Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #91

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.

In recent weeks, Uyghur terrorists have been making headlines in several countries, ranging from Turkey to Indonesia and of course China. The Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned that Uyghur would-be terrorists who travel to the Middle East could return and fuel the insurgency in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang's party chief Zhang Chunxian revealed during a meeting at the annual session of the National People's Congress that local authorities "have broken up terror groups who were plotting violent attacks on Chinese soil after fighting in battles in Syria with the IS." Although ISIS's threat to China is often exaggerated, Beijing's concerns are not unfounded. As discussed in a recent episode of Porkins Great Game, efforts are underway to smuggle Uyghurs out of China and turn them into jihadist mercenaries for U.S.-NATO terror operations. In order to nip the threat in the bud, Beijing wants to prevent Uyghurs from fleeing the country and catch those who have left:

China's Secret Plan to Track Militants and Bring Them Home

Days after Indonesia arrested four Uighur terrorism suspects in September in the country’s east, China dispatched three intelligence officers to ask authorities to hand them over.

While Indonesia initially demurred, China has now secured a preliminary agreement for the men to be returned after a trial in Jakarta, according to Irfan Idris, a senior official at Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency. The four, who are yet to be charged, face potential execution if repatriated.

China pressed for the deal as part of a global operation begun last year to return terrorism suspects to Chinese soil, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the initiative is confidential. Many of the suspects are members of the Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslim minority, they said.

Guangzhou: New Hot Spot Of China's War On Terror

The suspects in question are believed to be part of the group that carried out the horrific knife attack at Kunming's railway station in March of last year. Given that China just executed three men for leading the Kunming attack, it is safe to assume that the arrested Uyghurs will be executed if the Indonesian authorities hand them over. The four men and five other Uyghurs, who managed to escape, had entered Indonesia from Malaysia with Turkish passports, posing as asylum seekers. This has become a preferred strategy among Uyghur insurgents. Turkey's role in all of this was exposed at the beginning of this year in the course of the ongoing tug-of-war between Beijing and Ankara over Uyghur refugees in Thailand. While Turkey is playing the benevolent guardian of all Uyghurs, China is trying to convince the rest of the world that not all Uyghurs leaving the country are innocent refugees:
South China now favoured way out of country for IS recruits: terrorism expert

China's southern seaboard has replaced the mountainous and tightly guarded western frontier as the preferred route for Islamic extremists to slip recruits out of the country, according to a leading expert on terrorism.

Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, claimed that "over 400 Uygurs have left, most through Hong Kong via Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to join the IS [Islamic State]".

Gunaratna's claim comes as a leaked Guangdong police document revealed that the authorities broke up a Pearl River Delta syndicate that smuggled at least six Uygurs to Macau on February 18 and 24. The document said the syndicate was planning to smuggle more Uygurs hiding in Guangzhou, Foshan and Zhongshan to Macau before police busted the ring on March 2.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Police Force played down the issue, saying that the city's terrorist threat level remained moderate but the recent emergence of ISIS flyers in Hong Kong suggests that there might be something to Gunaratna's claim. Citing Hong Kong news reports, U.S.-based Chinese political news outlet Duowei News pointed out that Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong have been receiving leaflets encouraging them to join ISIS. Even more interesting is the flyer's assertion that recruits will be sent to "carry out missions" in Xinjiang. The authorities in Hong Kong are clearly alarmed by the ISIS flyers and the same is probably true of the authorities in mainland China. As the above-mentioned break-up of another smuggling operation shows, China's fight against terrorists and would-be terrorists is not confined to Xinjiang. Southern China is becoming an increasingly important part of the battlefield. Uyghurs who are hiding in and around Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of Guangdong province, have caused a lot of trouble in recent weeks:
Police shot dead two Uygur women before railway knife attack in Guangzhou

Police shot dead two ethnic Uygur women who resisted arrest and detained more than a dozen Uygur men during a late-night raid in a village outside Guangzhou just hours before the knife attack at the city's main railway station on March 6, which left 13 people injured, witnesses said.

Residents of Xiniujiao - or Rhino Horn - village who witnessed the police raid told the Sunday Morning Post that more than 100 officers, some of them armed, had swooped on the suspects during the Lantern Festival on March 5.

