Monday, February 16, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #87

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.

The never-ending story of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline (TAPI) continued this week with a meeting of the TAPI steering committee in Islamabad. Depending on which media outlet you want to believe, the project is either about to be implemented or still the pipe dream that it has always been. After Pakistan's Dawn newspaper had argued only a few weeks ago that the pipeline is unlikely to be built anytime soon, The Daily Times claimed recently that a deal is imminent and that French supermajor Total is prepared to lead the project. Pakistan insists on choosing Total as consortium leader but the company has been reluctant to get involved unless it can secure a stake in the respective Turkmen gas field. Due to its oil price-related problems, Total is currently even less inclined to take unnecessary risks. Therefore, India is now trying to convince Turkmenistan of changing its stance:
TAPI pipeline: India asks Turkmenistan to ease rules
With construction of the USD 10 billion TAPI pipeline stuck for want of a credible operator, India today pressed Turkmenistan to relax its domestic law to help get an international firm for building the project.

French giant Total SA had initially envisaged interest in leading a consortium of national oil companies of the four nations in the TAPI project. However, it backed off after Turkmenistan refused to accept its condition of a stake in the gas field that will feed the pipeline.

Since the four state-owned firms, including GAIL of India, neither have the financial muscle nor the experience of cross-country line, an international company that will build and also operate the line in hostile territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is needed.

TAPI Saga Continues As U.S. Escalates Shadow War In Afghanistan

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated that the TAPI member countries have unanimously agreed to pick Total as consortium leader, adding that the French oil and gas company and the Turkmen government are yet to agree on some details. The involved parties want to fix the start date of the project when the steering committee meets again in Kabul in two months and by then it should be clear if Total is really on board. Even if everything goes according to plan, the first flow of gas is expected no earlier than 2020. Nobody knows how the security situation in Afghanistan is going to develop in the meantime. So the Kabul government might have to share the transit fees it is desperately longing for with the Taliban, the Islamic State (ISIS) or other groups, which end up in control of the territory. With the turf war between the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan intensifying, the Afghan and Central Asian authorities lose no opportunity to hype the ISIS threat and the U.S. military can do what it does best:
US kills Islamic State's deputy emir for 'Khorasan province' in airstrike: report

Afghanistan's intelligence service has confirmed that the US killed the Islamic State's deputy emir for 'Khorasan province' in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan earlier today. Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was appointed the deputy governor of Khorasan province in January, was previously a senior leader in the Taliban and was a former detainee at Gunatanamo Bay.

The National Directorate of Security issued a statement that confirmed Khadim's death, according to Khaama Press. Khadim was traveling in a vehicle in the northern district of Kajaki in Helmand province with his brother and four "Pakistanis" when it was targeted in a US airstrike, Ariana News reported.

Since his split with the Taliban, Khadim has reportedly clashed with the group in northern Helmand. An unconfirmed report from Afghanistan indicated that he and dozens of his fighters were detained by the Taliban, but his capture was not confirmed.
© Photo USAF/Tech Sgt Chad Chisholm

The Afghan news report about Khadim's arrest by the Taliban was mentioned in a previous round-up but the "reliable source" was apparently not as reliable as Pajhwok Afghan News claimed. Although ISIS will now have to get on without its foremost recruiter in the country, it is safe to say that the much-hyped terrorist group will continue to make headlines in Afghanistan. Many people have an interest in hyping the threat, even if the insurgents are just changing their flags. Pentagon officials are starting to like the idea of ISIS in Afghanistan. What better way to justify the continuous military presence than a new boogeyman? A former high-ranking Pakistani diplomat told Sputnik lately that the U.S. harbors terrorists in Afghanistan to keep the region destabilized and maintain a military presence there. Notwithstanding that this is pretty hypocritical considering Pakistan's actions, he has a point:
White House weighs adjusting Afghan exit plan to slow withdrawal of troops

The Obama administration is considering slowing its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan for the second time, according to U.S. officials, a sign of the significant security challenges that remain despite an end to the U.S. and NATO combat mission there.

Under the still-evolving plans, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, could be given greater latitude to determine the pace of the drawdown in 2015 as foreign forces scramble to ensure Afghan troops are capable of battling Taliban insurgents on their own, the officials said.

