a serious threat for the United States. In addition to eroding the effectiveness of US sanctions, technology such as the S-400 changes the battlefield dynamics by enhancing the defenses of hostile countries. The fact that Russia has been willing to turn a blind eye or actively encourage an illicit market to further their customer base explains how important the arms market has become for them.
The US needs to recognize that Russia’s arms business is only going to expand and proliferate, especially to countries and groups that are sanctioned by the US. Russia has grown to become the second largest arms merchant in the world just behind the United States. In time it is capable of becoming the largest, thus Russia will remain a significant threat to US authority. In response, the US needs to start developing more diverse measures and threats to deal with foreign adversaries; measures that do not rely solely on sanctions. It will also have to deal with adversaries that will be able to obtain more sophisticated weapons because of this.
In the last few years, China has showed a serious signs of expanding its interest into central and southern Asia. This is a large part of their modern security strategy. Their concern is that Afghanistan will become a stronghold for Islamic separatists threatening their western regions (Eden, 2018). China’s greatest fears and motivation all center on unrest and a perceived threat to overall national security arising out of Xinjiang. The traditionally Muslim-majority province has been a source of pronounced concern for Beijing for decades (thediplomat.com/).
For Beijing, instability in Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular is a matter of concern. It is seen to have a “direct influence” on the security of China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is known to have bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Beijing has been apprehensive over ETIM fighters and other jihadists entering Xinjiang through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to radicalize Uyghurs or carry out attacks in China (thediplomat.com/).
Badakhshan, an Afghan province in the far eastern part of the country is of particular interest. The government is worried this region will become a safe haven for Uyghur terrorists who are the primary threat in the western region (Eden, 2018). Along the 76-kilometre border between Afghanistan and China, a massive gorge is located on the Chinese side, where Chinese Muslims live, who are closely watched by the Chinese authorities. During the rule of the Taliban, large groups of Chinese Uyghurs were seen among foreign militants under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They had obviously received good military training in the Al-Qaeda camps. Today many are still active now, and not only in the ranks of the Taliban. Many have blended among different groups of foreign mercenaries, which could create great problems for the Chinese authorities. China, with the help of the army and law enforcement agencies in Afghanistan, has been trying to prevent the penetration of Uyghur militants into its territory, most of which have so far joined the IS. Law enforcers assume that that the largest group of Uyghur militants already reside in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and can make a rapid shift to China (enews.fergananews.com/).
The Chinese government has for decades tried to push back against a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region. The government crackdown increased in recent years because of the rise of the Islamic State and fears of expansion by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which China accuses of being behind several terrorist attacks in the country (www.aopnews.com/human-rights/).
The Afghan delegation, led by Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, visited China during which the parties agreed to build the base. Tariq Shah, with his Chinese colleague General Chang Wanquan and other military officials, discussed security issues and agreed to cooperate on fighting terrorism in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and the entire northern region. The agreement has specified that the Chinese side covers all material and technical expenses for this base: weaponry, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment and everything else necessary for its functioning (enews.fergananews.com/).
China has promised to provide $85 million for the Afghan army to create a mountainous brigade for the protection of the Badakhshan border (ariananews.af/).
The Afghan Defence Ministry said that preparations for the start of construction of a military base in Badakhshan by Afghan military experts has already begun. A special commission established will determine the location of the base, construction costs, and other technical issues (enews.fergananews.com/).
In a formal briefing by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, a brief explanation was given:
"According to the information provided by relevant departments, the law-enforcement departments of China and Afghanistan, in accordance with the agreement of strengthening border law enforcement cooperation between the two sides, have been conducting joint law enforcement operations in areas bordering both countries in recent years, in order to jointly prevent and fight against terrorism activities and organized transnational crimes. I’d like to point out that the report of some foreign media that the Chinese military vehicles entered Afghanistan for patrol is untrue."
Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied media reports stating that Beijing was constructing a military base in Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Though newspapers have reported citing sources that China had started building a training camp for Afghan servicemen to support Afghanistan’s counterterrorism efforts (www.aopnews.com/china-afghanistan-relations/).
Afghans consider China to be their traditional friends and trustworthy neighbors; ones which have increasingly proven to share their wisdom and wealth with others, who need them the most. The trilateral dialogue was a manifestation of China’s ongoing efforts to build confidence, friendship, and consensus among its neighbors for the pursuit of win-win goals against an entrenched zero-sum mentality, moving toward a shared future of sustainable peace, security, and stability throughout the region (thediplomat.com/). China has had a long history with Afghanistan going back to the cold war.