Three knife-wielding men attacked passers-by and passengers at random in the rail attack earlier this month. Police have been tightlipped about the ethnicity of the assailants, saying only that one had been shot dead and another arrested.
According to Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, the perpetrators of the knife attack at Guangzhou's railway station had planned to be smuggled to Macau before traveling to the Middle East via Southeast Asia to join ISIS. But they were forced to stay in Guangzhou after the boat they had arranged sank late last month. Four days after the break-up of the above-mentioned smuggling ring and hours after police raided a group of 40 Uyghur terror suspects from Xinjiang hiding in an apartment in Guangzhou's Baiyun district, the men launched the attack, resembling the Kunming attack in many ways. Guangzhou appears to be the new hot spot in China's fight against smuggling and terrorism. A few days ago, the South China Morning Post broke the very interesting story of a self-claimed "American scholar," who visited South China Normal University to recruit Uyghurs and smuggle them to Malaysia:
Terrorists 'recruited Uygur students at Guangzhou university'

Uygur students in Guangzhou have been warned to stay away from "outsiders" after several were recruited by a suspected religious extremist and had been missing since last year, various sources told the South China Morning Post.

A man claiming to be a US national conducting social science research visited the campus of the South China Normal University [SCNU] last year. Sources said the man recruited several Uygur students, gave them money and arranged for them to flee to Malaysia.

It is not clear if Malaysia was their final destination, or whether they were headed for Turkey or Syria, as some believe.

Obama's Decision To Slow Withdrawal Undermines Afghan Peace Talks

As usual, the NED-funded World Uyghur Congress lost no time in playing down the issue but this story highlights that the Chinese authorities have to be on their guard. And although "China's southern seaboard has replaced the mountainous and tightly guarded western frontier as the preferred route for Islamic extremists," the situation in neighboring Afghanistan gives reason for concern as well. On March 22, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah traveled to Washington for a five-day visit. The two Afghan leaders met with President Barack Obama and senior U.S. officials to discuss the troop withdrawal, reconciliation talks with the Taliban and other important issues. Ghani began the visit by thanking the Americans "who have sacrificed continuously since September 11th to bring us freedom and hope" before asking Obama to keep more troops in Afghanistan. Obama didn't know exactly which Afghan President he was talking to but he needed no second invitation:
Obama slows withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama on Tuesday granted Afghan requests to slow the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and said he would maintain a force of 9,800 through the end of 2015 while sticking to a 2017 exit plan.

Capping a day of VIP treatment for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House, Obama said the U.S. force would be kept at its current strength to train and assist Afghan forces, who took over responsibility for the fight against Taliban and other Islamic militants at the start of the year.

Obama said the pace of the U.S. troop reduction in 2016 would be established later this year and the goal remained to consolidate U.S. forces in the country in a presence at the Kabul embassy at the end of 2016.
© Photo AP/Susan Walsh

It remains to be seen if the U.S. will really retain only a small force at the Kabul embassy after 2016. There are already some doubts and Afghan leader Ghani has expressed a need for foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2016. Since taking office in September of last year, Ghani has been doing Washington's bidding and this has finally paid off. During his visit to Washington, the Afghan President received the "Distinguished Leadership Award" from the Atlantic Council and the United States Institute of Peace, presumably for being a better puppet than predecessor Hamid Karzai. Ghani also secured more U.S. funds for the Afghan security forces who are suffering from a number of problems, including "serious combat losses" and desertions. But American taxpayers will be relieved to hear that Afghanistan will be able to pay for its own security forces within a decade - at least this is what Ghani promised U.S. lawmakers. Possibly, the problem will resolve itself when the Taliban take over:
Slowing down of US pullout to affect peace efforts: Taliban

President Barack Obama’s decision to slow the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan would hamper peace efforts, the Taliban said on Wednesday, vowing to continue fighting.

“Obama’s announcement to continue to keep troops in Afghanistan is a response to the peace efforts,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

“This damages all the prospects for peace. This means the war will go on until they are defeated,” he said.
Not everyone was happy with Ghani's U.S. visit and the news from Washington. It is to be feared that Obama's decision to slow the "withdrawal" will undermine the peace talks, which had seen some progress due to China's efforts. Ghani attracted a lot of criticism for pushing for U.S. troops to stay longer. The Afghan High Peace Council, the official body overseeing the Afghan peace process, and other influential players in the region warned that Ghani is sending the wrong message to the Taliban. The statement by Taliban spokesman Zabuhullah Mujahid proves them right. Perhaps Ghani was too busy hyping the ISIS threat to recognize that there is a downside to keeping U.S. toops in the country. Just ahead of his visit to the U.S., the Afghan President acknowledged for the first time that ISIS is gaining influence in Afghanistan and by the time he arrived in Washington, Ghani was hyping the threat like none other:
Ghani: Islamic State 'terrible threat' to western, central Asia

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that Islamic State and its allies pose a "terrible threat" to the countries of western and central Asia.

