Frontpage Articles

The NGGR January 18: From Kabul’s Damage Control after Wild Accusations against Russia-Tajikistan to Georgia’s Main Opposition Party Split

The Great Game Round-Up by Newsbud’s Christoph Germann 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.

Georgia's Main Opposition Party Splits but the Drama Ain't Over

Georgia's largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), has split amid disagreements over the role of UNM leader and former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who gave up his Georgian citizenship for a new political career in Ukraine.

Leading UNM members who regard Saakashvili as a liability announced last week that they would leave the party and start a new political movement to challenge the Georgian Dream government.

The split came after months of infighting fueled by the UNM's devastating defeat in the October 2016 parliamentary elections and the dispute over the upcoming party congress, which is scheduled for January 20.

Several UNM leaders, including former National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, former Parliament Speaker Davit Bakradze and former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, decided that it was time to move on.

"Saakasvhili was the party's founder, but he has become its undoing," Ugulava stated at the January 12 press briefing, just a few days after his release from prison.

"This man does not radiate leadership anymore. It pains me to say this, but he is not the Mikheil Saakashvili who united the people in 2002 [ahead of the 2003 Rose Revolution] . . ." Ugulava said, calling on the party's supporters "to look forward."

Saakahvili, who had welcomed Ugulava's release from prison a few days earlier, responded on Facebook that he "felt pity" for Ugulava, "who spoke more about me than the Oligarch who imprisoned him."

In Saakashvili's world, the United National Movement just got rid of a few "losers" and foiled another plot by Georgian Dream godfather Bidzina Ivanishvili to take over the party.

In reality, the anti-Saakashvili faction includes half of the party's leadership and most of the party's Members of Parliament. 21 out of 27 United National Movement MPs defected, causing a parliament shake-up. 38 heads of municipal and regional organizations also left the party.

According to the transcript of a supposed conversation between Saakashvili and loyal UNM MP Koba Nakaopia published on the Ukrainian Wikileaks website, Saakashvili is already planning to take revenge on "those ungrateful idiots" who abandoned him.

Among other things, Saakashvili and Nakopia allegedly talked about paying a woman named Eliso who is "working on [Giga] Bokeria and others."

"I’m going to make her fully discredit Bokeria's followers and the Chergoids [possibly Bokeria's wife Tamara Chergoleishvili]," Saakashvili told Nakopia according to the transcript.

It is not the first time that the obscure Ukrainian Wikileaks website has published such material.

In 2015, the site published a transcript alleging that Saakashvili and Bokeria discussed staging an attack on UNM-linked TV station Rustavi 2 in order to provoke mass anti-government protests.

Both Saakashvili and Bokeria dismissed the transcript as a fabrication, but this didn't stop Georgia's State Security Service from launching an investigation. Shortly thereafter, another murky Ukrainian website released authentic recordings of two phone conversations that Saakashvili held with Bokeria and Rustavi 2 director Nika Gvaramia, lending some credence to the previous Saakashvili-Bokeria transcript.

Regardless of whether or not there is any truth to the latest Ukrainian Wikileaks release, it is safe to say that the United National Movement drama is far from over.

Kabul Doing Damage Control after Wild Accusations against Russia & Tajikistan

Current and former Afghan officials have leveled serious accusations against Russia and Tajikistan in recent weeks, forcing Kabul to start off the new year with damage control.

Last month, former Kunduz Governor Muhammad Omar Safi made the bold claim that Russian military engineers based in Tajikistan were repairing tanks and heavy weapons that Taliban fighters had seized from Afghan security forces. Such cooperation between the Russian military and the Taliban has been going on for nearly two years, according to Safi.

The statement came amid increasing criticism of Moscow's ties to the Taliban. A few weeks earlier, Afghan officials alleged - without providing any evidence - that Russia was supplying weapons to Taliban fighters.

Safi's wild claims were a bit too wild for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry. MoD deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanish cast doubt on whether it was possible to transport heavy weaponry across the Amu Darya River that separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

"[The Taliban] usually drives small vehicles, such as pickup trucks with heavy weapons mounted on them, but they do not have heavy vehicles, such as tanks," Radmanish noted.

Tajikistan's border guard agency quickly dismissed the allegations and the Tajik Foreign Ministry described Safi's statement as "thoughtless and unfounded," concluding that the remarks were "aimed at creating a negative image of the Republic of Tajikistan in Afghan society."

The Tajik Foreign Ministry also harshly criticized remarks made by Afghanistan's Ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayum Kochi, that caused further tensions.

Kochi, who is an uncle of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, appeared last month in a YouTube video with Afghan-American TV host Shafie Ayar, making a number of controversial statements.

"I met with a senior Russian official and told him that drug crops were grown in Afghanistan but that you [Russians] and the Tajik mafia were behind that," Kochi claimed.

To make matters worse, the Afghan diplomat also demonstrated his lack of knowledge about Tajikistan, saying: "Tajikistan is a very small country, it has five million population and over a million of them are Russians. They have Russian culture and Russian is their official language. They don't have the right to write in Farsi alphabets. Mafias are actively operating the country."

Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry responded by summoning the Afghan Ambassador in Dushanbe and lodging a diplomatic protest. This happened at the end of December, but it became only publicly known when Afghan media obtained Tajikistan's protest note about one week later.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry distanced itself from the remarks, stressing that it was Kochi's personal opinion and did not reflect Kabul's official views. But calls to remove Kochi have been getting louder.

"Russia is very important country for Afghanistan and government should appoint a capable envoy to the country," Mohammad Naim Nazari, the executive director of Afghanistan's Civil Society & Human Rights Network (CSHRN), was quoted as saying.

Zamir Kabulov, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan called Kochi's remarks "absolutely unacceptable and abusive," noting that he would discuss the issue with the Ambassador during an upcoming meeting.

Afghan parliamentarians told Russian media that they already sent a letter to President Ghani demanding Kochi's removal. Russians and Tajiks wouldn't shed any tears.

# # # #

Christoph Germann, Newsbud Author & Analyst,  is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round Up Dec 15: From Russia-China Competition in Tajikistan to Russia-Taliban Honeymoon

The Great Game Round-Up by Newsbud’s Christoph Germann 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.

Russia Stepping Up its Game in Tajikistan to Counter Chinese Competition 

At the end of November, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia will supply Tajikistan with "large quantities" of military aircraft over the next year, indicating that China's growing influence in Tajikistan has not gone unnoticed in Moscow.

As defense ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) gathered in the Russian capital for a regular meeting, Shoigu and his Tajik counterpart Sherali Mirzo signed a defense cooperation plan for 2017.

"Next year, a key phase in defense cooperation, supplies of arms and military equipment will begin," the Russian Defense Minister said. "In particular, these are large quantities of aviation equipment, planes and helicopters. I think it will all be done in time. And, of course, will contribute to stability in the region."

Shoigu also noted that Russia will continue to train military personnel for Tajikistan's armed forces, highlighting the threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan's Defense Minister Mirzo took the same line, promising that "the southern borders of our Commonwealth will be securely guarded."

According to an "official source" at the Tajik Ministry of Defense, Tajikistan will receive only new military equipment from Russia. "The forthcoming Russia’s armament supplies to Tajikistan will include a large number of aviation equipment, including combat aircraft, as well as armored vehicles and communication means," the source told Tajikistan's Asia-Plus news agency.

As the MoD source pointed out, Russia agreed to help modernize Tajikistan's armed forces when both sides signed a deal in 2012 to extend the lease of Russia's military base in the country for another 30 years until 2042.

Shortly after the agreement was reached, reports emerged that Russia was planning to provide $200 million in military aid to Tajikistan. Dushanbe was not satisfied with this modest amount and demanded more aid before ratifying the base deal.

In 2015, unnamed sources in Russia's General Staff told Russian media that the planned military aid to Tajikistan could reach $1.2 billion within the next few years. The sources said at the time that most of the aid would be second-hand equipment currently on the Russian forces' balance.

If Tajikistan's MoD source is telling the truth, that is no longer the case and Tajikistan will be receiving new military aircraft, new armored vehicles and other new equipment.

The most likely explanation for Moscow's generous mood are Russian concerns about China's growing influence in Tajikistan. As previously mentioned, China has been boosting its military ties with Tajikistan in recent months, further increasing its influence in the Central Asian country. This has not gone unnoticed in Moscow.

Why else would Russia feel the need to strengthen Tajikistan's small air force with large numbers of - possibly new - military aircraft?

There have been some clashes on the Tajik-Afghan border but the threat of a large-scale terrorist invasion is negligible.

The Taliban just recently stated that they "have no problem with anyone on the Tajikistan border," denying Russian media reports about clashes between Taliban fighters and Tajik border guards. Instead the Taliban blamed the incident on a group of smugglers that "tried to move banned substances into Tajikistan border via Kunduz but were engaged by Tajik border troops."

It seems that Moscow's generous mood has more to do with Chinese competition than with threats coming from Afghanistan.

Washington & Kabul Alarmed at Russia-Taliban Honeymoon

The Taliban have welcomed Russia's growing role in the Afghan peace process but other actors take a dim view of Moscow's activities and the Russia-Taliban honeymoon.

On December 2, U.S. General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon that Russia had joined Pakistan and Iran as external actors with a "malign influence" in Afghanistan.

"Russia has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban," Nicholson said, accusing Moscow of creating the narrative "that the Taliban are the ones fighting ISIS, not the Afghan government." The general described Russia's behavior as "not helpful," adding that the United States "would like to see a change in their behavior in terms of not legitimizing the enemy."

Reflecting on Nicholson's comments, former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar was quick to point out that this sheds a new light on warming Russia-Pakistan ties:

"From the Indian perspective, Gen. Nicholson’s revelations give an entirely new angle to the Russian-Pakistani ‘thaw’. It is inconceivable that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence was not in the loop about Russia’s dealings with Taliban. Quite possibly, ISI played the role of go-between. Indeed, the recent visit by Russia’s spy chief Alexander Bortnikov to Pakistan – first such visit in two decades – takes an altogether new coloring. It’s the Taliban, stupid – not CPEC!"