The options under discussion would not alter what is perhaps the most important date in President Obama’s plan: ending the U.S. military mission entirely by the time he steps down in early 2017.
General John F. Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that he supports a slowing of the troop drawdown and he is in good company. New U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter clarified before his appointment that he would consider changing the current withdrawal plans if security conditions worsen. Although Campbell lauded the efforts of the Afghan security forces during the recent hearing, it is hardly a secret that they are not up to the task despite years of extensive training by U.S. and NATO troops. All the talk about the end of the war in Afghanistan should be taken with a grain of salt. Actually, the U.S. has been escalating the war in recent months but only few people have noticed it because, as a former Afghan security official put it, "it's all in the shadows now." While the U.S. is relying on its tried and tested night raids, China is still hoping to end the violence with diplomacy. The Chinese government has again offered to mediate in stalled peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban as Beijing prepares to invest more money in Afghanistan:
Expanding its role in Afghanistan, China to help build dam, roads

China has promised to help build a hydroelectric power plant in a violent Afghan border region, as well as road and rail links to Pakistan, in the latest sign it is taking a more active role in Afghanistan.

The assistance will include an unspecified amount of financing, an Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, Sirajul Haq Siraj, said on Tuesday, a day after senior Afghan, Chinese and Pakistani diplomats met in Kabul.

"China agreed to support relevant initiatives for projects including the Kunar hydropower plant and strengthening road and rail connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

Indonesia Catches Kunming Attack Suspects Carrying Turkish Passports

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China's offer to mediate in peace negotiations during his recent two-day visit to Pakistan, where he met with several top Pakistani leaders, including President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Economic cooperation between the two countries and the situation in Afghanistan were high on the agenda. Wang noted that "ending Afghanistan’s turmoil was a common aspiration for both countries" and both sides agreed to coordinate their efforts in this regard. China has been trying to bring all sides to the negotiation table and Taliban representatives visited Beijing last year to discuss the issue but the group clarified a few weeks ago that they had rejected China's offer because they are not interested in peace talks. Although Beijing maintains good relations with the Taliban, the Chinese authorities are increasingly worried about the situation in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban are in control of large parts of Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, which borders China's Xinjiang, and this could become a problem:
As the U.S. mission winds down, Afghan insurgency grows more complex

As the United States reshapes its military footprint in Afghanistan, the Taliban is transforming into a patchwork of forces with often conflicting ideals and motivations, looking less like the ultra-religious movement it started out as in the mid-1990s. The fragmentation may suggest the movement is weakening, but it is forcing Afghanistan’s government to confront an insurgency that is becoming increasingly diverse, scattered — and more lethal.

What is unfolding here in Badakhshan province offers a glimpse into these complexities — and the future of a conflict in which the U.S. combat mission is formally over. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, this was the only province it was never able to control. Now, the insurgency is making inroads here and in other parts of the north, outside its strongholds in the south and east.

The Taliban in Badakhshan has gained strength precisely because it is different from the core insurgency. Its fighters are using their ethnic and tribal ties to gain recruits and popular support, while their knowledge of the landscape helps them outmaneuver Afghan security forces and control lucrative sources of funding.
The Taliban in Badakhshan province are reportedly not as radical as their counterparts in other areas of Afghanistan but they are still not the ideal neighbors when you are trying to prevent the radicalization of Xinjiang's Muslim population. China's increasing efforts to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan are primarily driven by concerns about the support Uyghur insurgents are getting from Afghanistan. For this reason, Beijing wants the Pakistani authorities to ensure that there is no infiltration from Afghanistan through Pakistan into Xinjiang. China is trying to contain the insurgency in its far west by cutting off outside support, as highlighted by the recent crackdown on illegal border crossings by Uyghurs. The arrest of several Turks and Uyghurs in Shanghai in November of last year exposed Turkey's role in the smuggling operations and shed light on the players behind the East Turkestan independece movement. A few days ago, Indonesia announced another revealing arrest:
Kunming terrorist attack suspects nabbed in Indonesia

The Chinese and Indonesian governments exchanged information on nine terrorist suspects, believed to be from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, who fled to Indonesia after plotting an attack in China last year, Indonesian media reported.

The Indonesian police arrested four of the nine. Three fled into the jungle and two others escaped to Malaysia. The captured suspects are likely to be extradited to China as the two countries signed an extradition treaty in 2009, Jakata Post reported.

The suspects fled to Poso, Indonesia, by a land route through Myanmar, southern Thailand and Malaysia. From Malaysia, they entered Indonesia with Turkish passports, posing as asylum seekers, Saut said.
© Photo Bloomberg

As previously discussed, many Uyghurs are trying to leave China via Southeast Asia and the Chinese authorities have made it clear that not all of them are innocent refugees and that Southeast Asia has become a transit point for Uyghur would-be terrorists. The nine suspects in Indonesia are believed to be part of the group that carried out the massacre at Kunming's railway station in March of last year. Chinese officials stated at the time that the Kunming attackers had tried to leave China and "become jihadis overseas" but failed to do so and decided to launch an attack at home. The captured suspects in Indonesia gave inconsistent statements. At first, they admitted having come from Xinjiang but retracted their statements later and said that they had come from a town in Turkey. World Uyghur Congress deputy head Seyit Tümtürk, the go-to guy for Uyghurs in Turkey, can perhaps clear up where they came from. Meanwhile, China's fight against the 'East Turkestan forces' continues and the Chinese authorities are trying to ensure the stability of Xinjiang by all available means:
China to boost financial help for troubled Xinjiang

Four of China's top financial regulators vowed on Thursday to step up policy support for the poorer southern portion of the troubled western region of Xinjiang to boost economic development and ensure stability there.

