Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Prodigal U.S. Client

Paul Pillar

In a blast from the past in Afghanistan, a warlord who became a model for combining ruthless ambition and destructive methods with radical ideology, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has advised his followers to support the so-called Islamic State or ISIS in fighting against the Afghan Taliban. While some in the West might see this as one more indication of ISIS spreading its tentacles with an ever-widening reach, a better lesson flows from observing that this is another instance of ISIS being invoked by a protagonist in a local conflict with local objectives. Hekmatyar's game has always been about seeking power in Afghanistan and bashing opponents of his efforts to do so.

A further lesson comes from noting that it is the Taliban that Hekmatyar finds to be either too moderate or too inconvenient for him right now. It probably is not coincidental that this statement by Hekmatyar comes just as the Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban have concluded what may be the most promising peace negotiations so far that are aimed at resolution of the long-running conflict in Afghanistan. All of these players—the government, the Taliban, and Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami—are focused on struggles for power in their own country and not on transnational causes. Afghanistan is a nation in which politics and policy largely rest on ad hoc deals among various local power-holders, which are struck in ways that do not correspond to what might make sense to Westerners in terms of recognizable left-right, radical-moderate, or religious-secular dimensions. The outcome of the current multidimensional conflict in Afghanistan will depend on such deals. This ought to call into question the wisdom of calls to extend what has already been a 14-year U.S. military operation in the interests of beating back what gets portrayed as an undifferentiated set of bad guys.

Yet another lesson comes from reflecting on Hekmatyar's four decades as a major player in turmoil in Afghanistan. Although it is not true, as is sometimes alleged, that the United States once aided Osama bin Laden, it is true that a single-minded U.S. focus on defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan and their client regime under Najibullah led the United States to bestow its favors on some seedy characters. U.S. aid aimed at beating the Soviets was given, through the intermediary of Pakistan, to seven Afghan resistance organizations. Hekmatyar's group was probably the most radical of these but also, because it was a favorite of the Pakistanis, probably received as much of the U.S. aid as any other. The attitude within the Reagan administration toward the question of what further consequences would flow from aiding such radicalism was one of "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." The later chapters of the Hekmatyar story involved fierce fighting against the other resistance groups once Najibullah fell, with Hekmatyar's forces shelling Kabul even as he was supposed to be the prime minister, and later his group making common cause with the Taliban before the most recent falling out.

A moral of this story is: don't put off thinking about those future bridge-crossings. In focusing on defeating whoever the enemy of the moment may be, worry also about how our intervention in a conflict may be sustaining others who can spell trouble. That's always been true in Afghanistan and is true in other places as well, such as Syria.                     

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsSouth Asia

Indonesia Is Building New Military Base in South China Sea

The Buzz

Indonesia is developing a plan to build a new military base in the South China Sea, according to local media reports.

On Friday, the Jakarta Post reported that Indonesian officials are preparing a plan to build a new military base somewhere in the South China Sea, which has seen an uptick in tensions over competing sovereignty claims. The report said Indonesia’s Defense Ministry and the The National Development Planning Board (Bappenas) held a meeting on Friday to discuss the potential locations for such a base.

“Our meeting today is aimed at synchronizing our ambition to guard the national interest and protect the sovereignty of our territory,” Bappenas chief Andrinof Chaniago was quoted as saying in the report.

“The findings from the team will be conveyed to President Jokowi [Joko Widodo], who will make his decision. We hope that in the near future, the plan will be realized,” he added.

(Recommended: Exposed: Singapore's Aircraft Carrier in Disguise)

Among the places being considered, according to Andrinof, are areas in Sambas, West Kalimantan; Natuna Islands, Riau Islands and Tarakan, North Kalimantan.

Indonesia’s Defense Minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, who previously served as Army Chief of Staff, expressed his support for the proposed military base.

“I previously worked in West Kalimantan and I believe that building a military base in that territory is a very good decision. We have natural resources that we need to guard,” he said, according to the report.

Indonesia isn’t an official participant in the South China Sea disputes, however, in the past China's nine-dash line maps of sovereignty have included Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. This has been met by sharp rebukes from Indonesian officials.

(Recommended: Asia Beware: China Unveils New Island Storming Warships)

“China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters. This arbitrary claim is related to the dispute over Spratly and Paracel Islands between China and the Philippines. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters,” assistant deputy to the chief security minister for defense strategic doctrine, Commodore Fahru Zaini said, in March of last year during a trip to the Natuna area.

He added: “What China has done is related to the territorial zone of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia. Therefore, we have come to Natuna to see the concrete strategy of the main component of our defense, namely the National Defense Forces (TNI).”

Around the same time, Indonesia’s Military Chief General Moeldoko took to the Wall Street Journal to blast China’s claims. “Indonesia is dismayed… that China has included parts of the Natuna Islands within the nine-dash line, thus apparently claiming a segment of Indonesia's Riau Islands province as its territory,” Moeldoko wrote.

(Recommended: China's New Trump Card in the South China Sea)

He went on to write: “The Indonesian military has decided to strengthen its forces on Natuna. We will need also to prepare fighter planes to meet any eventuality stemming from heightened tensions on one of the world's key waterways.”