As previously noted, Russia and Pakistan have recently teamed up with China to hold trilateral talks on Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and China are members of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), but neither of them was invited to meetings between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar, underlining the rift within the QCG.

Attempts to drive a wedge between the Taliban movement and Islamabad have been remarkably successful. Russia's warming ties with Pakistan and the Taliban could be a complicating factor.
A few days after Nicholson publicly criticized Russia, Reuters quoted an unnamed senior Afghan security official as saying that Russian support for the Taliban was a "dangerous new trend."

Taliban officials insisted that Russian support did not extend beyond moral and political support.

As the Reuters article noted, "Afghan officials did not produce evidence of direct Russian aid." The only evidence they could offer were recent cross-border flights by unidentified helicopters and seizures of new "Russian-made" guns.

Russian officials and Taliban representatives have reportedly held several meetings in recent months. This alone was enough to raise concerns in Kabul and Washington. Afghan officials fear that Russia could be providing direct support to the group, including weapons or funding.

Last week, Russia's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, held a press conference and appeared before Afghanistan's upper house of parliament to address the concerns. Mantytskiy defended Moscow's outreach to the Taliban, arguing that Russia has common interests with the Taliban in the fight against ISIS.

Russian officials have repeated this line over and over again, but Taliban officials just told Reuters that it had nothing to do with the fight against ISIS. One unnamed senior Taliban official was quoted as saying: "In early 2008, when Russia began supporting us, ISIS didn't exist anywhere in the world. Their sole purpose was to strengthen us against the U.S. and its allies."

U.S. officials will need more than this quote if they want to blame Russia for the failure of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, which President Barack Obama all but admitted in his final major speech on counterterrorism as commander in chief.

"You heard that (President Barack) Obama said America cannot defeat Taliban and that violations will continue in Afghanistan," Russian Ambassador Mantytskiy emphasized during his appearance before Afghanistan's upper house. "It means that America and the west has failed to complete their mission."

As Moscow and Washington trade punches over Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul is facing its next major scandal, underlining that Russia's outreach to the Taliban is one of the smaller problems.

# # # #

Christoph Germann, Newsbud Author & Analyst,  is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: November 30, 2016

China Urges Turkey to Extradite Embassy Bombing Suspects to Kyrgyzstan & Major Powers Vying for Influence in Afghanistan

Newsbud’s New Great Game Round-Up by Christoph Germann 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.

China Urges Turkey to Extradite Embassy Bombing Suspects to Kyrgyzstan

Three months after the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was hit by a suicide car bomber, Kyrgyz authorities are still trying to catch several suspects accused of ordering, financing and preparing the attack.

The trace leads to Turkey, but Kyrgyzstan's suspect list has left more questions than answers.

On September 6, Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (GKNB) identified the suicide bomber as an ethnic Uyghur carrying a Tajik passport with the name Zoir Khalilov. According to the GKNB, he was a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Syria.

The Kyrgyz state security service said that Uyghur terrorist groups in Syria affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra were behind the bombing. Emissaries of al-Nusra allegedly organized and financed the attack through Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, the leader of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad(KTJ), a predominately Uzbek group which pledged allegiance to al-Nusra last year.

Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, also known as Jannat Oshiqlari, reportedly has a Uyghur wing consisting mainly of young and inexperienced recruits.

KTJ leader Sirojiddin Mukhtarov alias Abu Saloh is a native of Kashgar-Kyshtak, a village in Kyrgyzstan's Osh region on the edge of the Fergana Valley. There is some confusion about whether he is an ethnic Uyghur or Uzbek. Mukhtarov played a central role in organizing the attack, according to Kyrgyz authorities.

Five citizens of Kyrgyzstan, four ethnic Uzbeks and one ethnic Kyrgyz born in Uzbekistan,were arrested in the wake of the embassy bombing while another four Kyrgyz citizens were added to the international wanted list.

The four wanted suspects - Mubarak Turganbaev, Burhanidin Jonturaev, Ilyas Sabirov andIzzotillo Sattybayev - were said to be hiding in Turkey, but three of them already went public,claiming they had nothing to do with the bombing.

Shortly after the GKNB declared the representative of "Adal-Tour" in Turkey "M.T." wanted for financing the attack, Adal Tour employee Mubarak Turganbaev denied the accusations on Facebook. Turganbaev said that his company delivers cargo and remittances from Turkey to Kyrgyzstan and explained why his name may have come up during the investigation:

"A man called Burkhan, who has a restaurant business in Turkey asked to transfer $5,000 to a certain Iskender in Bishkek. The mobile phone number 0709-66-87-40 was indicated. Our staff transferred him the money. I want to say I have not participated in a terror act. A warrant was issued for my arrest without anyone making an attempt to contact me for questioning. I did not flee anywhere, and I am in close contact with the consul of Kyrgyzstan in Istanbul. I do not have and never have had links with terrorists."

In early October, Turganbaev took a flight from Istanbul to Kyrgyzstan to give testimony. He was immediately arrested and has since been in custody.

