Monday, January 5, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #81

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 13 years of death and destruction, the United States and NATO "formally" ended their war in Afghanistan last weekend with a symbolic ceremony in Kabul. U.S. President Barack Obama used the opportunity to blow his own trumpet and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has carried out its mandate "at great cost but with great success." ISAF's mandate was indeed carried out at great cost but the U.S. and its allies failed to achieve any of their claimed long term objectives and the Taliban lost no time in reminding Obama, Stoltenberg & Co. of their defeat in the longest war in American history. Contrary to what Western politicians and media have been saying in recent days, the war will go on with no significant changes on the ground. As previously discussed, about 13,000 troops and thousands of contractors will stay in Afghanistan and the troops will have a direct combat role because the Afghan security forces are not up to the task despite years of "successful" training by NATO. At the beginning of this week, ISAF spokesperson Chris Belcher stressed that the Afghan forces are prepared to take the lead in providing security but it did not take long before his words were proven wrong:
Afghans take over full security charge, mortars kill 20 civilians

Afghanistan assumed full responsibility for security from departing foreign combat troops on Thursday, a day after Afghan army mortar shells killed at least 20 civilians attending a wedding party in volatile southern Helmand province.

General Mahmoud, the deputy Commander of the Afghan 215 corps in the province, said artillery was fired from three directions at a village in Sangin district where the wedding was held on Wednesday.

"What we know so far is that our soldiers fired mortar rounds from three outposts but we do not know whether it was intentional," Mahmoud told Reuters.

Afghans, China, Russia Not Impressed With ISAF's "Great Success"

At least 27 civilians were killed and more than 50 wounded. According to the deputy governor of Helmand, Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar, Afghan troops "fired mortar rounds on a wedding ceremony after militants in the same area attacked an army checkpoint." Four soldiers accused of firing the mortar rounds have been arrested and taken to Lashkar Gah, where they will have to account for their actions before a military court. Given the fact that U.S. and NATO forces have also targeted Afghan wedding parties in recent years, the training of Afghan soldiers was perhaps "successful" after all. Neither the Afghan population nor Russia and China are impressed with ISAF's "great success." As the NATO-led forces reduce their presence in the war-torn country, the Chinese government has been trying to restart stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Reuters reported last November on Beijing's proposal for a "peace and reconciliation forum" but up until this week it was not clear whether or not the Taliban have actually responded to the proposal:
Taliban delegation hold talks with Chinese officials on Afghanistan 
According to reports, a delegation of of Taliban officials have recently visited China to meet with the Chinese officials and discuss issues related to Afghanistan. 
Sources privy of the development have told the Afghan Islamic Press that the delegation was led by Qari Din Mohammad who is a member of the Taliban political office in Doha.

The delegation reportedly visited China late in November last year when Beijing had put forward a proposal for a “peace and reconciliation forum” in a bid to help revive peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban militants group.

Details regarding the outcome of the visit were not reported but the government in Kabul announced last month that there has been progress on the peace talks. Restarting the dialogue makes definitely more sense than escalating the conflict, as suggested by infamous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is now serving as Afghanistan's Vice President. China wants to see a stable Afghanistan and does not mind working with the Taliban to this end. Therefore, the Chinese government is simultaneously developing relations with the new Afghan government and the Taliban. Beijing is primarily interested in tapping into Afghanistan's mineral wealth and in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base for Uyghur insurgents. Although China and Afghanistan share only a small border, the Chinese authorities have always been concerned that violence could spill across the border into Xinjiang and the inceasing violence along Afghanistan's borders with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan indicates that this is not completely impossible. Russia and the Central Asian regimes were long ridiculed for warning of an Afghan spillover but lately these warnings have been taken more seriously:
Russian Ambassador Warns Of Afghan Problems Spilling Across Border

Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has warned of "Islamists" in Afghanistan concentrating along the Tajik and Turkmen borders.

In an interview with Russia's Interfax news agency, Kabulov claimed there are currently 4,000 to 5,000 militants massed in areas of northern Afghanistan near the border with Tajikistan and some 2,500 near the border with Turkmenistan.