In a speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Ghani said Islamic State militants are already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan "to test for vulnerabilities."

Turkmenistan Looking For Help To Defend Afghan Border

Nobody is going to deny that ISIS flags are becoming more popular in Afghanistan but ISIS doesn't pose a "terrible threat" to Central Asia. Furthermore, the links between ISIS in Afghanistan and the "original" ISIS in the Middle East are tenuous at best. Some insurgents who have previously fought for the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or other groups are now pledging allegiance to ISIS. This has prompted a lot of fear-mongering in Central Asia and Russia. As previously discussed, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have every reason to be worried in light of the deteriorating security situation along their borders and the massing of fighters in northern Afghanistan but ISIS is not going to conquer Central Asia anytime soon. Turkmenistan is arguably the country which has been affected the most by the volatile situation in northern Afghanistan:  
Four Said Killed By Police In Violence Near Afghan-Turkmen Border

A local leader in an ethnic Turkmen village near Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan says police killed at least four people and wounded at least seven others while dispersing a protest.

The head of Qarqeen village council, Gulam Rasul Qaryadar, told RFE/RL that police fired shots on March 16 after ethnic Turkmens gathered in front of the district administration building, demanding help from the authorities to stop what they say are efforts by Turkmenistan to take land they claim as their own.
The villagers have said that Turkmen forces are grabbing their land on an island that was formed several years ago in the Amu River, which serves as part of the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
© Photo U.S. Army Pfc. Devon Popielarczyk

Territorial gains by the Taliban and other groups prompted Turkmenistan last year to "invade" Afghanistan and the situation on both sides of the border has been highly volatile ever since. While ethnic Turkmens in northern Afghanistan are urging the Afghan authorities to investigate the deadly shooting by police, the Turkmen authorities are reportedly using the Taliban/ISIS threat to arrest would-be protesters. But Ashgabat doesn't take the situation lightly. General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, revealed during a recent Congress hearing that Turkmenistan has approached the U.S. asking for military aid to address the instability on the Turkmen-Afghan border. And if the Turkmen exile website Chronicles of Turkmenistan is to be believed, even foreign troops have already been deployed to the border:
Report: Troops From Uzbekistan And Russia Deployed To Turkmenistan-Afghanistan Border

Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan are helping Turkmenistan guard its border against militant incursions from Afghanistan, an Turkmenistani exile website reports, citing residents of border areas.

According to the report on Chronicles of Turkmenistan, "residents of Afghan border villages have recently noticed the presence on Turkmen territory border units from Uzbekistan." And it added: "About a month ago military instructors from Russia also appeared on the border. Obviously, the Turkmen authorities appealed to the Russian leadership for help guarding the border with Afghanistan, a situation where, with the arrival of warm weather, has begun to heat up."
The report should be taken with a grain of salt because there have not been any independent verifications of the information but it underlines concerns about the situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border and Ashgabat's ability to deal with the threat on its own. Turkmenistan is now experiencing the disadvantages of its neutrality. Neither American nor Russian help will come with no strings attached. It is not unlikely that this will affect Turkmenistan's pipeline politics. Unperturbed by the chaos in Afghanistan, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow just instructed his country's oil and gas leaders to accelerate the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Turkmenistan plays a decisive role in two major U.S.-backed pipeline projects, TAPI and the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which is now back on the table despite vehement Russian opposition:
EU wants to revive gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan

The European Union is seeking to revive a gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan to Europe and involve European energy companies, an EU diplomat in Turkmenistan said.

Denis Daniilidis told Reuters that Maros Sefcovic, the EU's head of energy union, was going to visit Turkmenistan in coming months to restart talks about the TransCaspian pipeline.

While he did not provide other details, Turkmen officials said earlier this month that "active" negotiations were under way to supply Europe with between 10 and 30 billion cubic metres of gas per year.