Meanwhile, the Burkhan in Turganbaev's account, Burhanidin Jonturaev, also took to Facebook to declare his innocence, claiming that he unwittingly participated in the plot by helping a friend. Jonturaev said he was cooperating with the investigation and his lawyer had met with the consul of the Kyrgyz Republic in Turkey to hand over relevant documents, but he didn't want to fly to Bishkek for fear of being arrested.

Likewise, Ilyas Sabirov told the media that he had nothing to do with the bombing and that he already testified in the Kyrgyz consulate in Istanbul.

As Kyrgyz authorities are struggling to solve the case, the Chinese government is running out of patience.

On November 17, Kyrgyzstan's Ambassador to Turkey Ibragim Dzhunusov met with his Chinese counterpart Hongyang Yu "to discuss the situation, related to the question of detention of suspects in Turkey, who are suspected of carrying out terrorist attacks at the Embassy of Chinese Republic in Bishkek on August 30, 2016 and according to the available information are hiding in Istanbul."

Hongyang Yu informed the Kyrgyz side that China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi had raised the issue a few days earlier in a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu, "during which the Chinese part stressed the need for the speedy arrest of terrorists sheltering in Turkey and extradition them to the Kyrgyz Republic."

Kyrgyz Ambassador Dzhunusov noted that Kyrgyzstan had asked the Turkish authorities to detain the suspects and was still waiting for a response.

This is hardly surprising given Kyrgyzstan's treatment of Turganbaev and the many unanswered questions surrounding the case. The more details emerge, the more confusing it gets, but Beijing is apparently not willing to wait any longer and wants to see some results.

Major Powers Vying for Influence in Afghanistan

With all the focus on Syria, Afghanistan has largely dropped off the radar of Western media while the struggle for influence in the war-torn country is intensifying.

The Afghan government and some Taliban members seem to believethat they can find a solution to the conflict without Pakistan. Russia and China have a different view.

Zamir Kabulov, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan, announced earlier this month that Moscow will host consultations on Afghanistan between Russia, China and Pakistan in December. "We are discussing this with the Chinese, the Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis," Kabulov said.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry confirmed Kabulov's statement, emphasizing that a working level meeting in the Russia-China-Pakistan format had already taken place.

Both Pakistan and China are part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which also includes Afghanistan and the United States. Islamabad still views the QCG as the "appropriate forum" for Afghan peace talks, but Kabul and Washington opted for talks in Qatar without Pakistani and Chinese involvement.

Attempts to drive a wedge between the Taliban and Pakistan have already produced some tangible results.

According to Pakistani and Taliban sources, the Taliban need two or three months for internal consultations before deciding whether or not to resume talks with Kabul. Pakistan had reportedly given them an ultimatum: Consult with Islamabad during the negotiations or have all top Taliban leaders leave Pakistan along with their families.

"We are now exploring the options for talks with foreign stakeholders, as well as with the Afghan side," a member of the Taliban's political office in Qatar told Pakistan's The Express Tribune in a recent interview.

The Taliban leader also welcomed Russia's growing role in the Afghan peace process, saying that the Taliban view Moscow's efforts as "positive."

Russia's Afghanistan envoy Kabulov confirmed that Moscow has been in contact with the Taliban to ensure the safety of Russian nationals and political representatives in Afghanistan. According to well-informed Afghan political analyst Jawed Kohistani, "there has been systematic contact between the Taliban and Russia since 2009."

While the Taliban are exploring their options, some Taliban members are claiming that the leadership shura as well as justice, recruitment and religious councils already moved from Pakistan to southern Afghanistan.

There hasn't been any confirmation of such moves. Leaving Pakistan is an impractical idea, as Mullah Rahmatullah Kakazada, a senior diplomat under the Taliban regime, pointed out: "If we left Pakistan we would not survive one week."

However, he also mentioned that "the Taliban want to get away from the influence of Pakistan in order to have respect among Afghans."

Moreover, Kakazada told the Guardian about the Taliban's precarious financial position, which might help explain why the Taliban are now offering to protect major government projects, such as the Mes Aynak copper deposit and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

Both projects have been hampered by poor security, among other things.

China made a substantial investment in the Mes Aynak project and is yet to see any return. This is one of the reasons why Beijing is looking to assume a bigger role in Afghanistan, which - according to India's WION news outlet - includes regular military patrols deep inside Afghan territory.

China's Defense Ministry dismissed the WION report, saying: "Reports in foreign media of Chinese military vehicles patrolling inside Afghanistan do not accord with the facts."

An Afghan official, speaking condition of anonymity, also denied the story.

Meanwhile, Indian media published another interesting report. Indian officials confirmed to The Hindu that India is stepping up its military assistance to Afghanistan. The focus lies on restoring Afghanistan's fleet of Soviet-era helicopters and transport aircraft. This involves a trilateral framework with Russia, according to Indian officials.

Kabul has long called on India to provide more military assistance to Afghanistan, but New Delhi has been cautious not to provoke Pakistan. With tensions between the two nuclear powers escalating, this could be changing. It is possible that India also had a hand in the growing rift between Pakistan and the Taliban.