Afghan and foreign media have been reporting increasing unrest in northern Afghan provinces throughout this year including the presence of militants from Central Asia.
Kidnappings along the Tajik-Afghan border highlighted the security woes in recent weeks. Dushanbe and Kabul are currently conducting negotiations on the release of four Tajik border guards who were abducted after they entered Afghanistan to cut some trees. According to Afghan news agency Kharma Press, the Taliban want to exchange the border guards for Taliban supporters who are sitting in jail in Tajikistan. In the run-up to NATO's "withdrawal" from Afghanistan, the Tajik-Afghan border was often named as a potential trouble spot and the Collective Security Treaty Organitation (CSTO) agreed in September 2013 to support Tajikistan in strengthening the border. While some 'stans are not really threatened by the insurgents massing in northern Afghanistan, fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other jihadists "could represent a tipping force in either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan." Speaking at a CSTO Collective Security Council meeting at the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized that the Russia-led organization will have to keep a wary eye on the Tajik-Afghan border and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu assured his Tajik counterpart and the chief of Kyrgyzstan’s General Staff that Russia will help out:
Russia to help Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan when coalition force leaves Afghanistan - Russian Defense Minister 
Russia will be implementing programs for upgrading and rearming the armed forces of Kyrgyzstan as the international coalition force will leave neighboring Afghanistan, Russian Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergey Shoigu said at a meeting with the chief of Kyrgyzstan’s General Staff, Major-General Asanbek Alymkozhoyev on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Shoigu met with his Tajik counterpart, Lieutenant-General Sherali Mirzo. Against the backdrop of the international coalition’s force withdrawal from Afghanistan the Russian and Tajik armed forces should brace for any march of events, including the most negative one, Shoigu said.

“With this in mind, we believe it is essential to pay priority attention to enhancing the combat potential of the Tajik Armed Forces and the 201st Russian military base. We are determined to furnish support for Tajikistan in maintaining its security further on,” Shoigu promised, reports TASS.

Putin's Chechen "Volunteers" Ready To Defend Russia

Russia has ample reason to prepare for the worst in Central Asia. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia's Security Council and former FSB head, hit the nail on the head when he explained that the U.S. and its allies are trying to bring down Russia by slashing Russia's income from foreign trade and at the same time increasing its expenditure on resolving externally-provoked problems, just as they did during the Cold War. When Ukrainian MPs call for a second and third front against Russia in Chechnya and Central Asia, this is primarily wishful thinking but when Brookings President Strobe Talbott "predicts" the outbreak of the third Chechen war, the Kremlin should be alarmed. The U.S. deep state is clearly entertaining the idea of a second front against Russia. However, Talbott & Co. seem to have missed that Chechnya is no longer Russia's Achilles' heel, quite the contrary. Thousands of Chechen "volunteers" are ready to defend Russia's interests, stability and borders, wherever President Putin deems it necessary:
Kadyrov Says Chechens Ready to Perform Special Tasks for Putin that Other Security Agencies Can’t
Speaking to a meeting of 20,000 Chechen volunteers in Grozny yesterday, republic head Ramzan Kadyrov said that he and they are ready to perform tasks for Vladimir Putin “which can be solved only by volunteers” and not by “the regular army, air force, navy or nuclear forces.”

“Putin has helped [the Chechens] for 15 years,” Kadyrov continued. “tens of thousands [of Chechens] who have passed through special preparation ask the national leader of Russia to consider us a volunteer special detachment of the Supreme Commander that is ready to defend Russia, its stability and borders and to fulfill a military task of any complexity.”


And he added that “America and Europe have declared economic war on Russia and are trying to sow chaos, panic, and mass disorders in the country.” But, “the Russian people have united around their leader Vladimir Putin … [and] the Chechen people in this unity occupies one of the central places.”

If Washington tries to open a second front in the Caucasus or Central Asia, these Chechen volunteers will give the U.S./NATO-backed insurgents a hard time. The meeting at Grozny's Sultan Belimkhanov Stadium was certainly also meant to warn Russia's enemies that destabilizing Chechnya won't be as easy as it used to be. After clashes rocked the Chechen capital one month ago, it did not take long before life returned to normal. The Press House building and school No. 20, which were damaged during the fighting, have already been completely restored and two insurgents, who were reportedly involved in organizing the December 4 attack, have been eliminated. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov vowed to continue his no-holds-barred campaign against the insurgency, stressing that terrorists "cannot be cured, they can only be destroyed." And the Chechen leader started the new year by promoting a new tactic for Chechnya's uncompromising war on terror:
Chechen Authorities Announce New Tactic to 'Clear' Republic of Islamic Militants

Chechen authorities have announced a new method for combatting the region's underground insurgency, a system that will essentially turn commanders in the republic's security services into bounty hunters responsible for tracking down specific militants.

"Each commander will be entrusted personally with tracking down one or another militant who is on a wanted list," said an online statement published by the regional government on Thursday.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov praised the new tactic, saying in the statement that it would "bring good results" and "fully clear Chechnya of militants."
In light of this, the Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency will have a hard time staging a comeback. To make matters worse, the jihadists in Russia's North Caucasus are currently quarreling with each other because they are unable to agree on whether they will continue operating under the banner of the Caucasus Emirate (IK) or go with the flow and pledge allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). Over the past six weeks, at least three Chechen and three Dagestani commanders have switched sides from the Caucasus Emirate to ISIS, much to the dismay of IK leader Aliasaskhab Kebekov, better known as Ali Abu Mukhammad, who condemned the "treachery" in the strongest possible terms. Thanks to its new members, ISIS can now walk the talk and "liberate" Chechnya and the Caucasus. Russia's Supreme Court reacted a few days ago by designating ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist organizations and banning them in the country. The Russian authorities take the issue very seriously but up until now, Syria is still the preferred destination of ISIS fighters:
Chechnya Sentences Georgian 'IS Recruiter' To Six Years
A court in the Chechen capital, Grozny, has sentenced a Georgian man to six years in prison for attempting to recruit two Chechen men to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria.

