Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #92

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 ISIS threat in Afghanistan has been hyped by everyone and his brother ever since the first ISIS flag was seen in the war-torn country. It didn't take long before some insurgents left the Taliban to join the new hip terrorist group. As the rivalry between the two groups escalated, wannabe Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even went as far as calling Taliban leader Mullah Omar "a fool and illiterate warlord." Predictably, Mullah Omar didn't respond to the insult. The Taliban leader has not been seen or heard from in years, fueling speculation that he is already dead. This is now becoming a major problem for the Taliban because al-Baghdadi has declared himself "Caliph" of the world's Muslims, finding a sympathetic ear with more and more jihadists. In an effort to counter the growing influence of ISIS in Afghanistan and to remind the world that Mullah Omar is still relevant, the Taliban just published a 5,000-word biography of the reclusive Taliban leader but it is highly doubtful whether that will be enough to stop more insurgents from pledging allegiance to ISIS:

Uzbek Group In Afghanistan Pledge Allegiance To Islamic State
A group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan, claiming to be from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), says it is pledging allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group.

A person calling himself Sadulla Urgenji said the IMU no longer views Taliban leader Mullah Omar as leader since he has not been seen for some 13 years and, "according to Shari'a," can no longer be leader.

Urgenji said his group was recognizing the authority of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State group.

Russia Promises More Military Aid To Silence Tajik Complaints

The statement was made in a recently released video that purportedly shows IMU members beheading an Afghan soldier. Urgenji announced that the IMU has captured 30 Afghan soldiers in retaliation for the arrest of several female IMU members in Faryab Province and he warned that more soldiers will be beheaded unless the Afghan authorities agree to swap prisoners. Faryab Province has seen substantial militant activites in the past year, much to the dismay of neighboring Turkmenistan. Considering that the IMU has operated alongside the Taliban in the region up until now, it will be interesting to see how the pledge of allegiance to ISIS affects the relationship between the IMU and the Taliban. While the situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border continues to make headlines, another Central Asian country is also extremely worried about its Afghan border and alarmed at the ISIS threat, whether real or perceived:
Tajikistan alarmed by IS activity at its border with Afghanistan

Tajikistan is alarmed by the activity of Islamic State’s armed groups close to its border with Afghanistan, a spokesman for the republic’s State Committee for National Security told TASS on Wednesday in comments on the border situation.
"Over the recent time, we have been witnessing movements of armed groups in the [northern] Afghan provinces of Tahar and Kunduz about 60-80 kilometers from the zone of responsibility of our Pyandzh border guard detachment," the officer said.

He said the aim of this activity was not yet clear, but such concentration of armed groups was alarming, as routes of terrorist groups went through areas not controlled by the Afghan government forces.

Not everyone shares this assessment. Afghan border police chief Mohammad Shafiq Fazli dismissed concerns about the security situation on the border as "baseless" after Nikolay Bordyuzha, head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), commented on the issue saying that CSTO forces could be at the border in three days and repel any threat emanating from Afghanistan. Moreover, Tajik independent terrorism expert and security service veteran Davlatkhoja Nazirov told Asia-Plus in an interview last month that world powers such as the United States and Russia are hyping the threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups to the make the country more pliant on regional policy issues. There is certainly some truth in this but Tajik officials have done their part as well and concerns about militant activities in northern Afghanistan are not completely unfounded. The issue was high on the agenda during the recent CSTO meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe and Tajik officials used the opportunity to complain about the failure of some members to come up with the promised military aid:
Tajikistan says CSTO decision on strengthening border security with Afghanistan not working

Tajikistan is not satisfied with the implementation of the decision of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on assistance in strengthening the security at the border with Afghanistan, said Minister of Foreign Affairs Sirodzhdin Aslov following the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the CSTO countries in Dushanbe on Thursday.

