Sunday, November 17, 2013

The New Great Game Round-Up #29

The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

After Ilham Aliyev won the heavily rigged presidential election in Azerbaijan and consolidated his power, the Azerbaijani leader decided to visit close ally Turkey on his first trip abroad. Baku and Ankara maintain very good relations and plan to increase cooperation in various areas. With the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway near completion, the Azerbaijani and Turkish governments are focusing on the next major project, the construction of the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP), which is set to begin in early 2014:
Turkey and Azerbaijan cement bilateral ties

“We are taking steps on the area of energy which has strategic importance,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, speaking at a press conference with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Turkey and Azerbaijan would work to bilaterally boost trade up from the current level of $4.2 billion per annum to $15 billion by 2020, Erdoğan noted.

Washington Backs Turkic Project

Aliyev explained the ambitious objective of the two countries during his trip when he stated that "the 21st century will be the century of the Turkic world." In order to make this happen, Azerbaijan and Turkey want to increase their influence in Central Asia by strengthening ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan via the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States. 

Washington is in favor of this plan and intends to remove more Turkic-speaking countries from Moscow's sphere of influence with the help of NATO member Turkey and soon-to-be NATO member Azerbaijan, as demonstrated by a recent joint military exercise. In accordance with this strategy, the U.S.-led military bloc prefers to bypass the Kremlin and to work with members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) individually:
NATO wants to cooperate with CSTO countries individually

NATO will not cooperate with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the North-Atlantic alliance wants to cooperate with the countries of the organization individually, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday in Brussels, reported RIA Novosti.
This week, Washington hosted Kazakhstan's Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov. Since Kazakhstan aims at switching to a fully professional army by 2016, Dzhaksybekov used the opportunity to ask for American help in facilitating the transition when he met with United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon: 
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discusses defense and countering terrorism with Kazakhstan Defense Minister
Dzhaksybekov informed the American Secretary that Kazakhstan was transitioning from recruits to a professional army. "American armed forces have ample experience in running a professional army, and we are interested in an experience exchange in personnel management, recruitment, budget planning and social packaging. We are aware that any transformations are only as good and the people who make them, so it is very important for us that Kazakhstan military officers can study in American military schools. We are interested in establishing a cooperation between American and Kazakhstan military schools and are ready to cooperate in military science as well," Dzhaksybekov said.
But the Kazakh Defense Minister and his companions were not only interested in American expertise:
The Kazakhstan military delegation led by the Defense Minister also met with representatives of leading American defense companies like General Atomics, Boeing Defense, OshKosh, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky. Minister Dzhaksybekov had a number of bilateral meetings with them to discuss mutually beneficial cooperation.  
In its quest to create proxy armies all over the globe, Washington is always looking to train the armed forces of other countries. So Dzhaksybekov's proposal was well received and the United States government would like so see Astana following Baku's example. In the near future, NATO experts will prepare the Azerbaijani Armed Forces for coming tasks with Azerbaijan's accession to North Atlantic Treaty Organization in mind:
Several delegations of NATO experts to visit Azerbaijan 
Azerbaijani Defense Ministry told APA that NATO experts will organize a number of trainings on different topics for the staff of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. Opportunities for cooperation in the field of military education will be also discussed.
Azerbaijan has been a key ally of the United States ever since Heydar Aliyev and his son were brought by force into the Western camp. Only minor disagreements harm the relationship between the two countries. For example, after the fraudulent Azerbaijani election, the Aliyev regime did not want to take all the blame for rigging the vote and accused Washington of directing the whole process:
Baku and Washington Lock Horns in Post-Election Face-Off

The US embassy in Baku is finding itself in an awkward situation following Azerbaijan’s October 9 presidential vote as it faces unprecedented claims from both the presidential administration and Ministry of Defense that the US allegedly “advised” the government how much of the vote should be “given” to President Ilham Aliyev.
Not amused by criticism coming from the U.S. State Department in the wake of the presidential poll, the Azerbaijani government exposed the sickening hypocrisy and threatened to release recordings proving that U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar had suggested the vote results at various pre-election meetings. But Aliyev will not dare to overplay his hand and to challenge his masters in Washington seriously. Otherwise the Western media could decide to take a closer look at Aliyev's ongoing crackdown on the Azerbaijani opposition. After all, Azerbaijan's President knows that Washington and London will have his back and provide him with some gifts as long as he continues to play along:
SAS hired out to woo tyrant of Azerbaijan

THE Foreign and Commonwealth Office paid for the SAS to train Azerbaijan’s special forces in an effort to gain influence with the hardline ex-Soviet regime.

