What We’re Watching

What our analysts are watching and key events they are keeping an eye on
12th September 20218 min

Taliban take over Panjshir. The Taliban has now taken complete control of Panjshir valley, the last area in Afghanistan held by opposition forces, almost three weeks after taking over Kabul. Pictures on social media showed Taliban members standing in front of the gate of the Panjshir provincial governor’s compound. Meanwhile, the National Resistance Front (NRF) spokesman said the Taliban’s claim of victory was false and opposition forces continued to fight, adding that its forces were retreating to “strategic positions” for a protracted battle across the Panjshir valley. The whereabouts of resistance leader Ahmed Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, the former vice president who joined resistance forces after the fall of Kabul are not known. This is the first time the Taliban has taken full control of Afghanistan. We will be watching what moves Ahmed Massoud and the opposition will now make.

Taliban announces Interim government. The Taliban finally announced their much anticipated interim government shortly after having swiftly crushed a rebellion by the National Resistance Front. So far, only key leadership positions have been announced and are dominated by the Taliban’s “old guard”, despite promises of an inclusive government. Of the 33 roles announced, 14 are former Taliban officials during its previous 1996-2001 rule, five are former Guantanamo detainees, and the remaining 12 are officials from the second generation of the movement. This doesn’t bode well for the Taliban’s quest for international recognition, however they have found a friend in China which will be crucial in combating their looming economic crisis. There was no announcement of a Loya Jirga or who will fill the position in the ministries or if this will include former regime officials. The Taliban are looking to transition from a guerilla movement at war to ruling and now that they have determined who will fill their key posts, they now have significant economic, security, political and social issues to deal with. 

UK sends ships to the Pacific. In addition to its only aircraft carrier the United Kingdom sent HMS Tamar and HMS Spey to the Asia Pacific region. Unlike HMS Queen Elizabeth  and it’s escort ships whose presence in the region is temporary the latest deployments are permanent. HMS Tamar and HMS Spey will use ports of convenience for resupply and recuperation to remain in the region indefinitely. Fresh from its withdrawal from the European Union, the UK is almost desperate for new allies and markets. The presence of these vessels, although doing little to change the military balance in the region, constitutes a significant political statement and underlines the significance that the UK gives to the region amid rising tensions between an ascendant China and its neighbours. Chinese offshore patrol vessels often displace more than 10,000 tonnes and are significant combat vessels in their own right whilst both HMS Tamar and Spey displace less than 2,000 tonnes. Though Britannia certainly no longer rules the waves, the extent of influence that the UK will have on the security of the region remains to be seen.

New Government announced in Lebanon. Lebanon has announced a new government after 13 months of deadlock following the Beirut port explosions in August 2020. Najib Mikati, a multi billionaire, has been appointed the Prime Minister of the country which is experiencing extreme economic hardship. The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value in less than two years and 75% of the population is living in poverty. For the past 6 weeks, Mikati, President Aoun, and other political leaders have been attempting to agree on ministerial appointments based on the country’s sectarian power-sharing system. The new government, described as a “band-aid” by some commentators, will now shift its focus to agreeing terms with the IMF to secure a financial rescue package.

See our analysis on Beirut Port Explosion, One Year On

Turkish and Egyptian officials meet in Ankara to normalise ties. A second round of political consultations between Turkey and Egypt were held on the 7th of September following the first round held in May. Matters of mutual interest and the normalisation of relations strained by the Arab spring and the ousting of president Mohammed Morsi Egypt were discussed among other bilateral issues. Although Turkey and Egypt found themselves on opposite sides of the Arab spring, both face regional challenges where cooperation between the Arab world’s most populous nations and the bridge between East and West would be advantageous to both nations. Egypt’s precarious economic position and the existential threat posed by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam together with Turkey’s own economic crisis have curtailed the regional ambitions of both nations and forced a less than enthusiastic reconciliation. With a looming election in which the economy will be centre stage, President Erdogan has little option but to repair ties and with a tourism reliant economy decimated by Covid-19 President Sisi will have little room to manoeuvre.  

