Monday, January 12, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #82

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.

Since the end of 2013, Turkey has been engulfed in a relentless power struggle between Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who left his post as Turkish Prime Minister last year just to become the country's 12th President, and the influential CIA-backed movement of self-described "imam, preacher, and civil society activist" Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in the United States ever since he was forced to flee Turkey in 1999. The conflict between the former allies has now reached a point where President Erdogan is preparing to add the Gülen movement to Turkey's "Red Book," meaning that the organization will be classified as a threat to Turkey's national security. Although the power struggle has largely been taking place in Turkey, other countries, such as Azerbaijan, have been affected as well and Erdogan is not the only one who is currently trying to contain the activities of the shadowy movement. The regimes in Central Asia are increasingly suspicious of Gülen's schools and with good reason. After Russia and Uzbekistan had already closed down the schools more than a decade ago, Turkmenistan followed suit in recent years and Gülen's schools in Tajikistan are now also under high scrutiny, as Erdogan's mouthpiece Daily Sabah triumphantly announced this week:
Tajikistan to discontinue Gülen schools, citing ‘shadowy mission’

Saidov Nuriddin Saidovich, Tajikistan's minister of education and science, announced that they will not extend the agreement they had made with the Gülen Movement over permission to operate schools in the country, since they consider the mission of the schools belonging to the group as "shadowy."
 
According to the local press, an official from the ministry, Rohimjon Saidov, also said there will be an end to the agreement between the Gülen Movement and the Tajik government over the schools they run in the region. Saidov added that the deal made with the education institutions in question expires in 2015 and that the country will no longer extend it.
There are currently 10 schools in Tajikistan run by the movement. The first school affiliated with the group was opened in the country in 1992. For the last decade, the purposes of the schools have become a hot debate in the Turkish government. There have been numerous demands for their closure by Ankara.

Tajikistan Scrutinizes Gülen Schools, Prepares For Afghan Spillover

Interestingly, according to Tajik media, Saidov didn't mention the word "shadowy." Instead he said that the Tajik government is going to review the licenses of the Gülen schools because their mission is "unclear." Daily Sabah is known to overstate the case when it comes to the Gülen movement but given that Gülen's schools play a decisive part in the Islamization of Central Asia and the Caucasus region and that they have been used for various covert operations by the CIA, the Tajik authorities should consider referring to the schools' mission as "shadowy." Dushanbe has long lamented that young Tajiks, who are studying illegally at Islamic religious schools abroad, "can be easily radicalized and recruited into extremist or militant groups," while doing little to stop the indoctrination and terrorist recruitment at home. However, recent actions indicate that this could change in the near future:
Suspected Islamist Leader, Subordinates Detained In Tajikistan
The suspected leader of a cell of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and 10 alleged subordinates have been detained in Tajikistan.

The Tajik Interior Ministry said in a televised statement late on January 7 that Ikrom Halilov, a former imam of a local mosque, and the others had been apprehended in Shahrinav district, 50 kilometers west of the capital, Dushanbe.

According to the ministry, the group is suspected of planning to attack a police station in order to seize guns.
© Photo AFP/Getty Images/Tariq Mahmood

In recent months, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been making headlines in northern Afghanistan, where Central Asian fighters belonging to the IMU or splinter groups, such as Jamaat Ansarullah, and allied Taliban forces have been massing close to the borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. At the end of last year, Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, gave a long interview to Interfax warning of the threat to Central Asia and Russia but oddly enough, he said that the jihadists in northern Afghanistan are from the Islamic State (ISIS). Kabulov described in great detail how many fighters are concentrated on the Tajikistan and Turkmenistan beachheads and he stressed that "our allies in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan know about this, they confirm that they have the same information, and they are taking measures." Why Kabulov referred to the insurgents as ISIS fighters is not clear. A few Tajik ISIS jihadists have lately proclaimed their intention to "fight infidels" in Tajikistan but they haven't gotten permission yet:
IS Militants Asked Baghdadi For Permission To Fight 'Infidels' In Tajikistan

Militants from the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq have published a video saying that they have asked permission from the group's senior leadership to wage jihad in Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik service has reported.

Abu Umariyon says that he and his fellow Tajik militants asked Baghadi and Islamic State leaders for permission to go back to Tajikistan and fight with the extremist group Jamaat Ansarullah. 
However, Baghdadi did not give his permission.

