(Please read Part I prior to this article)
“The Eurasian Balkans”
As promising of a potential that the Greater Heartland has in fulfilling what seems to be the world’s inevitable multipolar destiny, it runs the risk of being held back by the adroit manipulation of its “Eurasian Balkan” socio-political vulnerabilities. To bring the reader up to speed real quick, this is the idea first espoused by Zbigniew Brzezinski that the mass of territory spanning from North Africa to Central Asia is riskily threatened by large-scale fragmentation along identity-based lines (ethnic, religious, historical, etc.), mirroring on a much larger scale the demographic “irregularities” that intensified the fratricidal Balkan Wars of the early 1990s.
These preexisting identity differences never played much of a role in domestic or regional affairs until the US began experimenting with them in the mid-2000s until the present day, and the fruits of its socio-political labor have already led to the manufactured “Sunni-Shia rivalry”. Given that the US has been wildly successful in militantly reviving as distantly dormant of a conflict as the more than millennium-old sectarian divide in Islam (hitherto peacefully expressed for the most part), it’s not unlikely that it could do the same with less grandiose and more recently occurring identity conflicts such as the ones that will be concisely (but not comprehensively) enumerated below:
The successor state to the ancient civilization of Persia is comprised of a multiplicity of identities that include the Azeris, Kurds, and Baloch. For the most part, shared civilizational patriotism among the disparate ethnicities and the explicit militancy expressed against them by the external American enemy over the decades has kept all of the demographic units largely united, but current trends point to a possible weakening of this civil symbiosis. For starters, rising Azeri nationalism could pose a secessionist challenge to the authorities if it’s not kept under control, as this group is estimated to constitute a whopping 25% of the population by some metrics and is heavily concentrated in the country’s northwest economic hub.
Furthermore, there’s also the Kurdish minority that lives in close proximity to this zone and along nearly half of the Iraqi border. It’s well known how nationalistic the Kurds have been over the past couple of years, and with the War on ISIL steadily drawing to a close, it’s predictable that this transnational ethnic group will take on a more influential and independent role in regional affairs. The New Cold War struggle between the unipolar and multipolar worlds in winning Kurdish loyalty is absolutely key in determining the future security of Iran, since if this influential group comes to side more with the US than its rivals, it could be used as a destabilizing proxy in militantly trying to achieve a pro-American transnational “Kurdistan”.
Another factor to consider when contemplating the Hybrid War vulnerabilities in Iran are the Baloch that inhabit the sparsely populated but geographically large swath of the country’s east. Sizeable numbers also reside in Pakistan’s geographically largest state, Balochistan, with a small minority in Afghanistan as well. In recent years, a slew of militant organizations have tried to wage a low-level insurgency in Pakistan (to be described more in the next section), which of course carries with it the risk of spilling over into the Baloch-populated portions of Iran and throwing the country’s leadership off balance. Significantly, the Indian-financed port of Chabahar, one of the most important nodes on the North-South Corridor, is located in the Sistan and Balochistan Province, and it or its associated railroad infrastructure could predictively be endangered if the hitherto Pakistani-based conflict moves westward.
The last major scenario in which Hybrid War could take root in Iran is through the ongoing “moderate-conservative” rivalry occurring at the pinnacle of the country’s leadership. To summarize, the “moderates”, led by Rouhanni, could more accurately be described as Westernizers, while the “conservatives” represented by the Ayatollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are more akin to national patriots. The Iranian nuclear deal was predicated on widening the divide between the two, and the US hoped to use the implicit threat of a 2009 “Green Revolution” redux in order to ensure the agreement’s compliance. In the months since, however, the patriots have staged a comeback in reasserting their dominant role in national affairs, as seen by Iran’s cooperation with Russia in the inclusive anti-ISIL coalition (symbolically important in the context of the New Cold War), Ayatollah Khamenei’s edict banning further negotiations with the US, and the security precautions being undertaken against hostile elements promoting social preconditioning. The latter move was criticized by Rouhani, which not demonstrates the crypto-Western sympathies that he actually embodies, but also reveals that he’s aware of how much this affects his and his camp’s ability to project influence in the future.