According to a leaked document seen by The Sunday Times, members of the UK’s elite fighting force taught their counterparts sniper skills and how to storm buildings as part of a six-week training mission.


War In The South Caucasus?!

Azerbaijan's special forces might need their new skills sooner than expected. Although the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is constantly the dominating topic in the two countries, it has received relative little attention elsewhere. But at the end of September, the infamous International Crisis Group (ICG) released a new report emphasizing the heightened risk of the low-intensity conflict developing into a full-fledged war in the South Caucasus. In response to the ICG report, NATO also urged to pay more attention to the conflict. And during the recent visit of Ilham Aliyev to Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh was again an important topic of conversation. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan stressed that "Karabakh is not just Azerbaijan's problem, but also Turkey's problem." Ankara hopes to resolve the territorial dispute with the help of Switzerland:
Azerbaijani president visits Turkey to boost bilateral ties
During a visit to Switzerland in mid-October, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Ankara is ready to normalize relations with Armenia, while stressing Yerevan should first exit from the Azerbaijani territory it occupied, Turkey's Today's Zaman reported on Tuesday.
The foreign minister said once Switzerland convinces Armenia to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, Ankara will open its borders with Armenia.
There has been a lot of questions about Russia's role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict because Moscow sells weapons to both CSTO partner Armenia and NATO proxy Azerbaijan. The Armenian government has voiced its unease about Russian arms sales to arch-enemy Azerbaijan. But the commander of Russian troops in Armenia recently assured Yerevan of Russia's support if the conflict escalates:
Russian Officer: We Would Intervene In Karabakh Against Azerbaijan

The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has said those troops could be used in a conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, the first time that a Russian officer has publicly made such a claim. The commander of Russia's 102nd military base, Colonel Andrey Ruzinsky, made the comments in an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (via RFE/RL):

“If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)."

At first Baku naturally blamed Armenia for the comments of Colonel Ruzinsky before Azerbaijan's Defense Minister addressed the issue during a meeting of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is tasked with resolving the disput over Nagorno-Karabakh. 
Unaffected by protests from Azebaijan, the Kremlin plans to form a helicopter squadron in addition to the fighter squadron at the Erebuni air base:
Russia to deploy combat helicopters at Armenian base

Russia will strengthen its air contingent at the Erebuni air base in Armenia with a helicopter squadron in the next few months, the base commander said Friday, according to RIA Novosti.


Russia Prepares For NATO Withdrawal

Not only Russia's vital military base in the South Caucasus is being strengthened. In anticipation of the ISAF forces drawdown from Afghanistan, the 201st military base in Tajikistan will be upgraded to assist Dushanbe in securing the Tajik-Afghan border:
Russia To Upgrade Tajikistan Military Base

Russia will fully upgrade the equipment at its military base in Tajikistan ahead of the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has said. That will also entail making the unit based there into a division again, after it was downgraded to a brigade in 2009, Shoigu said in remarks on Russian television:

"We are moving [the base] to a division structure, by December we will complete this division to about 80 percent, and by the time of elections in Afghanistan and the departure of the coalition forces we will complete it 100 percent with the newest weaponry and military equipment."
© Photo RIA Novosti/Michael Klimentyev

Moscow has relative little trust in the ability of the Afghan security forces to contain the Taliban and other terrorist groups and warns regularly against handing more responsibility to the Afghans. As proved over and over again, the Russian concerns are not unfounded:
Afghan special forces commander join Taliban group in Kunar

A commander of the Afghan special forces has joined the Taliban group in eastern Kunar province of Afghanistan.