More recently, in February of this year, General Moeldoko referred to the South China Sea as a potential flashpoint. “In the future, we expect that the South China Sea will be a flash point. So a task force, such as the Kogabwilhan, will be very important,” Moeldoko said in an interview.

Indonesia’s popular president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has also waded into the dispute from time to time. For example, just before a trip to Japan and China in March of this year, Jokowi said “The ‘nine-dashed line’ that China says marks its maritime border has no basis in any international law.”

Outside observers have regularly pegged Indonesia as a potential leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the organization’s secretariat is indeed located in the country. Thus, Indonesia’s position on the South China Sea dispute carries particular weight.

However, Indonesia has tried to take a balanced approach on the issue, and Jokowi reaffirmed in March that Indonesia seeks to remain an "honest broker" in the dispute.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/KAI

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Russia May Build India New Super Advanced Submarine

The Buzz

India and Russia are in the final stages of talks for Delhi to lease another nuclear attack submarine from Moscow.

According to India’s Economic Times, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin will discuss the deal on the sidelines of the BRICS Leadership Summit currently being held in Ufa, Russia.

“Several sources related to the project that ET spoke with confirmed that talks on leasing a new submarine under the 'Chakra 3' project are in advanced stages and that the issue will be discussed during Prime Minister Modi's visit to Russia this week,” the report said.

There has been previous signs that India intends to lease a second Russian-built nuclear attack submarine (SSK). And, during a trip to India last year, Vladimir Putin indicated that Russia would be interested in such a deal.

However, the new Economic Times report said that in contrast to previous Indo-Russian submarine deals, under the “Chakra 3” project, Russia will build India a customized submarine. The report speculates that the boat may be one of Russia’s new Yasen-class submarines, or else a derivative with a similar design.    

"The final shape is yet to be decided, but it is now almost certain that a 'greenfield' submarine will be built," ET quotes an unnamed source close to the program as saying.

A Yasen-like submarine would be a significant boost to India’s depleted undersea fleet. As Kyle Mizokami has observed on The National Interest: “The Yasen class is one of the most advanced submarines in the world. The class reportedly has a crew of only ninety, implying a high level of automation. A 200MW nuclear reactor is thought to power the submarine to a maximum speed of 35 to 40 knots, with a ‘quiet operating speed’ of 20 knots.”

Regarding weaponry, Mizokami pointed out that: “The Yasen class has eight vertical launch tubes, four 650mm torpedo tubes and four standard-diameter 533mm torpedo tubes. Besides standard guided torpedoes, Yasen will almost certainly be armed with the Shkval supercavitating torpedo, capable of traveling at 200 knots to ranges from 7 to 13 kilometers.”

India is currently in the process of trying to revamp its submarine fleet, which has been battered by a number of mishaps in recent years. For starters, India is trying to build nuclear-powered ballistic missile (SSBNs) to serve as the sea-based leg of its strategic deterrence.

In addition, earlier this year India greenlit a project to build six-indigenously produced nuclear attack submarines, which would likely be manufactured with significant foreign assistance from abroad. In fact, as The National Interest previously reported, Russia and India have been in discussions over starting a joint-venture involving the nuclear attack submarines. Those talks are still in the very preliminary stages.

Still, India has a long history of relying on Russian submarines to power its undersea fleet. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the Soviet Union sold India eight Foxtrot-class submarines, which India operated as Vela-class submarines. India also currently operates a number of Kilo-class submarines, which are designated as Sindhughosh-class submarines by the Indian Navy.

Furthermore, India has experiencing leasing Russian-built nuclear attack submarines. In the 1980s, India briefly leased a SSK from the Soviet Union under Chakra 1. Delhi took on a ten-year lease for a second Russian-built SSK in 2012. Unlike the deal currently in discussion, both of those earlier submarines were refurbished Soviet and Russian boats.

In related news, Russia is reportedly interested in making India a global hub for the upgrade, maintenance and repair of Russian-built conventional submarines. Evgeny V. Shustikov, Deputy Director General of Russia’s state-owned Zvyozdochka Shipyards, tells the Economic Times that: "We are in the process of negotiating with an Indian shipyard and if these negotiations are successful, it could become our partner for future tasks of modernising Kilo class submarines. Not just for India but for third nations as well.”

The report went on to say that: “Officials from the state-run Zvyozdochka shipyard told ET that a memorandum of understanding could be signed within a month as it is in final talks with an Indian partner for the project. Russian engineers have already visited the Indian yard and advised it on changes to be made as well as investments needed to execute the project.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Admiralty Shipyards

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

Why Is Iran's Foreign Minister So Angry?