The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union prompted an international response to support the indigenous Mujahideen groups that formed to fight the Soviets. Chief among the nations supplying money and arms by 1980 were the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, secretly, the U.K. In 1980, China would, incredibly, receive military support from the United States to combat the threat from both the Soviet Union and Afghan Communists. Over the next several years, China would train anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahideen forces, and provide millions of dollars of weaponry to them (thediplomat.com/). And, it has continued to play a significant role.
It was in early 2015 that China began facilitating talks between the Ghani government and the Taliban. However, the efforts made little progress, partly because of deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on account of continuing Taliban attacks in Kabul. Recognizing that its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table would make no progress so long as Pakistan and Afghanistan remained at loggerheads, China set out to bring Pakistan into its peace efforts. Beijing engaged in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Islamabad and Kabul to put in place a trilateral crisis management mechanism. In December 2017, Beijing hosted trilateral talks where the three countries called on the Taliban to join the process. (thediplomat.com/).
From the Afghan perspective, the security threats that contribute to increased instability in the region also extend to the rest of the world, because they emanate from a dangerous nexus of violent extremism by transnational terrorist networks (TTNs), organized crime by transnational criminal networks (TCNs), as well as state sponsorship of terrorism. Indeed, the symbiotic relationships among these lethal networks of terror and crime involve mutual benefits in the form of facilities and capabilities like protection, logistics, financing, training, arms, intelligence, and safe havens.
In the Afghan case, these enable the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to destabilize Afghanistan. And the ensuing regional instability has provided an enabling, operational environment for such terrorist networks as al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and others to launch targeted terrorist attacks in the region and beyond (thediplomat.com/). Security is not Chinas only interest in the country.
China signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations with Kabul in 2006. Two years later, Chinese companies won a $3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Logar province. An unstable Afghanistan could derail China’s economic ambitions. Success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor hinges on a stable neighborhood, which in turn depends on a stable Afghanistan. China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor today. It is interested mainly in resource extraction and infrastructure building. It has started extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan. In the telecommunications sector, China’s role has grown from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic links in 2017. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets (thediplomat.com/). Though China’s activities have been towards the goal of stability it has also created complications.
Because China shares no direct border with Afghanistan it has had to work through intermediate countries to develop it supply network. Doing so they have had to cultivate relations with countries like Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic that separates Afghanistan and China. It has spent that last several years cultivating relations with the country to include building a series of military posts along the border, helping train Tajik troops and taking part in joint training exercises. This has created strife with the Russians, who still consider all their old Central Asian republics their territory. It is assumed that this is steadily leading to an escalation competition for influence in the region. To this effect it is presumed that the Russians may be trying to undermine China’s efforts at expansion in the region by supplying weapons to the Taliban (Eden, 2018). China’s economic development strategy has also met with poor results.
China’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan have not gone well. The Mes Aynak project, for example, has failed to take off largely because of the poor security situation in the country. A railway line linking China’s Jiangsu province and the Afghan rail port of Hairatan, which would have reduced travel time and costs substantially, runs empty from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan on its return route, as Afghanistan’s production of goods for export remains low. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets. But road and rail lines built under the BRI could suffer the same fate as the Jiangsu-Hairatan railway line: crippled by Afghanistan’s low export capacity (thediplomat.com/).
Conclusion: The future of China’s role in Afghanistan will be continuous but limited. It will seek to maintain influence with the national government in Kabul through its connections with Pakistan and sizeable economic investments there. However, having witnessed the decade long campaign that left the U.S bogged down in the country, China will limit any military involvement solely to the regions they feel most threatened by. The level of military involvement has yet to be fully understood. It is likely that it will change over time based on the circumstances in the western regions of their own country.
China should not be looked at as a potential partner for stabilizing the region. The investments and development projects have been more towards creating a viable trading partner than being a stabilizing force. They have no interest in doing any more than what is either economically advantageous or tied directly to their immediate security. While China is seeking to build itself into a dominate force in the region and develop viable security it also fears becoming bogged down in a costly military excursion such as what the U.S recently endured. They also step lightly dealing with the Russians who see themselves as the reigning power in Central Asia. That said, they will, while treading lightly, pick their battles not just in Afghanistan but in Central Asia. They will also work heavily, through soft power, to influence governments and trying to develop proxies they can use to enhance their position.
Eden, Steve, Badakhstan Converging Tensions, Modern War Magazine, issue 37 September-October 2018.
With the withdrawal of US and allied forces from the Afghan region, China and neighboring countries have stepped in to assert influence in the hopes of bringing some form of viable stability.
In The Higgins Report for October, I investigate developing military and economic ties between China and Afghanistan with China's long-term intention of influence building.
A Note to Readers...
Website analytics tell me my readership has been steadily growing. I'm looking into setting up an automated way for people to join my email list. In the meantime, if anyone wants a monthly email notification when my latest paper is posted, fill out the contact form and I'll be glad to add you to my list.
Thanks for reading.