Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #110

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.

After the Taliban shocked the world by seizing the northern Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz, the Afghan government pulled out all the stops to retake the city. Leaving the strategic city of 300,000 in the hands of the Taliban would create major problems for Afghanistan and neighboring countries, given the fact that Kunduz is an important transport hub for the north of the country and a gateway to Central Asia. For example, the distance to Tajikistan is only about 70 kilometers (44 miles). Aware of city's importance, Taliban fighters tried to win residents over with a "charm offensive" but they quickly fell back into old patterns. As government forces were struggling to launch a successful counterattack, U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani was coming under increasing pressure. He tried to shift the blame on others and replaced the governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar Safi, who had just reappeared after watching the fall of the provincial capital from abroad. But despite rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, Ghani could not hide the fact that the Afghan security forces are unable to cope with the situation and that they need help to retake the city:
More US airstrikes as special forces join fight against insurgents outside Kunduz

American special operations troops joined the battle around Kunduz on Wednesday, exchanging fire with Taliban fighters near the airport where Afghan forces withdrew after ceding control of the city two days before, the U.S.-led coalition announced.

U.S. aircraft carried out more airstrikes against Taliban forces threatening the Kunduz airport, where Afghan government are regrouping after fleeing the city Monday.

The increased American support follow signs that Afghan forces are struggling in the face of the massive Taliban assault, which has plunged the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani into the deepest crisis of its first year in office.
© Photo Reuters

U.S. Bombs Hospital to Help Afghans Retake Kunduz

After three days of intense fighting, Afghan forces, led by U.S.-trained special forces from the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) and supported by U.S. special forces, eventually managed to retake control of key areas in Kunduz on October 1. According to local officials, more than 300 insurgents, including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani jihadists, were killed during the battle. Afghanistan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Murad Ali Murad, who was in charge of the operation, said that the Taliban had planned to stage a major propaganda coup by bringing their new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor to Kunduz. Security forces foiled this plan but government claims that the entire city had been cleared of insurgents were swiftly contradicted by residents who pointed out that the Taliban are still controlling several party of Kunduz. While ground forces were trying to eliminate the remaining pockets of resistance, the American military was ramping up its airstrikes across northern Afghanistan, with dire consequences:
Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan

At least 19 people were killed when a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike, sparking international outrage.

The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

Accounts differed as to whether there had been fighting around the hospital that might have precipitated the strike. Two hospital employees, an aide who was wounded in the bombing and a nurse who emerged unscathed, said that there had been no active fighting nearby and no Taliban fighters in the hospital. 
© Photo Medecins Sans Frontieres UK

Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini and other Afghan officials, on the other hand, insisted that Taliban fighters had entered the hospital and were using it as a firing position. Given that Afghan officials have a long history of distorting the truth to cover up their own crimes and the crimes of their Western partners, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) strongly denied the claims and pointed out that "these statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present." As MSF rightly noted, "this amounts to an admission of a war crime." Notwithstanding the obvious hypocrisy, the U.S. initially tried to play the 'collateral damage' card but Gen. John F. Campbell later confirmed that MSF was right:
US commander says Afghans requested US airstrike in Kunduz

The U.S. airstrike that killed 22 at a medical clinic in northern Afghanistan over the weekend was requested by Afghan forces who reported being under Taliban fire, and was not sought by U.S. forces, the top commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan said Monday.

Gen. John F. Campbell made the statement at a hastily arranged Pentagon news conference. He said he was correcting an initial U.S. statement that said the airstrike had been in response to threats against U.S. forces.

"We have now learned that on Oct. 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces," Campbell said. "An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck. This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf."
Afghan officials are probably having second thoughts about the "Taliban threat" after Campbell tried to shift the blame on the Afghans, basically admitting that U.S. and Afghan forces committed a war crime. As MSF emphasized, the Americans had the GPS coordinates of the hospital and knew exactly what they were bombing. But the attack comes as no real surprise considering that the hospital has previously been targeted by Afghan security forces who were "irked" by its policy of treating the wounded from all sides of the conflict. Thanks to the latest attack, they finally got what they wanted. Doctors Without Borders announced on October 4 that it was forced to withdraw from Kunduz after U.S. jets destroyed its facility amid a growing humanitarian crisis in the city. Security forces have now regained control of most of the strategic provincial capital but there is no end in sight to the fighting in northern Afghanistan:
Taliban overruns another 2 districts in Afghan north

As fighting in the city of Kunduz continues, the Taliban seized two more districts in the Afghan north.`The district of Wardoj, which has switched hands in the past, and Baharak were overrun during Taliban assaults over the past two days, the jihadist group and Afghan officials reported.

Dawlat Mohammad Khawar, the district governor for Wardoj, “confirmed that the Afghan security forces have retreated from Wardoj following hours of gun battle with the Taliban militants,” Khaama Press reported.

Additionally, the Taliban overran the Baharak district in Badakhsan. “On Friday Mujahideen stormed the district and after intense fighting with the enemy and soon seized control of the district as well as overrunning a number of the checkpoints based near the district headquarters for the security arrangements,” the Taliban stated on Voice of Jihad. 

China Keeps Mum on Violence as Xinjiang Marks 60th Anniversary

Badakhshan was relatively stable as long as troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were stationed there but after they handed over control to the Afghan security forces, the province turned into one of the most contested areas in Afghanistan. Neighboring Tajikistan and China are keeping a close eye on the situation. Beijing's efforts to stop the violence by facilitating peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban suffered a major setback at the end of July when Afghan intelligence spilled the beans on Mullah Omar's death. It remains to be seen whether or not new supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor will stick to previous understandings that Omar reached with Beijing regarding Xinjiang. The Chinese authorities would prefer not having to worry about Uyghur jihadists on Afghan territory given that Uyghur jihadists on Chinese territory are already causing enough problems:
China slams a lid on news of violence from its western frontier

Earlier this month, a knife-wielding gang attacked security guards at a coal mine in Xinjiang, a volatile region in the northwest of China. By the time the attack was repelled, at least 40 people had been killed or injured, according to a report by Radio Free Asia, which quoted a local state security chief about the incident four days after it occurred.

Chinese state media still hasn’t reported on the Sept. 18 coal mine attack, more than two weeks later. It’s only the latest example of what appears to be a Chinese government news blackout on growing violence in Xinjiang, an oil-rich region crucial to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan for a Silk Road economic development belt stretching across Asia.

Other unpublicized incidents include a police shooting of eight suspects in June; the police killing of two men in May after they reportedly attacked a patrol; and a Han Chinese town official knifed to death, also in May.

Whereas Chinese media tries to keep a lid on bad news from Xinjiang, U.S. propaganda outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA) continues to rub salt into the wound. Thanks to the help of the local authorities, RFA won't run out of useful material anytime soon. In addition to frequent terrorist attacks, there are plenty of absurd anti-terror measures to talk about. One of the more reasonable ideas is to teach Chinese soldiers Uyhgur folk dances and songs in an effort to improve relations between the military and the local population. As Chinese officials emphasize time and again, the military plays a vital role in safeguarding the stability of the autonomous region. At the end of September, Beijing released a 20,000-word white paper on ethnic equality, unity and development in Xinjiang, lauding the "tremendous achievements" in the region and highlighting the fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The white paper was issued on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Xinjiang's founding on October 1, 1955:
China stresses stability, security on Xinjiang's founding anniversary

Top political advisor Yu Zhengsheng on Thursday said that long-term stability and security is the top priority in Xinjiang, stressing counterterrorism as the focus of the current work.

Yu, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, made the remarks at a grand rally in Urumqi, the regional capital, marking the 60th anniversary of the autonomous region's founding.

"The three forces (separatism, terrorism and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang and the common enemies for people of all ethnic groups. We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities strictly and lawfully and fight the three forces," Yu said.
Yu Zhengsheng and other central government officials toured Xinjiang ahead of the anniversary festivities to pose for a few photo ops and to check how the fight against the 'three evils' is going. During their tour, Yu made the case for expanding an aid program for Xinjiang in order to help the region fight terrorism. According to the Xinjiang white paper, Beijing has poured more than 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.2 trillion) into the autonomous region between 2010 and 2014. Yu's statements indicate that this is only the beginning, as the Chinese government spares neither trouble nor expense to ensure Xinjiang's long-term stability and security. If recent media reports are to be believed, these efforts could also include Chinese military involvement in Syria. Chinese naval expert Zhang Junshe dismissed the reports as rumors but the growing presence of Uyghurs in Syria has certainly not gone unnoticed in Beijing:
Uighur jihadist group in Syria advertises ‘little jihadists’

The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an al Qaeda-affiliated Uighur jihadist group that is operating in Syria, recently released a video that includes photos of children with weapons and jihadist garb accompanied by an Uighur-language nasheed [A cappella Islamic music]. The children were described as “little jihadists” on the TIP’s official Twitter feed.

This is not the first time that the TIP has shown children in training. In July, the group first publicized a training camp in Idlib, which appears to be in the same area. Several of those photos depict the children learning how to operate AK-47’s, sub-machine guns, and other handguns. In both cases, many of the children appear to be Uighur, but it is possible that some are native Syrians. The group’s former military leader was a native Syrian and the group has featured other Syrians in its ranks before.

If ISIS Won't Come to Kadyrov, Kadyrov Will Come to ISIS

Considering Turkey's meddling in "East Turkestan" and Syria, it is hardly surprising that the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is being linked to Turkish intelligence. Much to the dismay of Turkish officials, Uyghurs in and around Jisr al-Shughur are now at risk of being killed by Russian airstrikes. As Ankara is seeing its hopes dashed, Turkish Islamist "charities," such as IMKANDER and Özgür-Der, took a break from supporting NATO-backed jihadists in Syria and elsewhere to protest against Russia's intervention. These protests won't stop Russia's campaign in Syria but they could encourage Moscow to make another attempt at putting IMKANDER on the Al-Qaida Sanctions List. However, Russian officials have no illusions about the West's "War on Terror." Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who keeps eliminating IMKANDER's beloved terrorist leaders, just emphasized again that "the main target of the West is Assad and not the 'Iblis State' terrorist organization." Therefore, Kadyrov asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for permission to take matters into his own hands:
Kadyrov asks Putin to allow Chechen infantry to fight in Syria

The head of the Chechen Republic has asked the Russian president to send Chechen units to fight Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in Syria, adding that his fighters have sworn to fight terrorists till the end.

“This is not idle talk, I am asking for permission to go there and participate in special operations,” Ramzan Kadyrov said in the Friday interview with the RSN radio. “Being a Muslim, a Chechen and a Russian patriot I want to say that in 1999 when our republic was overrun with these devils we swore on the Koran that we would fight them wherever they are,” the Chechen leader said.

“But we need the Commander-in-Chief’s decision to do this,” he emphasized. According to the Russian Constitution, the president is also the commander-in-chief of the military forces.
© Photo AP/Musa Sadulayev

Ramzan Kadyrov's expertise in fighting terrorism is well-known. That is why another former warlord, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, visited Chechnya the other day to get some advice from him and ask for Russian support in the fight against ISIS. The Chechen leader was immediately hooked and assured Dostum that Russia won't let Afghanistan down. Some people in Moscow want to get rid of Chechnya's "enfant terrible" and probably wouldn't mind sending him to Afghanistan or Syria but President Putin counts on Kadyrov to maintain order and stability in Chechnya, by all available means. This includes public naming and shaming of ISIS supporters. Although there have been a few isolated cases of attempted ISIS recruitment in Chechnya, the group has not been able to get a foothold in the Chechen republic. Local security forces are doing their best to nip the threat in the bud, forcing the Islamic State to focus on neighboring Dagestan:
IS's North Caucasus Affiliate Calls For Recruits To Join It In Daghestan

The Islamic State extremist group's North Caucasus affiliate, Wilayat al-Qawqaz (Caucasus Province) has issued a call for would-be militants in Russia to join it and fight against Russian forces rather than joining IS in Syria.

In a video message released last week by Furat Media, IS's official Russian-language media wing, the leader of IS's Caucasus Province in Daghestan, Abu Mukhammad Kadarsky (Rustam Asilderov), said this was the wish of IS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
 
Despite the propaganda, IS's Caucasus Province is weak and unlikely to attract large numbers of recruits to swell its ranks in the forests of Daghestan, particularly as winter draws near.
The Islamic State's Caucasus Province got off to a bad start. Its first official attack in Russia, allegedly targeting Russian army barracks in Dagestan, was just made-up and now the group is struggling to find new recruits. Wilayat Qawqaz owes its existence to the defection of several Caucasus Emirate (IK) commanders. This has crippled the once powerful terrorist organization and seems to have caused some bad blood between the groups. IK's affiliate in Syria was really upset when the Russian "kuffars" didn't target ISIS positions during their recent bombing campaign. It is not exactly a secret that Moscow's primary objective is to support the Syrian government against all terrorists, regardless of whether they belong to ISIS or "moderate" groups "vetted" and armed by the United States. And another important objective is to prevent Russian jihadists fighting in Syria from returning to Russia:
Russian Jailed For Fighting Alongside Islamic Militants In Syria

A Russian man from the city of Tyumen has been sentenced to two years in jail for fighting with Islamic militants in Syria.

The regional branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) says Vitaly Makarov, a convert to Islam, was found guilty by a court of taking part in military operations in Syria in 2013-2014 with an illegal armed group loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group.

FSB First Deputy Director Sergei Smirnov said earlier this month that some 2,400 Russians are fighting alongside IS militants and other extremist Muslim groups in Syria and Iraq.