"The emirs [militant leaders] who passed on their message to Baghdadi told them that right now they have to wait," the Tajik militant explains.
This video caused a stir in Tajikistan and the Islamic Center of Tajikistan slammed the jihadists, asking how it is possible "to wage jihad in a state whose population is 99 percent Muslim." But even without the return of Tajik ISIS fighters, the Tajik authorities have every reason to be concerned about the situation in northern Afghanistan. Kidnappings on the Tajik-Afghan border highlighted only recently how serious the threat is. This week, Tajik officials made public the identities of four Tajik border guards, who were abducted last month, and rejected earlier reports saying that the Taliban had made demands for their release. Due to the deteriorating security situation, Tajikistan's special services have reportedly taken "a number of measures to strengthen the most vulnerable stretches" of the Tajik-Afghan border and they are now keeping a very close eye on the activities of the insurgents in northern Afghanistan. On top of that, Tajikistan is also setting up a new military base close to the border:
Eyeing Taliban, Tajikistan Sets Up New Military Base On Afghan Border

Tajikistan's armed forces are setting up a new base near the Afghanistan border in response to the apparent massing of fighters on the Afghan side of the border.

The base, to be called "Khomiyon," will be in the Kulyab region. "Tanks, armored vehicles and other weaponry" will be deployed to the base, which "units of all security structures of the country will be able to use for conducting maneuvers," reported RFE/RL, citing a source in Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense. While there is no "immediate threat" from the Taliban fighters apparently massing near the Tajikistan border, Dushanbe still chose to take "preventative measures," the official said.

An unnamed source in Tajikistan's State Committee on National Security (GKNB) told the Russian news agency TASS that "groups not controlled by Kabul" have massed on the Afghanistan side of the border.

Taliban Reject Government Posts As Ghani Urges U.S. To Stay Forever

On the same day, an unnamed official from Uzbekistan's National Security Service used similar language to warn of the "increased concentration of armed formations not controlled by the government of Afghanistan." Uzbekistan is also taking some measures to address the problem but the Uzbek authorities stop short of building new military bases because they are better prepared to deal with the threat than neighboring Tajikistan or Turkmenistan. After the Taliban became Turkmenistan's immediate neighbor about one month ago by taking over Khamyab District in Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province, the Afghan government is now trying to calm Ashgabat's nerves. Jowzjan's police chief General Fakir Mokhammed Dzhauzdzhani announced last week that Afghanistan's armed forces are preparing large-scale operations in Jowzjan and Faryab Province, where insurgents have repeatedly caused trouble in recent months. Although the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has ended the Afghanistan war in name only, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lost no time in mourning after the coalition troops:
Afghan president says U.S. might want to 're-examine' pullout deadline

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States might want to "re-examine" the timetable for removing the remaining U.S.-led coalition troops in the country by the end of 2016.

"Deadlines concentrate the mind. But deadlines should not be dogmas," Ghani told the CBS program "60 Minutes" when asked about the issue.

Asked if he had told that to U.S. President Barack Obama, Ghani said: "President Obama knows me. We don't need to - to tell each other."
© Photo CBS News

Given that Ghani is very much Washington's guy, his words come as no real surprise and this interview will probably earn him even more tributes in the American press. But while U.S. officials and media lose no opportunity to praise Afghanistan's new leader, the Afghan people are less impressed with Ghani's performance so far. According to the latest poll by Afghan news channel TOLOnews and the ART research institute, Ghani has lost popularity among the Afghan people by almost 50 percent since taking office in late September of last year. One of the reasons is most likely Ghani's failure to form a cabinet with the chief executive of his unity government, Abdullah Abdullah. Although the two men reached a power-sharing deal in September, there has been a deadlock over senior cabinet positions. Ghani had also hoped to draw three Taliban leaders into his government but the group rejected the offer:
Taliban 'reject offer of Afghan government posts'

The Taliban have been offered posts in the new Afghan government but have turned them down, the BBC understands.

The offer came from new President Ashraf Ghani in a bid to end the insurgency that threatens the recovery of the country.

The three men whom President Ghani had hoped to draw into his government were Mullah Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who has lived relatively openly in Kabul for some years, Wakil Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, and Ghairat Baheer, a close relative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces are allied to the Taliban.
If Ghani fails to reach some kind of deal with the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan is only going to get worse and the Afghan President will have a hard time staying in power. In this light, Ghani's appeal to the United States "to re-examine" the pullout deadline makes perfect sense. However, as previously discussed, Ghani's concerns about NATO's so-called withdrawal are completely unfounded. The U.S. military responded to the "60 minutes" interview by saying that the U.S. "plan remains in effect and there have been no changes to the drawdown timeline" but even if the U.S. goes forward with its plan to draw down to a "normal" U.S. embassy presence in Kabul at the end of 2016, that means keeping thousands of contractors in the war-torn country. However, at the moment it doesn't look as if the U.S. is really serious about its drawdown plan:
Lejeune Marines prepare for deployment to Afghanistan

Just months after marking the end of the Corps' combat operations in Afghanistan, officials revealed that Marines are headed back into the war-torn country, but details of the deployment remain scarce.