The defendant, 25-year-old Beslan Cincalashvili, allegedly resided legally in Chechnya from July through August 2014. During this time, prosecutors alleged that he met with two Chechen nationals in Grozny and attempted to persuade them to travel to Syria to join militant groups.

Investigators also said that Cincalashvili promised the men assistance with passports and in traveling to Syria via Georgia.

Georgia Spares No Effort To Put "Enemy" Saakashvili Behind Bars

Given that Georgia has been supporting both the "Chechen rebels" and the "Syrian rebels" for quite some time, it is safe to say that the Georgian authorities wouldn't have thwarted Cincalashvili's plans. Dozens of Georgian citizens, many of whom come from the Pankisi Gorge, have joined ISIS following the lead of Georgian soldier turned ISIS commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, who is now known by the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani. Batirashvili has quickly won the favor of Western media as well as the top spot on the hit list of Chechen Republic head Kadyrov. Although Georgian media frequently reports that yet another one of Batirashvili's associates has been killed in Syria while fighting for ISIS, the Georgian government doesn't seem to care about the terrorist activities of its citizens. But Syria is not the only country which has attracted Georgian "mercenaries" and after the recent death of a Georgian soldier in Ukraine, all hell broke loose in Tbilisi:
Controversy Erupts Over Death Of Georgian Soldier In Ukraine

The killing of a Georgian soldier in eastern Ukraine has become the source of a political dispute in Tbilisi after the Ministry of Defense issued a statement blaming the former government for the death.

The Georgian, Aleksandre Grigolashvili, died in combat in Lugansk, Ukraine, on December 19. He had joined the Georgian armed forces in 2007 and fought in Afghanistan and South Ossetia, family members said, but left service in 2008. He went to Ukraine two months ago to fight on the side of the pro-Kiev forces.

The issue of Georgians fighting in Ukraine has been a controversial one. Earlier this month former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who has emerged as one of the top supporters of the government in Kiev, said that Georgian soldiers were leaving the Georgian army to go fight in Ukraine. The assertion was strongly disputed by the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili was outraged about Saakashvili's calls for Georgian soldiers to resign from the Georgian army and acquire Ukrainian citizenship to fight for the regime in Kiev. He called the former president an enemy of Georgia and accused him of seeking "to lead Georgia into armed confrontation with Russia." Saakashvili's presence in Ukraine is a thorn in Tbilisi's side and Kiev's decision to appoint former Georgian officials to government posts has strained relations between Georgia and Ukraine further. The Georgian authorities are still pulling out all the stops to put Saakashvili behind bars. His presidential passport was revoked last month and Georgia's chief prosecutor Giorgi Badashvili reiterated this week that the Prosecutor's Office "will spare no effort" to convince Interpol of issuing a Red Notice for Saakashvili. Despite all that, the wanted criminal is confident of his return:
Former Georgian President promised to return to country soon

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave New Year's celebration for children in a presidential library in Tbilisi. Santa Claus gave them gifts and sweets.

Mikheil Saakashvili addressed the children on Skype and wish them a Happy New Year and Merry Christmas.

Children asked the former president when he arrives to Georgia.

"Very soon", Saakashvili said.

Another darling of Washington is also planning his comeback. Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is eagerly awaiting the next parliamentary elections and he lost no time in denouncing his successor Mindia Janelidze when the dispute about the killing of a Georgian soldier in Ukraine erupted. Alasania even demanded that the people who are responsible for the controversial Defense Ministry statement "must stand trial." Although Janelidze has picked up where Alasania left off and the Georgian government has continued its pro-Western course, some people would like to see a more aggressive policy vis-à-vis Russia. Garibahsvili on the other hand prefers are more pragmatic approach and he has even signaled his willingness to hold talks with the Russian leadership. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili is also willing to meet his Russian counterpart Putin but only on the condition that the talks will be held on the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Put another way, the prospect of talks between Margvelashvili and Putin is still poor:
Russia, South Ossetia to sign new integration treaty in February 
Russia and South Ossetia are due to sign a new treaty on deepening integration in early February 2015, the president of the republic, Leonid Tibilov, told journalists on Friday.

Russia and South Ossetia are preparing several versions of the treaty, and the final document is not expected to be “an exact copy” of Moscow’s agreement with neighboring Abkhazia, but their concept is likely to be the same, a Kremlin source told TASS.

Some integration processes with South Ossetia could be much deeper than those envisaged by the treaty with Abkhazia, the source said, adding that in some directions the republic would be strengthening ties with Russia at the same rate.