Referring to what was mentioned earlier, Pakistan faces a serious challenge to its stability in the resource-rich Balochistan Province. Of geo-economic importance is that the Port of Gwadar, the southern terminus of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is located in this region, thus meaning that destabilization here could equally impact China’s transnational connective project just as much as the same thing in Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan Province could do to India’s. However, given that China is a genuine engine of transformative multipolar change throughout the world while India is much more tepid in this regard (despite its BRICS and SCO membership and special relationship with Russia), it’s forecast that Pakistani-based Baloch destabilization is much more likely to be provoked by the US than it’s Iranian counterpart, or at least in the early stages.
Unlike Iran which has no domestic insurgencies (for now), Pakistan is plagued by the transnational Taliban that move between its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the north and Afghanistan, and would thus be in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis a simmering Baloch conflict if it had to divide its focus at this critical time of anti-terror action. This presents an enticing strategic opening for the US if it so chooses to act on it, which correspondingly increases the likelihood that it could occur to some degree. Likewise, and as will be discussed shortly when speaking about Afghanistan, this also means that any American efforts in ‘guiding’ the Taliban, ISIL, and/or some forthcoming hybrid thereof or an entirely new terrorist entity towards the Pakistani border could quickly create a crisis scenario for Islamabad that would reactively result in it paying considerably less attention to Balochistan during this critical time, presenting yet another strategic scenario for the ethnic insurgency to blossom.
Rounding out the Hybrid War possibilities in Pakistan is the potential for a “Color Revolution 1.5”, inspired by the latest political technologies deployed in Armenia, Lebanon, and Malaysia. Originally described in one of the author’s articles for the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, this form of unrest “embrace[s] “anti-corruption” slogans and [is] led by an amorphous and superficially apolitical ‘civil society’. This structural innovation allows the coup’s leaders to readjust their social infrastructure (leadership, members, slogans, etc.) on the fly a lot more efficiently than if they followed the comparatively rigid practices of their predecessors in organizing the event around clearly defined political parties led by a few well-known (and easily compromised) individuals.” The large-scale protests against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in August 2014 prove that there’s a socio-political foundation for harnessing further anti-government “activism”, and it’s conceivable that an ‘updated’ scenario might be redeployed against him or his successor in the future as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor begins to more concretely take shape.
The greatest Hybrid War threat to Afghanistan is the Islamic-affiliated terrorism led by the Taliban and ISIL, both of which are gaining ground in the country. The UN declared in October 2015 that the Taliban’s reach had never been this wide since their overthrow in 2001, and reports have confirmed that ISIL has gained a foothold in the country. That being said, the relationship between the two terrorist groups is unclear, and there’s fear that a simmering Taliban leadership dispute could create exploitable weaknesses for ISIL to surmount their rivals in a similar way as they did Al Qaeda in the Mideast, thereby acquiring “governable” territory from which to establish a franchise ‘caliphate’. Depending on the location of the land that they seize, they might be in a position to expand their un-‘Islamic State’ into either Central Asia and/or Pakistan. Discounting this scenario, there’s the (unlikely) chance that the Taliban invades other countries on its own, that it teams up with ISIL to conquer Afghanistan before redirecting their joint terror outwards (although a violent split between the two might transpire before this), or that a new or lesser-known terrorist group such as Hizb ut-Tahrir does this instead.
Another possibility of transnational destabilization that could emanate from Afghanistan is if the rumored ethnic-based “buffer zones” in the north between the Turkmen, Uzbek, and Tajik communities become a bone of contention between their respective state patrons. While no evidence exists to suggest that these have been formally established or are in competition with one another, if they do in fact take shape in some more solidly state-supported form than they might exist in now, inter-ethnic conflict between them in Afghanistan could provoke interstate tensions among their Central Asian sponsors. Nowhere is this more plausible than between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as their perennial conflict could predictably spill back and forth across the Afghan border until one of them commits to taking resolute action against either the proxies or the patron itself, with all of the resultant consequences for a wider regional war.
Andrew Korybko is the post-graduate of the MGIMO University and author of the monograph “Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach To Regime Change” (2015). This text will be included into his forthcoming book on the theory of Hybrid Warfare.