The disclosure came in a Marine Corps news release outlining preparations being made by 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The company tested its Supporting Arms Liaison Team Alpha's readiness for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan by tackling various "real-life" scenarios between Dec. 8 and 11, according to the release.

Outside of the news release, Marine Corps officials declined to discuss 2nd ANGLICO's upcoming deployment. Citing operational security, a spokesman for II Marine Expeditionary Force declined to specify when — and for how long — the unit will be deployed, where within Afghanistan it will operate and whether other Marine units will accompany it.

Washington's Regime Change Tools Struggle In The South Caucasus

In addition to the American troops, Operation Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to ISAF, will also rely on a number of troops from other NATO countries and close NATO allies, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan. A group of Azerbaijani soldiers just left for Afghanistan to support the NATO-led mission despite the current tensions between the regime of Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev and the West. In recent months, Azerbaijan has repeatedly made headlines with crackdowns on NGOs, human rights activists and journalists, most of whom are supported by the United States and the EU. After the Azerbaijani authorities had already arrested Khadija Ismailova, a leading investigative journalist working for the Azerbaijani service of CIA mouthpiece Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), at the beginning of last month, relations between Baku and Washington went from bad to worse when the Aliyev regime cracked down on RFE/RL's Baku bureau a few weeks later:
U.S. 'Alarmed' As Azerbaijan Targets RFE/RL's Baku Office

The U.S. State Department says its concerns about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan are deepening after authorities there raided and closed RFE/RL's Baku bureau and interrogated its employees and contractors.

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told a December 29 news briefing in Washington: “These actions, along with the denial of access to legal counsel during these interrogations, is further cause for concern."

The offices of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known as Radio Azadliq, were raided on December 26 by investigators from the state prosecutor's office who confiscated documents, files, and equipment before sealing off the premises.
© Photo AP/Aziz Karimov

Predictably, the ongoing war of words between the U.S. and Azerbaijan escalated after the crackdown on RFE/RL. Former RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin condemned Aliyev's campaign against "one of the few independent news outlets left in Azerbaijan" in the strongest possible terms and he warned the Obama administration that Washington's vision of a Europe "whole and free" is at risk. "Europe whole and free" is a code often used but rarely explained because it basically means the consolidation of a unified Europe controlled by Brussels on behalf of the United States. Azerbaijan supports Washington's vision but when push comes to shove, the Aliyev regime is more interested in its own survival than in a "Europe whole and free." Although tensions are running high at the moment, it remains to be seen whether or not Azerbaijan will really "snub the West," as some suggest:
Azerbaijan Snubs the West

These events have been reported abroad largely as marking a further constriction in Azerbaijan’s already tiny space for alternative points of view. And they are that. But they also suggest a dramatic change in the geopolitics of the volatile Caspian Sea region: the Azerbaijani government’s growing hostility toward Washington.

The attack on RFE/RL followed months of extreme anti-Western rhetoric. Top Azerbaijani government officials have accused the United States ambassador to Baku of “gross interference” and former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden of being an American spy. In early December, the president's chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, published a 13,000-word article claiming that the C.I.A. was contriving regime changes in the post-Soviet space (the so-called color revolutions). It also called Azerbaijan’s human rights activists a “fifth column” of the United States.
It is worth pointing out that the Israeli press has also been sounding the alarm regarding Azerbaijan's supposed foreign policy change but Israel's Ambassador to Azerbaijan Rafael Harpaz addressed these reports a few days ago, allaying any fears and stressing that nothing had changed in Azerbaijani-Israeli relations. Therefore, the alarmist reports in Western media warning of Baku's geopolitical shift away from the West should be taken with a grain of salt. The U.S. won't accept losing Azerbaijan considering that neighboring Armenia has now officially become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), cementing its ties with Moscow. After all attempts to impede Armenia's accession to Russia-led trade bloc have failed, Washington is apparently no longer interested in "advancing democratic values, practices and institutions" in Armenia and decided to shut down the local office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) citing "financial problems," which is obviously a lame excuse:
NDI suspends its activities in Armenia

The Armenian office of US' National Democratic Institute (NDI), operating in Armenia since 1995, suspends its operations due to financial problems, Gegam Sargsyan, the head of the office, said on January 7.

The NDI has ceased to receive funding from its main sponsor – the USAID (United States Agency for International Development), therefore, starting March 2015 the office will freeze its activities "for an indefinite time, until funds become available," said Sargsyan.

"The USAID stopped funding NDI a year ago; then, we received funds from the American National Endowment for Democracy," said Gegam Sargsyan, adding that today the USAID prefers supporting local organizations rather than international ones; while "the NDI is not their current priority."