South Korea joins the ballistic missile club. South Korea has successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) for the first time, becoming the eighth country in the world to acquire SLBM capabilities and first country without nuclear weapons to develop such a capability. South Korea has developed increasingly powerful missiles designed to target heavily fortified bunkers and tunnels in North Korea, while also seeking to reduce its dependence on the US, which has deployed thousands of troops on the peninsula since the Korean war in the 1950s. Seoul has been playing catchup to Pyongyang’s SLBM development for the past few years. President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden agreed in May to terminate guidelines that set the maximum range of South Korea’s missiles at 800 km. South Korea’s shifts towards a more aggressive posture in the region and a non-nuclear SLBM development will have broader implications for its quest for nuclear weapons development. We will be watching Seoul’s future nuclear project and how it plans to achieve nuclear capability. 

Zapad 2021 military Exercise. This year’s Zapad exercises began on 10 September 2021 in Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. The exercises running to 16th September 2021 will also have logistical operations in Russia’s southern, northern and central military districts, as well as in Kazakhstan. In addition to Russia and Belarus Mongolia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and India are directly participating in this year’s exercise. Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Uzbekistan and Sri Lanka are participating as observers. For Russia, the drills show its commitment to protecting Belarus. Large numbers of both Russian and Belarusian forces took part in the exercise with these taking place at a greater number of locations inside of Belarus. The Belarusian leadership has presented the Zapad drills as a part of its strategy against potential aggression from NATO. These drills send an important message to NATO nations about the status of Russia-Belarus relations after the 2020s contested electoral result. We will be watching for any defence sales and agreements that allow Russia forces to be stationed in Belarus.

Russia-Belarus stop short of political integration. Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said they had made progress toward integrating the two countries’ economies during a summit on Thursday 2nd September 2021 evening in advance of massive joint military exercises. Putin said the two leaders had agreed to coordinate the countries’ macroeconomic policies, institute common tax and customs measures, and harmonise other financial controls as part of a 28-point roadmap that is expected to increase Russia’s influence over its neighbour. The countries will move to integrate their energy markets while maintaining steeply discounted supplies of natural gas to Belarus, and Russia will provide a further $630m in loans to the cash-strapped Belarusian government. The texts of the agreements were not made available and the leaders did not sign any documents publicly. While the two sides announced new economic agreements, they stopped short of introducing a common currency or going into detail on any defence or political agreements, signalling a limit to the extent of the negotiations. Lukashenko, who has been sanctioned by the west for his crackdown on the country’s opposition, has for the moment resisted pressure from Moscow to concede control over government policy in exchange for Russian support. “First the economic foundation must be laid before moving further on the political track,” Putin said after the talks, noting that the two sides had not discussed possible political integration. Belarus is one of few nations Russia has significant influence over and since its loss of Ukraine to the West Putin has tried to show Russia remains a power with its influence over former Soviet republics. 

Russia completes Nord Stream 2. Energy giant Gazprom announced on Friday 10th September 2021 that construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, has been completed. Nord Stream 2 has divided European capitals and raised tensions between the bloc and Washington. A key controversy is that it diverts supplies from an existing route through Ukraine and is expected to deprive Europe’s ally of annual transit from Russia. Running from Russia’s Baltic coast to northeastern Germany, the underwater 745-mile long pipeline has cost $11 billion and the project stalled at the end of 2019 when then US president Donald Trump imposed sanctions. With this project Russia will double its lucrative gas exports to Europe via the Baltic Sea while bypassing and cutting off a source of income for political foe Ukraine.

US trained Soldiers carry out coup in Guinea. American Green Berets were training local forces in the West African nation of Guinea when their charges peeled away and mounted a successful coup. Gunfire rang out as an elite Guinean Special Forces unit stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Conakry, early Sunday 5th September 20021, deposing the country’s 83-year-old president, Alpha Condé. Hours later a charismatic young officer, Col. Mamady Doumbouya, announced himself as Guinea’s new leader. The Americans knew him well as a team of about a dozen Green Berets had been in Guinea since mid-July to train about 100 soldiers in a special forces unit led by Colonel Doumbouya. Video footage circulating online showed smiling American military officers in a crowd of joyous Guineans on 5 September 2021, the day of the coup. “If the Americans are involved in the putsch, it’s because of their mining interests,” said Diapharou Baldé, a teacher in Conakry — a reference to Guinea’s huge deposits of gold, iron ore and bauxite, which is used to make aluminium.

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