Authorities have employed a carrot and stick approach to bring Xinjiang under control, massively ramping up security but also pumping in money, in a recognition of the economic roots of the unrest, especially in the poorer southern portion.

In a joint statement, the regulators, including the central bank, said they would deepen indirect fund-raising, expand direct financing, encourage financial innovation and step up infrastructure projects.

Armenia Has Second Thoughts About Eurasian Economic Union

Xinjiang's economic development is making good progress despite the outside interference. Although the autonomous region is currently facing a slowdown in foreign trade due to falling commodity prices, Xinjiang's trade with Russia has skyrocketed in the last year - another sign of the increasing economic cooperation between the two close allies. A $242 billion high-speed rail link from Beijing to Moscow is going to solidify the relationship in the future and Russia's Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov announced recently that China is now even showing interest in establishing a free trade zone with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) after overcoming a lot of skepticism. The EEU got off to a very bad start, not least because of the economic war against Russia. Although it did not take long before Belarus and Kazakhstan questioned their decision to join the trade bloc, they have no plans to leave the EEU. The same is true of Armenia but that didn't stop Yerevan from resuming talks with Brussels about an European Union Association Agreement:
Armenia: Yerevan Mending Fences with EU

With the Russian economy hitting the skids, it looks like Armenia wants to hedge its economic bets. Although Yerevan became a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in January, a senior Armenian government official told EurasiaNet.org that the country is working to complete an updated version of an EU Association Agreement that Armenian officials put on hold back in 2013.

Balancing trade and other commitments inherent in EEU membership along with those involved with an EU association agreement appear, at least on paper, to be problematic. But that isn’t deterring Yerevan. A need for money seems to be the main motivation. With Russia, Armenia’s main economic partner, suffering the effects of both low oil prices and Western sanctions, Armenia saw its remittances from guest workers abroad fall by 39 percent in 2014, and exports sag by 18 percent, according to the National Statistical Service. And so far, the expected economic benefits of joining the EEU have not materialized. Simplified export-import procedures are not in effect yet, while import duties have been raised on over 7,000 products.

Brussels has been undeterred by Armenia's decision to ditch the EU and join the EEU. Traian Hristea, EU Ambassador to Armenia, emphasized a few days ago that the EU will not leave Armenia and continue to support reforms in the country. With relations between Armenia and Russia strained due to the killing of an Armenian family by a Russian serviceman, the EU lost no time in offering Armenia an association agreement without its free-trade component. The recent visit by Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan to Moscow could also play into Brussels' hands. Abrahamyan tried to secure a big loan or investments and to get a lower gas tariff from Russia in exchange for a partial shift from dollars to rubles in gas settlements, to no avail. So far, the Kremlin has been silent on the new Armenia-EU talks about an association agreement but this was perhaps a broad hint. To make matters worse, the trial of Russian soldier Valery Permyakov is still whipping up feelings as well:
Protesters demand handover or Russian soldier to Armenian law enforcers

A group of protesters held an action in front of Prosecutor's Office on Thursday demanding guarantees that the accused would be handed over to Armenian law enforcement agencies (photo).

The participants demanded justice, transparent investigation and handover of Valery Permyakov, they handed over a letter to Prosecutor General Gevorg Kostanyan.
As reported earlier, six members of the Avetisyan family—including a two-year-old girl—were shot dead, and a six-month-old baby was wounded in their house in Gyumri on January 12; and the baby boy died in hospital on January 19.
Armenia has formally asked Russia to hand over Permyakov but Moscow insists on prosecuting the soldier on the Russian miliary base in Gyumri, where he has been held since his arrest. The killing of the Armenian family has raised questions about the Russian military presence in Armenia but the Armenian authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place because they cannot do without Russian support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. Russia's 102nd Military Base in Gyumri is one of the few things deterring Azerbaijan from launching an all-out war against Armenia. The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has made it clear that Russia will fulfill its obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if Armenia is attacked. In this light, it is very interesting that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now looking to join the same organization:
Azerbaijan, Armenia To Become SCO Observers?

Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.

The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.