“We analyzed the progress of the Council's decisions on the provision of assistance to Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border. The decision has not been implemented fully so far, therefore, the partners were urged to undertake the practical measures to implement this decision,” said Aslov.
In September 2013, the CSTO agreed to support Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border but only Belarus and Armenia have fulfilled their obligations so far and Tajikistan is still waiting for some of the promised military aid. Tajik officials have complained a few times about the slow pace of Russian military aid in recent months and the latest complaint was probably also directed at Moscow. Interestingly, shortly after the Tajiks vented their anger at the CSTO meeting in Dushanbe, Russian business daily Kommersant quoted unnamed sources in the Russian General Staff as saying that Russia is prepared to supply about $1.2 billion worth of weapons and military equipment to Tajikistan within the next few years to fight ISIS. According to the sources, most of the aid will be second hand hardware, some of which will apparently come from Russia's military base in Tajikistan [emphasis mine]:
Russia to increase the number of its troops in Tajikistan

The number of troops deployed at Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan will be increased 1.5-fold during the next five years — from today’s 5,900 up to 9,000, Major-General Yevgeny Tubol, the 201st base commander, told journalists on April 3, the Ozodi radio (the Tajik service of Radio Liberty) reported.

The general also said that the base is currently receiving new types of military equipment. 
In his words, the military equipment currently used at the base will be modernized and passed over to the Tajik army.

Putin Concerned About Future Unrest In Russia

In order to increase the number of troops at the military base in Tajikistan, Russia won't even have to send Russian soldiers to the country. The Russian military can recruit unemployed Tajiks instead. At the beginning of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that allows foreigners not only to serve in the Russian military but also to fight for Russia. And a few weeks later, Tajikistan's parliament paved the way for its citizens to do so. If the ISIS fear-mongering is to be believed, this will happen sooner rather than later. Russia appears to be preparing for more unrest in Central Asia, which indicates that Russian officials either believe their own fear-mongering or don't believe that Washington's new Central Asia policy is really about "countering violent extremism." Syrians can tell you a thing or two about it. That seems to have been on Putin's mind as well when he addressed Russia's top security officials during a board meeting at the end of last month:
Russians trained by ISIL may be used against home country

People with origins in Russia are being trained by a number of international terrorist organizations and may be used against their home country at some point, President Vladimir Putin said.

"People with origins in Russia and some other CIS countries are being trained in the so-called conflict hotbeds, for instance, by ISIL in Syria and a number of other countries and may be eventually used against us, Russia, and our neighbors," Putin said at a meeting of the Federal Security Service Board.

So, it is important to take additional measures towards severing international contacts and resources of terrorists, "blocking their arrival in and departure from Russia, and stopping their movement around regions, including new constituent territories of the Federation, Crimea and Sevastopol," the president said.

When ISIS terrorists release one of their ludicrous videos threatening to shoot the next video in Dushanbe or in the Kremlin, hardly anybody is shaking with fear but the Russian authorities have every reason to be worried about the number of jihadists from CIS countries in Syria. According to Russia's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Sergey Melikov, more than 1,500 terrorists from the North Caucasus are fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Melikov also claimed that at least five veterans of the Syrian war were killed during counterterrorism operations in Russia in 2014. Regardless of whether or not that number is correct, it is safe to say that only few terrorists have returned so far. Thanks to the jihadists' focus on Syria, the situation in the North Caucasus has been relatively calm and due to the Ukrainian crisis, many Russians are now much more optimistic about the situation in the North Caucasus with Kadyrov being one of the biggest winners of this change of opinion:
Russians have more trust in Kadyrov

The number of Russia's residents, who express trust in the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, has increased by 22% as compared with 2006, said the "Levada-Centre".

More and more people treat the situation in Chechnya as peaceful and calm; and 33% of respondents believe that this is a result of Kadyrov's activities. In April 2007, there were 18% of such respondents; and in November 2011 – only 13%. Only 3% of respondents are sure that Chechnya will separate from Russia, while in 2007 the figure was 11%.
As previously discussed, Kadyrov needs every support he can get because his enemies in Moscow are currently trying to take him down a peg or two. Hardly a day goes by without new reports about the Nemtsov killing and the ongoing investigation. The Russian authorities are reportedly looking for Ruslan Geremeev, who is too close to Kadyrov's No. 2 Adam Delimkhanov to play the fall guy, and the main suspect Zaur Dadayev reiterated that he was forced into a confession as more and more questions emerge. Meanwhile, Kadyrov picked up another award and started to focus on the annual Warrior Competition in Jordan, where his special forces will represent Russia and do their best to beat the Americans. Up until now, there is no indication that Putin could drop his most loyal regional leader. The Russian President knows full well how important it is to maintain interethnic and interfaith harmony in Russia. That is why he just created a new government agency to this end:
Experts: Putin's New Ethnic Affairs Agency Aims to Thwart Political Threats

President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to launch a government agency charged with maintaining interethnic and interfaith harmony in Russia is a bid to prevent foreign powers and internal opposition factions from seeking to exploit a weak spot in Russia's power structure, analysts told The Moscow Times.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a series of state bodies ostensibly designed to deal with ethnic issues. But since 2001, when the Ministry of Federal Affairs, National and Migration Policy was disbanded, the country has lacked a government organ dedicated exclusively to maintaining harmony between Russia's many ethnic groups.