The Buzz

Nuclear negotiations that once contested questions of access and verification now seem to be turning into a contest of measurement—and those aren’t uranium stockpiles they’re measuring. Yesterday, Russian and Iranian media outlets reported a string of bombastic outbursts from their nations’ top diplomats in disputes over the removal of the United Nations Security Council’s arms embargo on Iran. The Russians and Iranians want the arms embargoes lifted; the U.S. and others want some restrictions to remain. After European Union foreign policy head Federica Mogherini suggested the talks could end over Iran’s intransigence, say the reports, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shouted back, “Never threaten an Iranian!” “Or a Russian,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is said to have added. Zarif and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry are also reported to have been shouting at each other so loudly one night that other delegations in the hotel could hear; on another occasion, when Western negotiators raised the issue of Iran’s destabilizing role around the Middle East, Zarif “erupted” that “If we are talking about regional security, I should take every one of you to international courts for supporting Saddam” in the Iran-Iraq War.

It’s no surprise that the nuclear talks would see some of the negotiators losing their tempers—after all, the issues at stake reach into the core of the parties’ visions of their own security and dignity—and this isn’t the first time Zarif has been accused of indelicacy. Yet it’s only now that we’re hearing just what Zarif is shouting about. All leaks from the talks should be treated as deliberate efforts to cultivate an image, since the negotiators are typically tight-lipped. These revelations are particularly suspect, given that they come via interested parties’ state media and that they make little sense in the negotiation room and lots of sense as efforts to rally nationalism. An Iranian lawsuit against key Western states over a war three decades ago would only deepen Tehran’s isolation—precisely the opposite of what Zarif and his president, Hassan Rouhani, are trying to achieve by negotiating. And Zarif and Lavrov’s appeals to proud national “character” probably weren’t going to move an elite bureaucrat of a politically correct, postnational outfit like the European Union. Yet raising the Western role in supporting Iraq is red meat for Iranians across the political spectrum, as that inhuman and deadly war remains an open wound. And tough talk about standing up to threats? That’s a universal political language, and it seems to have hit its mark in Iran. These leaks were about public positioning, not diplomatic gain.

And what’s the positioning mean? That’s hard to say, but it may have been multipurpose. A successful deal will include controversial concessions, so it’s useful for the negotiators to make a show of how patriotic they are and how hard they’re pushing the other side. And if the talks break down, the negotiators will be accused of being soft for having engaged with the United States in the first place. Highly visible shows of patriotism and machismo can mitigate that damage. And Zarif is a moderate, technocratic figure with no real war record or natural political base in Iran. If the negotiations succeed, he and Rouhani will be rock stars for many Iranians; Zarif’s remarks might help him capture a little more of the spotlight. He’s denied ambitions for higher office. Even if he was telling the truth, adoring crowds have a way of changing men’s minds.

Political scientist Robert D. Putnam once wrote that diplomacy is a two-level game—negotiators aren’t just negotiating with other countries, but with their own domestic system. At the level of international diplomacy, Zarif’s conduct looks unprofessional and intemperate—hard to explain from a man who’s been doing diplomacy for decades and who’s rarely photographed without a smile on his face. As domestic politics, though, it’s much more understandable. While the international level of the talks has been dominated by arcane technical questions, the domestic level is simple and volatile, with symbols and emotions mattering far more than, say, questions about whether Iran can turn uranium hexaflouride into uranium dioxide by this or that day. This apparent Russo-Iranian bid to make moves on the international level that get results at the domestic level suggests that something big may be upon us—whatever it is.

John Allen Gay, an associate managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Mueller/MSC. CC BY 3.0.

TopicsNuclear ProliferationDiplomacy RegionsIran

China’s New Cybersecurity Law: What You Need to Know

The Buzz

The National People’s Congress posted the draft of a new cybersecurity law (in Chinese) on Monday. The purpose of the law, according the NPC, is to maintain “cyberspace sovereignty.” The law is open for comments until August, and the important questions will be in how it is modified, interpreted, and implemented. But here are some of the key points:

-Government will establish national security standards for technical systems and networks.

-Real name registration to be enforced more strictly, especially with messaging apps where enforcement has been lax.

-Internet operators must provide “support and assistance” to the government for dealing with criminal investigations and national security. Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International, tells Reuters that Article 50 gives authorities the legal power to cut Internet access in to maintain order as Beijing did in Xinjiang in 2009.

-“Timely warning and notification” system for cybersecurity incidents.

-Greater investment in cybersecurity (including subsidies for cybersecurity companies, internet operators, etc.) and cybersecurity education.

-The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) will review cybersecurity practices of key telecommunication operators, conduct regular emergency drills, and provide help in implementing the law. Employees must undergo background checks, and the CAC will review procurement.

-User data for the key operators must be stored in China (if there’s a business imperative to store data overseas, they can apply for exceptions).

-Collection and use of user data must “comply with the principles of legality, justice, and necessity” and operators must secure users’ agreement to have their data used. Data collected must be related to the service the Internet operator is providing. Collected user data must have adequate protections and data breaches must be responded to in a timely manner.

The foreign business community will be reading the law closely, trying to determine how the cybersecurity standards and procurement provisions will be implemented. The past few months will not give them great comfort, as Beijing has adopted a national security law and other provisions to make technology used in China “secure and controllable.”

Just weeks after the Strategic and Economic Dialogue ended, and months before President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, cybersecurity and information technology are becoming an even greater source of tension in the bilateral relationship.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Net Politics here

TopicsCyber Security RegionsAsia