Monday, April 27, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #95

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.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has been making headlines on a daily basis in recent weeks, in large part due to the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the ensuing turf war between Kadyrov and elements in Russia's security apparatus. The investigation into the Nemtsov murder has turned the spotlight on Kadyrov's near limitless powers in Chechnya. This has long been a thorn in the side of some people in Moscow. Chechnya lives by different rules from the rest of Russia and investigators realized this lately when they tried to get access to suspect Ruslan Geremeev and his father, Federation Council member Sulieman Geremeev. But some people apparently didn't get the memo. On April 19, a suspected criminal was killed in Grozny during a special operation, which was carried out by members of the Stavropol police and Chechnya-based forces under the command of the federal government. Nobody deemed it necessary to inform the Chechen authorities of the operation and this didn't go down well with Kadyrov:
‘Shoot to kill’: Chechen leader’s row with Interior Ministry heats up

Tensions continue to rise between the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian Interior Ministry. It follows the killing of a Chechen native by police from another Russian region during arrest. Grozny has accused the ministry of distorting facts.

Kadyrov was outraged upon learning of the operation, as he said it was performed without the Chechen authorities being notified.

“I officially state that if [armed people] turn up on your territory without you knowing about this – be they Muscovites or Stavropol natives – shoot to kill. We should be reckoned with,” Kadyrov said during a meeting with Chechen security officials.

Putin Sheds Light On U.S. Terror Operations In The North Caucasus

Russia's Interior Ministry responded by saying that Kadyrov's words are "inadmissible." Although the head of the Chechen Republic continues to insist that there is no conflict between him and federal law enforcers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ingore the tensions. After the Chechen Interior Ministry launched an investigation into the "abuse of power" by Stavropol police, Federal Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin intervened and took over the investigation, which prompted Kadyrov to demand an explanation from Bastrykin. The antics of the Chechen leader are causing Russian officials quite a headache and rumor has it that Kadyrov has now been offered to take a job in the federal government. That way the Kremlin could limit Kadyrov's influence without causing too much trouble in Chechnya. And trouble in Chechnya is always a good thing to avoid, especially when the U.S. deep state plans to start another Chechen war. It is an open secret that the United States and NATO are pulling the strings behind the insurgency in Russia's North Caucasus but it is rarely mentioned in the media by Russian officials, which makes Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent interview all the more interesting:
Putin accuses US of supporting separatists in Russia

In a new documentary, Russian President Vladimir Putin says intercepted calls showed that the U.S. helped separatists in Russia's North Caucasus in the 2000s, underscoring his suspicions of the West.

The documentary showed Putin interviewed at the Kremlin in the dimly-lit St. Alexander's Hall. In excerpts released shortly before the film's broadcast, Putin said Russian intelligence agencies had intercepted calls between the separatists and U.S. intelligence based in Azerbaijan during the early 2000s, proving that Washington was helping the insurgents.

Putin said he raised the issue with then-U.S. President George W. Bush, who promised Putin to "kick the ass" of the intelligence officers in question. But in the end, Putin said the Russian intelligence agency FSB received a letter from their "American counterparts" who asserted their right to "support all opposition forces in Russia," including the Islamic separatists in the Caucasus.

Azerbaijan has long played a key role in U.S.-NATO terror operations in the region. In this regard, the U.S. embassy in Baku hosted quite noteworthy meetings between 1997 and 2001, where U.S. military and intelligence officials met with the likes of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and terrorism financier Yasin al-Qadi. Close U.S. ally Azerbaijan and NATO member Turkey served as main conduits for the 'Gladio B' operations and there is some evidence to suggest that things haven't changed much over the years. Last Friday, Turkish "charity" IMKANDER held a rally in Istanbul to mourn the loss of Caucasus Emirate leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, aka Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, who was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan a few days earlier. Kebekov's predecessor Doku Umarov had been honored with a similar rally last year. When IMKANDER is not organizing rallies for slain terrorists, the organization is attracting negative attention for recruiting "Syrian rebels":
'People In Pankisi Know Who's Recruiting Their Kids To IS'

While the answers to these questions remain unknown, it is worth noting one important connection between Pankisi Kists fighting in Syria and a foreign group.

Seyfullakh al-Shishani (Ruslan Machaliashvili) who pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra before his death in February 2014, had close ties to a Turkish NGO named Imkander, which helps refugees from the North Caucasus living in Turkey. Machaliashvili had become involved with Imkander when he lived in Istanbul before going to fight in Syria.