Even though Afghanistan rarely makes the headlines these days, the struggle for influence is far from over.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- Newsbud Author & Analyst

Christoph Germann, Newsbud Analysts, is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: November 15, 2016

Examining the impact of Turkish-Russian rapprochement on NATO's Chechen 'Rebels' & Pakistan’s Taliban Warning

***Join our effort and support this one of a kind people funded media with integrity- Because, together, we can!

Turkish-Russian Rapprochement Bodes Ill for NATO's Chechen 'Rebels'

Long before NATO member Turkey started flooding neighboring Syria with arms and fighters, the country already played a major role in destabilizing Russia's North Caucasus with a similar approach. Back in the day, the "Syrian rebels" were called "Chechen rebels" and NATO was doing its best to support them.

The Turkish government generously provided refuge to Chechen fighters and refugees, using them later as cannon fodder in Syria or as bargaining chips vis-à-vis Russia.

Turkey has long been a mecca for Russian-speaking jihadists, even before the Syrian conflict, but this could be changing very soon as a result of the recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

On October 26, Turkish authorities launched a nationwide counter-terrorism operation, raiding a total of 31 addresses in five provinces and detaining 81 people, including 60 foreign nationals.

Turkish newspaper Hürriyet described the detained suspects as "militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)" and said the operation was carried out "after receiving new information on a group that recruits militants and provides logistical support for the jihadists in Syria and Iraq."

According to the Russian news site ("Russian Spring"), the operation was actually the result of "joint operative-investigative activities between Russian and Turkish intelligence" and targeted "representatives of the Crimean branch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the North Caucasus wing of ISIS."

The detained suspects were primarily from Russia's North Caucasus and the post-Soviet states, causing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to wonder whether Erdogan has decided to surrender the North Caucasus to Putin.

A security source told Russian Spring that Turkey's cooperation was a gesture of thanks for intelligence warnings about the attempted coup against President Erdogan in July of this year.

Neither Russian nor Turkish authorities have been willing to confirm reports claiming that Russian intelligence warned Erdogan of an imminent coup just hours before it happened.

As Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu stressed, Ankara "received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries" during this difficult time. Ever since, Erdogan has spared no effort to restore relations between Turkey and Russia "to the pre-crisis level and beyond."

Turkish-backed "Syrian rebels" in and around Aleppo have already suffered from the Turkish-Russian rapprochement and it seems that NATO's "Chechen rebels" are also facing uncertain times.

On November 4, Russia's LifeNews announced that Turkish police had detained eight North Caucasus fighters, including the prominent Chechen commanders Aslambek Vadalov, Tarkhan Gaziyev and Mahran Saidov. A security source said the men fled the North Caucasus and joined the fight in Syria before moving to Turkey when it became too dangerous.

Upon hearing the good news, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov immediately issued a statement, praising Turkish President Erdogan and urging him to extradite Vadalov, Gaziyev and Saidov:

"Chechnya together with all Russian people hailed your decisive steps aimed at maintaining peace, stability, preventing a state coup and eradicating terrorism. The detention of dozens of dangerous criminals signals the firmness of your intensions. I make a request to you to allow the extradition of the gunmen."

A few months earlier, Kadyrov had already called on the Turkish authorities to crack down on Chechen terrorists hiding in Turkey after Turkish media identified Chechen "freedom fighter" turned Islamic State commander Akhmed Chatayev as the mastermind behind the June 28 Atatürk Airport attack. At the time, Kadyrov published a list of 12 Chechens that he wanted to see detained and extradited. Vadalov, Gaziyev and Saidov were on that list.

The Chechen Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) directorate for Chechnya had just offered a reward of 3 million rubles for the capture of Saidov shortly before Russian media reported his arrest.

Erdogan won't be swayed by a few million rubles, but Russia's unconditional support over the coup attempt could prompt him to do something that seemed completely impossible only a few months ago.

The extradition of the prominent Chechen commanders would signal a significant shift in Turkish foreign policy, causing the United States to pay a heavy price for backing the wrong side on that fateful night of July 15.

Taliban Postpone Talks with Kabul after Pakistan's Warning

After Pakistan had not been invited to secret talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar, everyone was waiting for Islamabad's reaction.

According to a report by The Associated Press, the Pakistani government didn't take the news very well.

When a three-person Taliban delegation traveled from Qatar to Pakistan to brief Pakistani officials about the talks, they were given an ultimatum: Consult with Islamabad during the negotiations or have all top Taliban leaders leave Pakistan along with their families.

While the Taliban were weighing their options, Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a former MP and leader of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan, told Pakistan's The Express Tribune that several Afghan political leaders were in contact with the Taliban office in Qatar, spearheading efforts to broker further meetings. Gailani complained about the "lukewarm" response from the Kabul government, saying: "The government is not yet cooperating with us, but we will continue our efforts."

