Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #96

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.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced last Wednesday during a meeting of the NATO Foreign Ministers in Turkey that the U.S.-led military alliance will maintain a presence in Afghanistan after the end of its current mission "Resolute Support" in 2016. Stoltenberg's announcement came as no real surprise. Hardly anybody believed that NATO would leave the strategically located country in the foreseeable future, if ever. In light of the deteriorating security situation, the U.S. and its allies don't even have to spend much time looking for a pretext. Despite years of training by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan security forces are not up to the task and as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko recently pointed out, "Afghan self-sustainment of its security institutions is long way away." American troops and taxpayers can look forward to losing more men and money in Afghanistan. To make matters worse, the Taliban and other groups lost no time in targeting areas, where the coalition troops have already left:
Afghan Officials: IS Militants Helping Taliban In Kunduz

Officials in northern Afghanistan say Taliban fighters who launched an offensive against government security forces last month have been joined by foreign fighters from the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

Kunduz Province Governor Mohammad Omer Safi told RFE/RL that the bodies of 18 foreign militants have been retrieved from areas where battles have been raging since April 24.

He said they included militants from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Chechnya.
© Photo Reuters

Tajikistan, CSTO Prepare For Afghan Spillover

Given that ISIS and the Taliban are usually fighting against each other in Afghanistan and not cooperating, it begs the question of whether the foreign fighters are really from ISIS or from other groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). After the Pakistani military launched its large-scale operation "Zarb-e-Azb" in North Waziristan last summer, many IMU militants left their safe havens in Pakistan for northern Afghanistan, contributing to an upsurge in violence in Kunduz and other northern Afghan provinces. Kunduz has seen some of the heaviest fighting this year. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes and the Afghan security forces are struggling to maintain control of the province. This has not gone unnoticed in neighboring Tajikistan. On their own admission, the Tajik authorities have already taken measures to address the issue but it is not exactly clear what they have been doing:
Tajikistan Reportedly Creates "Second Line Of Defense" On Afghan Border

Tajikistan has created a "second line of defense" along the border with Afghanistan in response to the flare-up in fighting in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, government officials have said.

"In connection with the battles between the security forces of Afghanistan and Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz, it's been decided to create a second line of defense, and it was carried out in recent days," said one government official. (Tajikistan newspaper Asia-Plus and Russian news agency Interfax seem to have gotten identical statements; Asia Plus identifies the source as a Ministry of Defense official.)

The official didn't specify what is meant by a "second line of defense," and for much of the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border there is barely a first line of defense. Aid that Russia has promised to shore up border defenses has been slow to arrive, so it's not clear what might be forming this extra defense.

A few weeks ago, Russia tried to silence Tajik complaints about the slow pace of Russian military aid by promising more military aid. Russian officials lose no opportunity to assure their Tajik counterparts that they will support them if violence spills across the border. Given the latest developments, this could happen sooner rather than later. The Tajik authorities are not only worried about the flare-up in fighting in Kunduz but also about the alarming situation in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province. A "well-informed" Tajik intelligence official told TASS on Friday that the Taliban have taken control of almost 80 percent of Badakhshan province and that some fighters have already advanced right up to the Tajik-Afghan border. Reports from Afghanistan corroborate his statement. Although the Tajik intelligence official stressed that they don't expect the insurgents to cross the border, the Tajik government is playing it safe:
Foreign citizens temporarily prohibited from visiting Gorno Badakhshan

Tajik authorities have suspended issuing permits to foreign citizens for visiting the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO).

Rezo Nazarzoda, the deputy head of the Committee for Youth, Sports and Tourism Affairs under the Government of Tajikistan, says entry of foreign citizens to Gorno Badakhshan has been temporarily suspended because of uneasy situation in Afghanistan’s districts bordering the region.

“As soon as the situation in the neighboring country changes for the better we will resume issuing permits to foreign citizens for visiting Gorno Badakhshan,” Nazarzoda said, noting that tour operators know about that suspension.
It is difficult enough for the Tajik regime to control the vast mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan region without Taliban fighters causing trouble on the border. Therefore, Dushanbe is now looking for some assistance in dealing with the Afghan "spillover." Since Turkmenistan is facing the same problem, it was only natural for the two Central Asian republics to join forces. Both countries are reportedly trying to convince Kyrgyzstan of providing some military support, which won't do much to solve the problem given Kyrgyzstan's limited capabilities. In the end, it will fall to Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to prevent a spillover of violence from Afghanistan into Central Asia. The CSTO is already practicing for an emergency. On May 12, the Russia-led military alliance kicked off drills at the Harbmaydon training ground in southern Tajikistan near the Afghan border involving more than 2,500 troops, some 200 units of military hardware and about 20 combat aircraft:
Russian, Belarusian, Central Asian Troops Practice Rapid Deployment To Afghan Border

Troops from Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization are taking part in snap exercises to practice quickly deploying to the border of Tajikistan.

The exercise is taking place amid heightened tension in Tajikistan, as fighting in northern Afghanistan has -- according to some officials -- the potential to destabilize Central Asia.

The CSTO has tried to position itself as the guarantor of security in Tajikistan; in March the group's head said that CSTO rapid reaction forces could reach the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in three days if fighting broke out there. This exercise is taking place in Tajikistan's Khatlon province, just across the border from Kunduz province in Afghanistan, where heavy fighting broke out last month.

Another Week, Another Kadyrov Scandal 

As if the border woes were not enough, Tajikistan is also struggling to contain the spread of radical Islam in the country. Terrorist reruiters don't have a hard time finding new cannon fodder for the war in Syria and arrests of suspected extremists are a regular occurrence. But if there is some truth to the speculations surrounding the recent disappearance of one of Tajikistan's top police leaders, the problem is even bigger than previously thought. Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, the commander of Tajikistan's OMON, disappeared on April 23 telling his wife that he would be traveling on business for a few days. According to law enforcement sources, Halimov left Dushanbe on May 1 with about ten unemployed men and one day later they were seen at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. Rumor has it that they went to Syria to fight for ISIS. Halimov's family dismissed the media speculations as "baseless" but if Halimov was indeed seen in Moscow, it won't help his case. Many of the Tajiks fighting for ISIS or other terrorist gangs in Syria have been recruited in the Russian capital:
‘Congratulations, your brother’s become a martyr’ How Moscow’s migrant workers became Islamic State fighters

The recruiters would explain to the migrants why they should leave Moscow. “You shouldn’t live like slaves. They don’t respect you here,” they said, and would go on to explain that in ISIL fighting wasn’t obligatory, that they would be able to lead a comfortable life and work without being humiliated or feeling demeaned.

At these meetings they didn’t talk about the need to wage war against Tajikistan, or the need to take part in terrorist activities. They would offer between $5,000 and $10,000 to help get a newcomer all set up, and if you had a family you could get two to three times more. They explained that ISIL wanted you to bring your family, because ISIL is a “real state” which promises accommodation, while leaving your family behind could lead to “manipulation of your relatives.”

The guest workers didn’t know which regions in Chechnya these recruiters came from. One can assume that some of them are from the Pankisi Gorge, a region of Georgia with a historic Chechen community.

Given the Pankisi Gorge's history as a breeding ground for terrorists, it wouldn't be surprising if some of the Chechen recruiters were from Georgia's notorious valley region. Another possibility is that some of them are from Turkey. The Turkish government support ISIS & Co. in any and every possible way and Turkey's Chechen community doesn't have much choice but to play along. But regardless of whether the Chechen recruiters are from Russia or abroad, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian authorities would be well advised to stop the recruitment scheme. Unfortunately, Kadyrov seems to have other things on his mind at the moment. After averting an attempt to pin the Nemtsov assassination on his close associates, Kadyrov made headlines with his order to shoot police from other Russian regions if need be and lately he has become embroiled in a marriage scandal in Chechnya:
Chechen Police Chief Marries Teen Bride Amid Mounting Scandal

A Chechen district police chief was married Saturday to a 17-year-old local girl, weeks after reports that she was being forced to wed the already-married official sparked an uproar in Russia's media sphere.

The bride, identified as 17-year-old Kheda (Luiza) Goylabiyeva in reports, looked pale in video footage filmed at Grozny's civil registry, where she married Nazhud Guchigov, who is reportedly somewhere in his late forties to mid-fifties. Russian media initially reported that Guchigov was 57, before later claiming he was in fact 46.

The marriage has caused a stir among Russian media outlets, which Kadyrov has accused of inaccurately depicting the situation and meddling in the couple's private lives.
Although Kadyrov has banned early marriage and "bridenapping" in Chechnya, he was quick to endorse the controversial wedding. He dismissed reports that the 17-year-old bride was being forced to marry police chief Guchigov saying that "there is no force that could make parents in Chechnya marry their daughter against her will." That is doubtful to say the least. Annoyed at the media frenzy, the Chechen leader lost no time in sacking the republic's media and information minister for mishandling the scandal, and lo and behold, the teenage bride has now filed a complaint with Chechen prosecutors against Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina, who first broke the story. Kadyrov had already warned a few days earlier that those who have meddled in the couple's private lives will have to answer for their actions in court. Remarkably enough, besides dealing with all the marriage trouble, the Chechen Republic head also found the time to comment on the death sentence given to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev:
Tsarnaev Framed by U.S. Intelligence, Chechen Leader Kadyrov Says

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov claimed Sunday that Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death last week, had been framed by U.S. intelligence agencies.

"The news [of Tsarnaev's death sentence] did not surprise anyone," Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram page Sunday. "The American intelligence services, accused of being involved in the Boston tragedy, needed a victim […] I don't think that the Tsarnaevs [convict Dzhokhar and brother Tamerlan] committed the attack without the knowledge of the U.S. special services, that is if they did in fact commit the attack."

U.S. Proxy Georgia Wants Reward For Faithful Service

Kadyrov tends to blame Western intelligence agencies for anything. Despite that or rather because of that his Instagram posts are usually closer to the truth than Western media coverage. As some may recall, one of the many interesting puzzle pieces emerging after the Boston bombings was a report by Russian newspaper Izvestia claiming that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had attended seminars organized by a Georgian civic organization and the CIA's Jamestown Foundation, which were aimed at recruiting North Caucasus residents for U.S. operations. The report was based on documents from the Georgian Interior Ministry’s Department of Counterintelligence and attracted a lot of attention. Then-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili used the opportuntiy to discredit his nemesis Mihkeil Saakashvili and conceded that "there are suspicions that the authorities worked with terrorists and militants." What Ivanishvili didn't mention is that Georgia always supports Washington's terror operations in the region, regardless of who is running the country. That is why the Georgian authorities have little interest in cracking down on terrorist recruitment in the Pankisi Gorge:
33 year old Georgian from Pankisi dies in Syrian war

Ibrahim Tsatiashvili, 33, left his home village Tsinubani two months ago. His relatives knew he was in Turkey. On Friday, they learned that he had died. It is not yet known whether he died fighting.

Tsatiashvili had a wife and three children. He is at least the twelfth who dies in the Syrian war who has come from Pankisi Gorge, a valley in the northeast of Georgia, on the border with Chechnya.

Mostly young people choose or, as locals believe, are recruited by a certain group, to leave Georgia through Turkey and go to Syria to join ISIS and fight mostly under the command of Omar al-Shishani, real name Tarkhan Batirashvili, who is also from Pankisi and is designated a terrorist by the United States.

Tarkhan Batirashvili aka Omar al-Shishani has come a long way. He started his terrorist career at a young age when he supported the pro-U.S. separatists during the Second Chechen War. Batirashvili then joined the U.S.-trained Georgian Army, where he distinguished himself time and again until he got discharged on medical grounds and put in jail for illegally harboring weapons. Within months of his release from prison, he became one of the most notable terrorist leaders in Syria before joining ISIS, where he is now among the top leaders. The U.S. has just put a $5 million bounty on his head, underscoring Batirashvili's status as one of the world's top terrorists. But he still has some work to do to catch up with U.S./NATO puppet Ayman al-Zawahiri who tops the list with a bounty of $25 million. Meanwhile, the U.S. is making sure that Batirashvili's former colleagues are ready to take on the evil Russians:
Georgian, U.S. Troops Launch Joint Drills Outside Tbilisi

Two-week long joint U.S-Georgian military exercises, Noble Partner, started at the Vaziani training area outside Tbilisi on May 11.

About 600 soldiers from the both countries are participating in the exercises, which aim at enhancing U.S. and Georgian NATO Response Force interoperability.

“I want to remind everyone that although Georgia is not a NATO member state, it is voluntarily taking part in NATO Response Forces,” Georgian PM Irakli Garibashvili said in his speech at the opening ceremony.
Fortunately, Georgian officials remind us from time to time that the country is not a NATO member state otherwise one could get a wrong impression from observing the very close Georgia-NATO cooperation. Although the U.S. and Georgia have conducted several joint military exercises before, Pentagon officials emphasized that "Noble Partner" is the "most robust exercise" to date. While the troops were starting their drills, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was meeting with NATO chief Stoltenberg in Brussels. They reiterated the same phrases as usual about "Georgia moving closer to NATO" but for some people in Tbilisi that is not enough anymore. Georgian parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili demanded that the U.S. military alliance has to walk the talk, the sooner the better. After all, the Georgian government is doing its best to please Washington and confute accusations of being "pro-Russian":
New Georgian defense minister vows to sign air defense deal with France

The new defense minister in Georgia promises to sign a disputed military deal with France about air defense. Her predecessor Irakli Alasania claims the reason he was dismissed last November was that he wanted to go ahead with the same deal.
His dismissal happened right after a trip to France in late October to negotiate a deal about procurement of air defense systems. He later claimed that while he was there, one of his staff, Mindia Janelidze, who later succeeded him as minister, called him on behalf of the prime minister and asked him not to sign the agreement.

Alasania and other Free Democrats have since accused the government of having changed Georgia’s foreign policy course away from a pro-western one in order not to ‘anger Russia’.