Imkander, which is reportedly also involved with helping provide medical treatment for Chechens fighting in Syria, openly praised Machaliashvili in a funeral in absentia it held for him in Istanbul in February 2014.
As discussed last week, the terrorist recruitment in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge seems to getting out of hand, which has caused a storm of protest from parents and locals. Given IMKANDER's history, it comes as no real surprise that the Turkish "charity" is not only providing food to Pankisi residents but also recruiting new fighters for NATO's war in Syria. Russia has tried to put IMKANDER on the Al-Qaida Sanctions List, to no avail. The U.S. and Azerbaijan opposed sanctions against IMKANDER and the UK, France and Luxembourg blocked the Russian request in the UN Security Council. That explains perhaps Putin's suspicions of the West. After the U.S. and its allies recently refused to add ISIS to the Al-Qaida Sanctions List as a separate group, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out that both ISIS and al-Qaeda have emerged as a result of Washington's actions, which is a diplomatic way of saying what Putin hinted at in his interview. Lavrov said that he sees ISIS as Russia's main enemy now and there is certainly some truth to this:
Umar Shishani’s Right-Hand Man Calls On North Caucasian Jihadis To Join IS In Dagestan & Chechnya

In a recent video address, Abu Jihad, a close confidante of Islamic State’s commander in Syria Umar Shishani, has called on jihadis in the North Caucasus to join those local groups who have pledged allegiance to IS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and not the Caucasus Emirate (CE).

Abu Jihad is the nom de guerre of Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev, an ethnic Karachay from the North Caucasian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia. While Abu Jihad does not appear to have taken part in any military action on behalf of IS, in 2013 and 2014 he was frequently seen alongside Umar Shishani and has since become a prominent ideologue within IS’s North Caucasian contingent. More recently, he has begun reaching out to jihadis in Syria and the Russian Federation via regular Russian-language audio lectures on the Zello platform.

Taliban Trying To Match ISIS Brutality As Both Groups Clash

With the continued existence of the Caucasus Emirate in question, ISIS could become Russia's main enemy in the North Caucasus. The much-hyped terrorist group is expanding into several countries. Lately, ISIS's expansion into Afghanistan has been the main topic of conversation in the region. Russian and Central Asian officials lose no opportunity to hype the threat and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani even went as far as telling his friends in Washington during a recent visit that ISIS poses a "terrible threat" to Western and Central Asia. That is of course absurd but it is hard to deny that more and more jihadists in Afghanistan pledge allegiance to ISIS, much to the dismay of the Taliban. When a suicide blast rocked Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad last week, killing at least 35 people and injuring more than 100, suspicions quickly focused on ISIS but Afghan and NATO officials expressed doubts about ISIS's responsibility for the bombing and the group denied any involvement:
ISIS Now Says It Didn’t Bomb Afghanistan

ISIS loyalists may have claimed credit for Saturday bombing that killed at least 35 people in eastern Afghanistan. But U.S. officials now believe that Taliban fighters—not the Middle East-based extremist group—carried out the strike. Had ISIS been responsible, it would have been among the deadliest attacks by the group outside the Middle East.

What’s more, a spokesman for ISIS in Afghanistan denied that his group was responsible for the attack, which sparked outrage among Afghans.

“ISIS was not behind the deadly blast in Jalalabad, and we condemn such an attack,” Sheikh Muslim Dost told The Daily Beast. “This is an act of the Pakistani agencies to damage reputation of the ISIS.”

If the "Pakistani agencies" would go to the trouble of staging a massive suicide bombing in order to damage the reputation of ISIS, is doubtful to say the least. The statement of Sheikh Muslim Dost should be taken with a grain of salt but it is possible that the Taliban were behind the attack. There are some indications that they are trying to match the brutality of ISIS. A recent wave of kidnappings and subsequent beheadings of members of Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic group was also first blamed on ISIS but turned out to be the work of the Taliban. Shahgul Rezaye, a Hazara member of Parliament, explained it as follows: "They’re trying to show they are as bad as ISIS." As previously mentioned, publishing a biography of Mullah Omar won't be enough to stop jihadists in Afghanistan from abandoning the Taliban in favor of ISIS. The rivalry between the two groups has now reached a new peak:
ISIS, Taliban announced Jihad against each other

Mashaal Radio has published a report stating that Daesh and Taliban group have announced Jihad against each other.

Nabi Jan Mullahkhil, police chief of southern Helmand province has told Mashaal Radio during an interview that he has received documents in which both the terrorist groups have announced Jihad against each other.

Mashaal Radio which is related to Azadi Radio quotes Mullahkhil as saying when the matter of peace talks between government and Taliban comes into discussion some intelligence agencies make new groups to keep the war ongoing in Afghanistan.
It appears that the war in Afghanistan won't end anytime soon. Washington's decision to slow the "withdrawal" has undermined the Afghan peace talks before they got started and due to the rise of ISIS, the Taliban are now even less inclined to make compromises. On April 24, the group launched its annual spring offensive "under the inspirational name of 'Azm' (determination)." While Ghani is still pretending that the NATO-trained Afghan security forces are able to defend the country, Afghanistan's elite is already fleeing to Europe amid increasing violence. Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors are keeping a wary eye on the situation. The Taliban are doing what they want on the Turkmen-Afghan border and northern Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan have also seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. A few days ago, Ghani and Interior Minister Ulumi visited Badakhshan province to check the security situation after the Taliban had launched a major attack in Badakhshan:
Taliban admit to beheading Afghan soliders ‘in revenge’

The Taliban admitted that its fighters beheaded seven Afghan soldiers during clashes last week in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. The Taliban acknowledged that the beheadings are “contradictory to rules of engagement,” but then justified the gruesome acts as revenge for Afghan soldiers mutilating Taliban fighters.

In a statement released today on Voice of Jihad, the Taliban’s official media outlet, the jihadist group said it “launched its usual investigation” of the reports of the beheadings “as part of its Islamic and humanitarian responsibility.”

The Taliban killed, captured, or wounded 33 troops after more than 250 Taliban fighters assaulted the district of Jurm in Badakhshan last week, according to news reports. Afghan forces claimed that 20 Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting.


All-Weather Friends China & Pakistan Elevate Relations To New Level

Since Badakhshan borders not only Tajikistan but also China and Pakistan, Beijing and Islamabad are also going to keep a close eye on the situation. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan last week to unveil energy and infrastructure investments totaling $46 billion in an effort to expedite the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The economic corridor aims to connect Pakistan's Chinese-managed Gwadar port to China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is now the core of China's growth and security concerns. It is a risky project because it depends on stability in Xinjiang and Balochistan, two regions struggling with foreign-backed separatist movements. A spillover of violence from Badakhshan is the last thing that Beijing and Islamabad want to see. In exchange for putting up the money, the Chinese authorities expect their Pakistani counterparts to maintain stability in the country and provide security for Chinese workers:
Pakistan to Create Security Force to Protect Chinese Workers

Pakistan’s military will assemble a 12,000-strong special security force to protect the Chinese workers and engineers expected to flood into Pakistan as part of a flagship $46-billion infrastructure program, Pakistani officials said.
 
The size of the new security force reflects the ambitious scale of the Chinese construction plan, which would see work begin on dozens of projects starting this year. It also addresses Beijing’s long-running concerns with the safety of its workers abroad, particularly in conflict zones.

Pakistan plans to devote nine army battalions and six wings of the civilian security forces to the new security unit, said Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Bajwa, in a statement late Tuesday.

Beijing has learned from negative experiences in Afghanistan and doesn't want to take any risks as the "all-weather friends" China and Pakistan proceed with the implementation of the mega project. Chinese media hailed Xi's visit to Pakistan, saying that both countries "upgraded their relations to all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation, eyeing perpetual friendship from generation to generation." This is not necessarily an exaggeration. China has just been granted operation rights for 40 years at Gwadar, which is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year, and the CPEC cements ties between the two neighbors even further. Pakistani planning minister Ahsan Iqbal described the project as a "game-changer for Pakistan" but it is actually a game-changer for the whole region. After Beijing recently offered Islamabad its help in constructing the Pakistani side of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, Iran lost no time in expressing its willingness to supply gas to China:
Iran backs pipeline to China under 'One Belt, One Road' initiative: ambassador

Iran is seeking to extend its energy delivery network to China under Beijing's massive "One Belt, One Road" push to boost regional connectivity, Tehran's envoy has said.

Ali Asghar Khaji, Iran's ambassador to China, said Iran would expand its railways, roads, ports, telecoms sector and energy security under a five-year development plan. "Setting up an extended network of energy pipelines would help regional security and development," he told the South China Morning Post.

Iran says it has already built a natural gas pipeline to its border with Pakistan, which previously balked at constructing a link on its side amid threats of sanctions from Washington. But Islamabad was now seeking Chinese funding to build its portion, The Wall Street Journal reported this month. The deal comes amid a push to build an economic corridor between Pakistan's port city of Gwadar and western China's Xinjiang region.
As China redraws Eurasia's geopoliticial map, the U.S. sees its hopes dashed. Washington has long tried to sabotage the construction of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Strong U.S. pressure forced India to withdraw from the pipeline in 2009 and Pakistan was later also bullied into abandoning the project. Thanks to Beijing's efforts, the completion of the Peace Pipeline is now within reach and even an expansion to China seems possible. Depending on how the situation in Xinjiang and Balochistan develops, these efforts might pay off. After Xi Jinping visited Islamabad to inaugurate the CPEC, it didn't take long before Baloch nationalists dismissed the project as an attempt to "colonize" Balochistan and demanded a share of the financial benefits for the province. So it remains to be seen whether China and its allies will be able to implement the mega projects or whether Baloch "rebels" will thwart Beijing's plans:
Security Fears for China-Pakistan Corridor

Ethnic Baloch rebels, who oppose Gawadar’s development while the province is not independent, have in the past blown up numerous gas pipelines and trains and attacked Chinese engineers.

Earlier this month the Balochistan Liberation Front claimed an attack in the province that left 20 construction workers from elsewhere in Pakistan dead, the bloodiest separatist incident since 2006. 
Siddiq Baloch, editor of the Balochistan Express newspaper, said the rebels want to scare off investors and developers who are working with the Pakistani government—such as the Chinese. “There is the thinking that by doing this, they want to disrupt the working of the economy, disrupt the administration, challenge the administration in the area,” he said.