Provincial governor, Shuja-ul-Malik has confirmed the report and said that the commander has taken a tank along with some weapons and ammunition with him.
This is not an isolated incident and several experts as well as the Afghan population predict that large number of security forces will defect once the NATO-led troops have left the country. According to Graeme Smith, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Afghanistan, the outlook for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), the local law enforcement agency sponsored by the United States and the United Kingdom, is particularly alarming:
“Some of the [Afghan Local Police] are just Taliban, who have been recruited to the government side, and if they don’t get paid, they can easily go back to the Taliban overnight.”
With American taxpayers still financing the Afghan insurgency, the Taliban do not lack funds and offer an attractive alternative to the Afghan government. Russia monitors the situation in Afghanistan closely and considers to get more involved in the region. In addition to strengthening military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Kremlin eyes a new role for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO):
Russia-Led Security Bloc Looks to Boost Peacebuilding Role

The head of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization said Thursday that the military bloc should boost its peacekeeping capabilities in response to developing internal threats.

CSTO general secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha said he saw a particular danger coming from countries on the geographic fringes of the bloc, a clear reference to Afghanistan. 


NATO's Deadly Legacy In Afghanistan

But Moscow's interest in Afghanistan is probably not limited to security and stability. The Afghan opium production is booming and the withdrawal of coalition forces could be a great opportunity to regain some shares of the drug trade which the Russians lost to NATO in the wake of the 2001 invasion. While the Afghan people have not profited from NATO's presence in the last twelve years, the Afghan poppy cultivation certainly has: 
Poppy fields forever? Record opium output boosts Afghan warlords’ power base

Despite efforts to curb Afghan’s opium culture, cultivation has hit record levels as NATO forces prepare to exit the country. The UN warned warlords may be the biggest benefactor of the situation.

Afghanistan, long the world’s main heroin supplier, has seen its total area of poppy seed plantations explode to 516,000 acres - a 36 percent increase from 2012, according to the report, released on Wednesday.

NATO's legacy in Afghanistan is easily summarized: endless opium and dead civilians. Efforts to hold the foreign troops accountable for civilian deaths are constantly stymied. Immunity for U.S. troops remains one of the most contentious points in negotiations about the bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. Although the two sides agreed on a draft, which will be submitted to Afghanistan's grand council (Loya Jirga), the important issue remains unresolved. 
No matter how this eventually plays out, the Afghan population is fed up with the corrupt government in Kabul and its foreign masters. But there is few hope for the future with the Taliban on the one hand and dubious candidates in the upcoming presidential election on the other hand:
Warlords Seen As A Losing Ticket In Afghan Election

Kabul University law professor Wadir Safi says some of the individuals in question should not be running free, let alone running for office.

"The West is culpable in [letting the warlords run in elections]," he said. "Even now if the West wants, they can push them out of the presidential race. They have their lists and can take them away irrespective of whether they are candidates."
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia Director, also highlighted the criminality of presidential candidates like Mohammad Mohaqiq, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf before he went on to criticize Washington and the Karzai government for their failure to act: 
Adams says that President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers share the blame for failing to prosecute individuals responsible for grave human rights violations that took place in Afghanistan over the past 35 years.
Elections in Afghanistan were hailed as a major success of the invasion and subsequent overthrow of the Taliban. However, electoral fraud has been one of the key characteristics of Afghan elections and the presidential poll next year will be no exception:
Votes traded for $5 as Afghan presidential election looms

The illicit trade of voter cards has already begun as the presidential election looms, sparking concerns regarding the transparency of the elections which is scheduled to be organized earlier in April next year.

Sayed Gul, who used to used to repair cars in Marco, a small town in eastern Afghanistan, has left his job and has joined a hriving industry selling the outcome of next year’s presidential elections.

Gul told Reuters that he was able to buy voter cards for 200 Pakistani rupees ($1.89) each from villagers and sell them on for 500 rupees ($4.73) to campaign managers, who can use them in connivance with poll officials to cast seemingly legitimate votes.
Furthermore, the upcoming election is threatened by the security situation in the country and Afghans are concerned about their safety if they decide go to the ballot box. This offers an opportunity for even more ballot rigging:
Votes sell for about $5 in Afghanistan as presidential race begins

The threat of the insurgents, who oppose the election, was used at the last poll in 2009 to perpetuate widespread rigging, observers said.

Thomas Ruttig, the co-founder of the Afghan Analysts Network, described how a group of men claiming to be Taliban fighters stormed a polling booth in an eastern province when the vote was on. "Everyone fled. The ballot boxes were empty beforehand, and full afterwards," he said.