According to Gailani, around 15 political and former mujahideen leaders are involved in the peace initiative. They approached China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, looking for a possible venue for talks with the Taliban. Turkey reportedly declined to host such talks in the current post-coup environment and Saudi Arabia's participation seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, Gailani and other Afghan leaders were very optimistic that peace talks with the Taliban's Quetta Shura would begin soon. "We had exchanged views and held talks with the Quetta Shura; the only issue is a proper venue which needs to be certified for the talks," Gailani stressed.

However, a few days later, The Express Tribune announced that the Taliban are not ready to hold talks with Kabul, quoting a Taliban source as saying:

"The Taliban representatives have wrapped up their nearly two-week visit and conveyed to Pakistani officials that they have not yet decided to enter into dialogue with the Kabul administration. The Taliban leaders insisted they could only say whether or not the group will join talks after two or three months."

It seems that the Taliban need more time to think about Islamabad's ultimatum and their next moves.

The Afghan government is lurching from one crisis to another and the situation on the battlefield is developing in favor of the Taliban. There is no need to make any rash decisions.

Moreover, it is not clear how Donald Trump's surprising election victory is going to affect the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

Both the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who recently signed a peace deal with Kabul, have called on Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Judging by his cabinet shortlist, President Trump's foreign policy isn't going to be as isolationist as many people assume. But the rising number of dead Americans is making it increasingly difficult to sell the unpopular Afghanistan war to the American public.

According to a study carried out by Afghanistan's TOLOnews, October was the deadliest month in the past two years with more than 6,000 insurgents, nearly 500 security forces and more than 700 civilians killed.

Despite the disastrous security situation, Afghanistan may have to accomodate 1.5 million Afghan refugees by the end of 2016. Most of them return from Pakistan or Iran but the International Organization of Migrants (IOM) has also recorded an increase of 400% in the number of Afghans returning from Europe. The European Union (EU) wants to increase the number even further.

Tens of thousands of Afghans who have immigrated to Europe in the last year or two could be deported as part of a controversial agreement between the EU and Kabul, allowing the EU to deport an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers. The European Union had threatened Afghanistan with a reduction in aid, leaving Kabul no other choice but to agree to the deal.

A recent report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Bank predicted that "additional returns from Pakistan, Iran, or Europe are likely to result in further secondary displacement, unemployment and instability."

15 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the situation is worse than ever before. The only ones that can afford to sit back and weigh their options are the Taliban.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- Newsbud Author & Analyst

Christoph Germann, Newsbud Analysts, is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: November 1, 2016

China's Growing Security Role in Central Asia & Are the Taliban Breaking Ties with Pakistan?

China's Growing Security Role in Central Asia

China appears to be taking a more proactive role in maintaining security and stability in Central Asia amid rising concerns over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and threats to Chinese assets and interests in the region.

At the end of August, Beijing's worst fears came true when an ethnic Uyghur crashed a car through the gates of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek before detonating an explosive device inside the vehicle, killing himself and injuring three embassy staff.

According to Kyrgyzstan's state security service, the attack "was ordered by Uighur terrorist groups active in Syria and affiliated to the terrorist organization the Nusra Front whose emissaries ... financed the terrorist action." The GKNB security service also said that the attack was coordinated through a native of Kyrgyzstan living in Turkey.

Uyghur jihadists in Syria operate under the banner of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which works closely with Nusra and is currently participating in a major "Syrian rebel" offensive intended to break the siege of "rebel-held" eastern Aleppo.

Due to their "intermingling" with Ahrar al-Sham and other so-called "moderate opposition forces," both the TIP and Nusra have enjoyed the protection of the United States and its allies despite being designated as terrorist organizations. NATO member Turkey has played a key role in funneling Uyghurs into Syria and has been accused of supporting the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Li Wei, an anti-terror expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that China is trying to shut down transit points in Southeast Asia and seeks to establish closer cooperation with other countries, including Turkey, "to crack down on East Turkestan separatists."

The attack on China's embassy in Kyrgyzstan has also sparked calls for closer anti-terror cooperation with the Central Asian republics.

Praising the close cooperation in investigating the incident, Chinese official Ma Peihua recently announced that China wants to send a security group to Kyrgyzstan in order to ensure the safety of its embassy and strengthen the relations between the countries' law enforcement agencies.

As more details begin to emerge about the August 30 attack, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kyrgyz authorities to turn down any Chinese request.

Fourteen Kyrgyz border service and Interior Ministry officers have reportedly been arrested on suspicion of arms trafficking in connection with the embassy bombing. They are accused of selling arms to criminal gangs which were involved in the Chinese embassy attack and another attack against a Kyrgyz prosectuor earlier this year. 26 other officers have been dismissed.

An op-ed in China's Global Times described the arrests as "the latest achievement in Bishkek's anti-terror operations," noting that "it serves as a reminder that Beijing should also get ready to take vigorous measures to tackle overseas terrorists that have hurt China's interests." The proposed measures include increasing assistance to other countries in counter-terrorism operations as well as "direct attacks abroad, including surgical strikes by the Chinese military."

At the end of last year, Beijing passed a new anti-terrorism law allowing the military to carry out counter-terrorism operations abroad provided that the foreign country in question grants its approval.

The Central Asian states are possible candidates for such an operation.

China recently conducted its first-ever joint bilateral counter-terrorism exercises in Tajikistan, underlining Beijing's willingness to assume a bigger security role in the region. A small contingent from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) joined Tajik troops for drills near the Afghan border in the remote Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan, which borders both Afghanistan and China's Xinjiang.

Tajikistan's Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo said at the closing ceremony that "the exercise has shown that servicemen of the two countries are ready to provide support to each other in the fight against international terrorism in case of necessity."

Moreover, China is assisting Tajikistan in protecting the porous Tajik-Afghan border by financing and building eleven border posts as well as a training center for border guards.

At the beginning of August, China teamed up with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to create the "Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter Terrorism." The chiefs of general staffs of the four armed forces met in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to announce the formation of the new anti-terror alliance. All three countries - Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan - border Xinjiang, illustrating why Beijing decided to establish this mechanism.

Xinjiang plays a vital role in China's economic developments and the One Belt, One Road initiative.

In order to ensure Xinjiang's stability and protect its interests, China is now gradually assuming a bigger security role in the region.

Are the Taliban Breaking Ties with Pakistan?

Ever since the Guardian reported two weeks ago that representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban have restarted talks in Qatar, there has been a lot of speculation surrounding this unexpected development.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed the report as propaganda but other Taliban officials confirmed it, saying the talks yielded little results. One Taliban official based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was quoted as saying:

"Like our previous meetings, it was a waste of time and resources, as we could not achieve anything from the meeting."

Many experts have cast doubt on whether the Taliban are really interested in peace talks at this point given their current advantage on the battlefield. Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based expert and former Taliban official, said he believed that peace negotiations were not on the agenda during the talks and suggested that the reports should be looked at in the context of the upcoming U.S. elections. "I believe the reports are aimed at creating a successful picture of the US strategy in Afghanistan," Muzdah said.

As previously mentioned, one of the most interesting aspects of the Qatar talks was the absence of Pakistani officials while a senior U.S. diplomat reportedly attended the meetings.

Three senior Taliban member later traveled to Pakistan to brief Pakistani officials about the talks in Qatar but Pakistan's Foreign Ministry stressed that Islamabad views the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States as the "appropriate forum in which Pakistan is ready to play its role."

Recent arrests of senior Taliban officials in Pakistan indicate that the Pakistani authorities are trying to re-establish their control over the "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process."

Amid rising tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan, the former head of the Taliban's Doha office, Sayyid Muhammad Tayyab Agha, sent a bombshell letter to new Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, urging the Taliban leadership to leave Pakistan and break ties with Islamabad.

Agha put forward several noteworthy demands, such as controlling the activities of foreign fighters and cutting all "direct or indirect contact with the Pakistani, Iranian, or other foreign intelligence services."

Considering that the Taliban have always been dependent on outside support, especially from Pakistan, these demands are somewhat curious.

Interestingly enough, Agha's Pashtu language letter was given to Radio Free Europe's Pashtu-language Mashaal Radio shortly after the Guardian broke the story of the Qatar talks. The letter is just the latest in a series of attempts to drive a wedge between the Taliban and the movement's most important foreign backer, Pakistan.

The United States and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul have long tried to sow divisions within the Taliban movement - with little success.

But if Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is to be believed, the Taliban are now about to fall apart amid disagreements over relations with Pakistan.

Never mind that the Afghan government is also falling apart and that the Taliban have taken more territory in Afghanistan this year than at any time since 2001.

It seems that the U.S. wants to weaken the Taliban and reduce Pakistan's influence over the group by exploiting tensions between the two sides. The question is how Pakistan will react to that.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- Newsbud Author & Analyst

Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round Up Oct 20th: From Georgia’s Elections to Taliban’s Rise

The Great Game Round-Up by Newsbud’s Christoph Germann 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.

Georgia Elections: Russia Wins, Saakashvili Loses

The run-up to the parliamentary elections in Georgia underlined how much was at stake for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and its main rival, the United National Movement (UNM), when Georgians cast their votes on October 8.

Opinion polls had suggested a head-to-head race as many voters were undecided and disappointed by both parties. This disaffection was reflected in the low turnout of 51.6%, reportedly the lowest ever for a parliamentary election in the country.

In the end, Georgian Dream celebrated a much bigger victory than expected while former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was forced to postpone his return to Georgia indefinitely.

The Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party won 48.67% of the vote, whereas Saakashvili's UNM received just 27.11%. Only one other party passed the 5% threshold needed to get into parliament: the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (APG). The Free Democrats (FD) led by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania didn't make it into parliament, receiving merely 4.62% of the vote.
77 out of 150 seats in the Georgian parliament are determined by proportional representation. The remaining 73 are elected in local constituencies.

Georgian Dream's 48.67% translate into 44 parliament seats. The United National Movement secured 27 seats and the Alliance of Patriots 6 seats.

Moreover, according to preliminary results, GDDG candidates are winning outright in 23 constituencies, bringing the total number of Georgian Dream seats to 67. Second round runoffs are expected in 50 constituencies.