Alasania At Loggerheads With Georgia's "Pro-Russian" Government

It is not hard to guess which "foreign powers" Putin had in mind when he made this decision. Inciting interethnic hatred has long been Washington's preferred strategy, not only in Russia. Therefore, it comes as no real surprise that the newly established Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs will be headed by a former FSB commander who served in Chechnya and saw at first hand how dangerous these destabilization efforts are. As often discussed, the U.S. can count on several allies when it comes to destabilizing the North Caucasus. Russia's two neighbors in the Caucasus and vital NATO member Turkey are probably the first ones which come to mind. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are united in their hostile policy vis-à-vis Russia but that is not all. The three countries form a strategic triangle and maintain very close political, economic and military ties, as can be seen from projects such as the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) or the frequent trilateral meetings:
Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan vow to boost cooperation

Defense Ministers from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia have repeated their desire to boost cooperation in a bid to enhance peace, welfare and stability in the region.

The ministers' remarks came during a press conference following their meeting at the Tblisi Marriot Hotel in the Georgian capital of Tblisi.
Georgia's Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze said the cooperation of the three countries would continue with high-level activities, adding: "This (military) cooperation only aims to provide peace in the region."

Russia and Armenia surely beg to differ with Janelidze's claim that closer defense cooperation between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan "only aims to provide peace in the region." Although the new Georgian Defense Minister picked up where his popular predecessor Irakli Alasania left off, Alasania's firing is still a hot topic in Georgia. The former Defense Minister recently claimed that he was fired because he wanted to sign an agreement to acquire air defense systems from France, which was met with fierce opposition from former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is still pulling the strings behind the scenes, and current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. As usual, Alasania implied that Ivanishvili and Garibashvili were trying to appease Moscow but his claims were denied by Garibashvili, Janelidze and France's ambassador to Tbilisi who stressed that the Georgian government doesn't oppose the arms deal:
Accusations Fly in Georgia’s Potential French Arms Deal

Georgian Defense Minister, Mindia Janelidze, has strongly denied his predecessor Irakli Alasania’s allegations and said that talks on purchasing air defense system from France are continuing.

Usually media shy Defense Minister Janelidze had to appear twice on TV late on Friday evening giving interviews separately to public broadcaster and Maestro TV, claiming that contrary to allegations voiced by Alasania, leader of the opposition Free Democrats party, negotiations on arms deal with France is well on track and will have “its logical conclusion.” He, however, also said that “rumors” and political “speculation” has harmed this process “to some extent.”

French ambassador in Tbilisi, Renaud Salins, said on April 3 that “discussions” continue on this matter.
It is not the first time that the "pro-Russian" government in Tbilisi has come under pressure for "appeasing" Moscow and it won't be the last time that the likes of Alasania and Saakashvili make these kind of allegations but Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration is irreversible, as Georgian officials often emphasize. That was also one key take-away from Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili's state of the nation address, which was again snubbed by Garibashvili and several government members. Other key points of Margvelashvili's speech were that the feud between him and Garibashvili harms the country, that Georgia's NATO integration "is not directed against anyone" and that Russia is evil. It is hardly surprising that the U.S. and the EU see no reason to complain about Tbilisi. Alasania, Saakashvili & Co. advocate a more aggressive policy than their masters in Washington and Brussels. Perhaps Alasania should think about moving to Kiev where he can act out his wildest fantasies alongside Saakashvili:
Ukraine Rejects Georgia’s Request for Extradition of Saakashvili

Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine said on April 1 it declined Tbilisi’s request for extradition of Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who now serves as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s adviser.

Saakashvili is wanted by the Georgian authorities on multiple criminal charges, which he denies as politically motivated. Court in Tbilisi ordered Saakashvili’s pre-trial detention in absentia in August, 2014.

“As a result of review of [Georgia’s extradition request] Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine has concluded there is a significant risk that extradition request for Saakashvili was made by the competent Georgian agency with the purpose of his prosecution for political motives,” Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement on April 1, adding that extradition of Saakashvili would be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights.