Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #106

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.

On July 31, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were scheduled to meet in Pakistan for the second round of the recently launched Afghan peace talks. The first round of talks in the hill resort of Murree just outside Islamabad was hailed as a "breakthrough," raising hopes that the warring parties could come to an agreement. Pakistan's efforts to facilitate the meeting and the attendance of Chinese and U.S. officials signaled widespread support for the peace talks. But just as people were getting their hopes up, two days before the next meeting in Pakistan, BBC's Afghan Service dropped a bombshell by reporting the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Two weeks earlier, the Taliban leader had purportedly endorsed the peace talks in a statement posted on the Taliban's official website, making the reports of his death all the more surprising. It was not the first time that Mullah Omar's death has been reported but this time everyone agreed that Mullah Omar was dead:
Afghan government formally confirms death of Mullah Omar

The government of Afghanistan formally confirmed the death of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

A statement by the President Palace said “The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan.”

The statement further added “The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

 

Mullah Omar's Death Spoils Afghan Peace Talks

Pakistan reportedly confirmed the death as well and the U.S. deemed the reports credible. According to Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), Mullah Omar died in a hospital in Karachi in April 2013. A former Afghan Taliban minister and member of the central leadership mentioned the same time of death and added that Omar died of tuberculosis. Last but not least, Mullah Omar's family and the Taliban leadership officially confirmed the death after Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor had been chosen as Omar's successor. As usual, the Taliban put their own spin on the whole story by claiming that "Mullah Omar never visited Pakistan or any other country except Afghanistan" but all parties agreed to finally acknowledge the death of the long-time Taliban leader and move on. However, the choice of Mullah Omar's successor didn't go down well with everyone:
Mullah Omar's son says he cannot support new Taliban leader
No sooner had the Taliban selected a new chief to replace Mullah Omar than deep fractures emerged on Friday, as the former leader's son said he rejected the choice of successor.

Mullah Yacoob, Mullah Omar's oldest son, said he and three other senior leaders walked out of a meeting called to elect a leader, and were demanding a wider vote.

“I am against the decision to select Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as leader,” he told The Associated Press.

Signs of deep fractures within the Taliban movement have already surfaced during the Afghan peace talks. Mansoor endorsed negotiations with Kabul, whereas battlefield commander Abdul Qayyum "Zakir" went as far as threatening to join ISIS if the talks continued. Zakir is now spearheading efforts to form a new leadership council that would replace the existing Quetta Shura because he wants to see Mullah Omar's son Yacoob as the new supremo. With the Taliban in disarray, the prospects for the Afghan peace talks are bleak. Although Mansoor is clearly more inclined toward dialogue, he felt the need to pander to his audience by distancing himself from the peace process. Moreover, he offered to meet his critics and address their grievances. Mansoor emphasized the "need for unity" as "the world tried its best to create rifts in our ranks." His top priority is to stop the factionalism that has been fueled by Mullah Omar's death. Otherwise, the Taliban are also going to lose more fighters to ISIS:
IMU Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State

Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization.

The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip.

This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.
Mullah Omar's jihadist credentials have long prevented more insurgents from joining ISIS. The confirmation of his death is going to have profound ramifications for the Taliban movement and the Afghan peace process. Remarkably enough, shortly after his death was finally confirmed, Pakistani media reported that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network, has also been dead for some time. Members of the Haqqani family and the Taliban immediately denied the reports and published a statement purportedly quoting Jalaluddin Haqqani as mourning the loss of Mullah Omar and giving his backing to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Jalaluddin Haqqani's son Sirajuddin was recently named as Mansoor's deputy. Considering that the Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, there is some evidence to suggest that Pakistan used Mullah Omar's death to put more easily controllable leaders in charge of the Taliban. After all, the Pakistani authorities don't want to take any chances in light of the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [emphasis mine]:
Any attempt to obstruct, impede CPEC will be thwarted: COAS

The army chief on Friday reiterated that any attempt to obstruct or impede the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will be thwarted.

According to a statement issued by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on Friday evening,, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif congratulated the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA) on its 88th anniversary. He also commended the deep ties between Pakistan and China.

Gen Raheel also fired broadsides at state and non-state actors trying to destabilise Afghanistan.

“Our cooperation for regional stability will squeeze space for state and non-state actors for a stable Afghanistan,” the statement added.

Turkish Meddling in Xinjiang Overshadows Erdogan's China Visit

It remains to be seen whether or not the 'all-weather friends' Pakistan and China will be able to walk the talk. Given that new Taliban leader Mansoor has to put his house in order first, it is unlikely that the Afghan peace talks will resume anytime soon. As the Taliban are already killing each other over Mansoor's appointment, China is also getting worried about how Mullah Omar's death will affect previous understandings with the Taliban regarding Xinjiang. Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura normally promised Beijing not to allow Uyghur jihadists to operate autonomously or launch attacks against China from Afghan territory. These kind of guarantees are more difficult to obtain when dealing with various warring factions. The Chinese authorities spare neither trouble nor expense to convince other state and non-state actors of supporting China's war on terror. Mullah Omar and the Taliban more or less kept their promises but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not to be trusted in this regard:   
Turkish president opposes terror against China

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday vowed to cooperate with China to fight against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) during his visit to Beijing, a clear signal that observers say indicates Turkey is ready to remove obstacles in Sino-Turkish ties and seek closer economic cooperation.
 
During his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Erdogan said that Turkey will respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, oppose any terrorist acts against China, including those launched by ETIM, and will not allow any force to harm Sino-Turkish ties. He added that Turkey is also a victim of terrorism, China Central Television reported. 

Zan Tao, an expert on Turkey affairs and an associate professor at Peking University, told the Global Times that Erdogan's remarks about ETIM are very clear and strong, compared with his previous remarks over similar matters.
© Photo İHA

Erdogan's visit to China came at a crucial moment in Sino-Turkish relations. China is Turkey's second-largest trade partner and both countries want to boost economic cooperation in order to build a new Silk Road but disagreements over China's Uyghur minority have strained the relationship significantly in recent months. Beijing publicly reprimanded Ankara twice for its support of the East Turkestan independence movement by revealing damning information about Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terror operations. The latest disclosure was prompted by an ongoing row over Uyghur refugees in Thailand and a vicious propaganda campaign during Ramadan, which has given rise to anti-China sentiments in Turkey. In the run-up to his China trip, Erdogan eventually tried to defuse the situation as Asians in Turkey were about to get lynched. A few days ago, the Turkish President then continued his reconciliation efforts in Beijing, much to the dismay of the East Turkestan crowd at home:
Erdoğan’s ’terrorism’ reference regarding Uighurs draws public criticism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's use of the term “terrorism” in reference to Uighurs -- an ethnic Turkic minority in western China -- while in Beijing where he pledged to cooperate with the Chinese government to combat terrorism, including activities by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have drawn fierce criticism from the Turkish public as well as opposition lawmakers.

"For the president of Turkey, these remarks were not proper. Just to make a gesture to China, Erdoğan's remarks are not only misleading and wrong, but also will encourage Chinese officials to treat Uighurs as they used to do in the past," veteran Turkish diplomat and former deputy for the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Faruk Loğoğlu told Today's Zaman.

"Considering the fact that Uighurs have been subjected to restrictions and pressure over their identity and religion, this reference to ETIM would likely to undercut righteous struggle of Uighurs to fully realize their cultural and religious rights," said Oktay Vural, deputy chairman of opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The far-right MHP and its paramilitary youth wing, the Grey Wolves, have been leading Turkey's fight against Asian tourists and "China's brutality in East Turkestan" but Erdogan and the Turkish government are doing their bit as well. Ankara's support of the East Turkestan independence movement is being exposed more and more. A few weeks after Beijing complained that Turkish diplomats in Southeast Asia are handing out travel documents to Chinese Uyghurs, Reuters revealed lately that the documents even list "East Turkestan" as their nationality. Erdogan's pledge to respect China's territorial integrity and to support Beijing's war on terror should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. Even Ankara's flirt with a Chinese air defense system cannot disguise the fact that relations between the two countries remain uneasy. To make matters worse, Turkey's favorite terrorist group has recently called on China's Uyghurs to join its "caliphate," which means more work for Turkish border guards: 
Turkey detains 457 Syria-bound 'foreign terror' suspects

Almost half of the 457 people detained by Turkish authorities on the Turkish-Syrian border between January 1 and June 30 are Chinese nationals, Turkish Armed Forces sources told Anadolu Agency Wednesday.

According to the sources, out of the 457 people detained, 241 are Chinese, 13 British, seven Afghans, five Germans, two Americans, one Australian, five Azerbaijanis, one Bangladeshi, five Belgians, one Brazilian, two Bulgarians, one Danish, one Moroccan, 12 French, 30 Palestinians, six South Koreans, five Dutch, one Kazakh, two Maldivian, one Egyptian, one Romanian, 56 Russians, two from Trinidad and Tobago island, one Slovakian, nine Saudis, six Tajiks, two Tunisians, 29 Turkmen, three Uzbeks, two Iranians, two Spanish and two Italians.
The suspects were detained at the Turkish border when they tried to enter Syria illegally and were being treated by authorities as suspected “foreign terrorist fighters", the sources added.

Russia: ISIS Comes, NED Goes

The exceptionally high number of Chinese nationals detained on the Turkish-Syrian border suggests that either the Turkish authorities are deviating from standard operating procedure by actually preventing Uyghurs from crossing into Syria or previous estimates of Uyghur fighters in Syria were dead wrong. Turkey has now officially declared war on ISIS but wannabe caliph al-Baghdadi and his minions don't have to be afraid because the Kurds are the real target. Only a small fraction of the more than 1000 "terrorist suspects" recently detained in Turkey were ISIS supporters while over 80 percent of the suspects were linked to the PKK. The Russian authorities can consider themselves fortunate to have convinced the Turks of arresting two suspects linked to ISIS recruitment in Russia. LifeNews just reported that the man in charge of ISIS recruitment in Russia has been identified and that two of his subordinates in Turkey were detained. This comes shortly after ISIS made headlines in the North Caucasus:
Russia says security forces kill 14 Islamist militants

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) forces killed eight Islamic State militants on Sunday and six other Islamist rebels on Monday in the North Caucasus, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said.

NAK said the rebels killed on Sunday in the republic of Ingushetia were involved in "terrorist crimes" including killing law enforcement officials and extorting money.

NAK identified one of those killed in Ingushetia as Adam Tagilov, who it said was behind fighting in the city of Grozny, capital of Chechnya, that killed more than 20 people — policemen and militants — in December 2014.

The killing of eight ISIS "rebels" on Sunday was one of the first major incidents involving ISIS in Russia. Given that ISIS has taken over from the Caucasus Emirate as the leading terrorist group in the North Caucasus, it was certainly not the last one. Russian officials have been hyping the ISIS threat from day one and the actual emergence of ISIS supporters in the North Caucasus provides the perfect pretext for ramping up the war on terror. Human rights activists have their work cut out but they have to look for new sources of funding if they don't like the "foreign agent" label. After the Kremlin has long been threatening to go after organizations that receive funding from abroad, they are now finally walking the talk. The Russian NGO "Committee Against Torture," which has long been a thorn in the side of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, was one of the first groups to adapt to the new circumstances:
Igor Kalyapin announces creation of "Committee to Prevent Torture"

The "Committee against Torture" (CaT), liquidated because of being put on the registry of "foreign agents", will be replaced by the "Committee to Prevent Torture" (CPT). The new organization will continue working in Chechnya, said its chairman Igor Kalyapin.

"This week we'll submit documents (to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of the Russian Federation – note of the "Caucasian Knot") on the liquidation of the organization; and on the following week, the CaT ceases to function. On August 3, another interregional organization – the "Committee to Prevent Torture" – will start working," the TASS quotes Mr Kalyapin as saying.

He stressed that the new organization will not receive any foreign funding and will exist "solely on donations of Russian citizens," the RIA "Novosti" reports.
Russian NGOs will now have to make do without grants from the U.S. government, George Soros and other generous foreign sponsors. Although Russia is just following the example of the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the U.S., the West is of course freaking out. On July 21, Russia's Justice Ministry issued warnings to the Committee Against Torture and 11 other Russian NGOs that were identified as "foreign agents." The MacArthur Foundation, which is one of the foreign NGOs on Russia's "patriotic stop list," announced shortly thereafter that it is closing its branch office in Moscow because the new regulations make it "impossible to operate effectively" in Russia. George Soros' Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are just two of the many high-profile NGOs on the "patriotic stop list." The Khodorkovsky Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Jamestown Foundation and others could join them soon. These organizations are at risk of being banned from Russia:
U.S. National Endowment for Democracy Becomes Russia's First 'Undesirable Organization'

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S.-based international organization that exists to promote democracy, was declared an “undesirable organization” Tuesday by Russia's Prosecutor General's Office, meaning all its activities are banned on Russian soil.

“Using the capabilities of Russian commercial and non-commercial organizations under its control, the National Endowment for Democracy participated in work to recognize election results as illegitimate, to organize political action with the goal of influencing government policy, and to discredit Russian army service,” the Prosecutor General's Office said in an online statement.

Earlier this month, senators of the Federation Council — the upper chamber of the Russian parliament — proposed a list of 12 foreign NGOs whose work they said posed a threat to national security and who should therefore be declared undesirable. The NED was one of them.