In light of the devastating election results, the United National Movement briefly considered boycotting the new parliament and second round runoffs but ultimately decided against it, ignoring the advice of UNM founder Saakashvili who warned that participating in the runoffs "would actually legitimize the elections held with gross violations."

Saakashvili and the UNM claimed that the elections were neither free nor fair. International observers came to a different conclusion. Not even U.S. Ambassador Ian Kelly was willing to back up the UNM's claims and told them to respect the democratic process:

"I think, that the UNM ran a good campaign and they should feel proud of the campaign that they conducted and I would very much expect them to approach this situation in a calm and peaceful way and take their seats when the time comes."

As the Financial Times' Jack Farchy noted, the election result "is unlikely to alter Georgia’s pro-western foreign policy, with both Georgian Dream and UNM favouring closer ties with the west." Both parties are strongly committed to Euro-Atlantic integration and Georgian Dream has spared no effort to lead the country into NATO. That is why Washington doesn't feel the need to take action - for now.

However, the bad performance of Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats and the remarkable success of the Alliance of Patriots, which favors greater integration with Russia and opposes Georgia's accession to NATO, could cause concerns in the West.

These results illustrate a noteworthy trend of rising pro-Russian sentiments and declining support for Euro-Atlantic integration in Georgia.

After the Free Democrats failed to garner 5% of the vote, former Defense Minister Alasania announced that he will temporarily leave politics and not participate in the second round runoff in his district.

During his time as Defense Minister, Alasania was arguably the most popular Georgian politician in Brussels and Washington. He was seen as the man who would lead Georgia into NATO. His sacking in November 2014 caused a great stir.

The fact that Alasania, who embodies Georgia's NATO aspirations more than any other politician, has now quit politics after receiving less than 5% of the vote while the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots secured 6 seats in the new parliament, is certainly one of the most interesting aspects of the recent parliamentary elections. This won't have gone unnoticed in Brussels and Washington.

Taliban Restart Talks With Kabul from Position of Strength

About one year after Taliban forces briefly seized the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, the strategic city is again on the verge of falling to the Taliban.

Tens of thousands of residents were forced to flee as government forces struggled to fend off a multi-pronged Taliban attack that began on October 3. Heavy fighting engulfed parts of Kunduz for nine days until local officials could announce that the city had been cleared of Taliban fighters.

At that point, the blame game was already well underway. Many residents were furious and called on the government to punish those responsible for the crisis, arguing that this wouldn't have happened if people had been held to account after the fall of Kunduz last year. "The problem should be solved; otherwise, Kunduz will again fall to the Taliban," one tribal elder said.

Kunduz is one of five(!) provincial capitals that are currently threatened by the Taliban.

Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, just saw one of the worst massacres of Afghan forces in the ongoing war. According to Afghan officials, at least 100 police officers and soldiers were killed when the Taliban opened fire on them from all directions after promising the group a safe passage of retreat to Lashkar Gah.

The United States and its allies are beginning to worry about the rising casualties among Afghan forces, as U.S. Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, recently told Voice of America:

"We do have concerns about the number of ANDSF casualties and it is something we work closely with our Afghan partners to address."

Afghan media noted that "the latest figures show an unprecedented rise in Afghan army casualties as compared to the previous years." According to a senior Afghan official who spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity, about 4,500 Afghan soldiers and police were killed and more than 8,000 wounded from March to August.

As the security situation continues to deteriorate and the casualties keep rising, the Afghan government is having difficulty replacing the fallen with army and police failing to meet their recruitment goals.

Unsustainable casualty rates, tens of thousands of "ghost" soldiers, poor leadership and corruption weaken the Afghan security forces and affect their ability to contain a resurgent Taliban.

The current situation on the battlefield strengthens the Taliban's hand in talks with Kabul. Senior sources within the insurgency and the Kabul government told the Guardian that representatives of the two sides have been holding secret talks in Qatar since September - with U.S. but without Pakistani involvement.

"Pakistan was double dealing and insincere with the Afghan government. We no longer think we need Pakistan and the Taliban think the same thing," a close aide of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was quoted as saying.

A western official in Kabul interpreted the recent arrests of senior Taliban officials in Pakistan as an attempt by Pakistan's intelligence agencies to "re-establish control over the process."

Pakistan won't easily relinquish its control and new Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada knows better than anyone else that the Taliban need Pakistan, so it remains to be seen if talks without Pakistani involvement can really produce tangible results.

# # # #

Christoph Germann, Newsbud Author & Analyst,  is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 4, 2016

Georgia Investigates Another Saakashvili 'Coup Plot,’ Azerbaijan's Iskander Problem & More!

Afghanistan Rehabilitates the 'Butcher of Kabul'

After months of talks and severalsetbacks, the Afghan government recently reached a peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (HIG).

On September 29, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed theagreement at the presidential palace in Kabul during a ceremony broadcast live on television.

Warlord Hekmatyar, who is believed to be hiding out in Pakistan, addressed the gathering in Kabul in a recorded video message that showed him signing the peace deal in a small room at an undisclosed location. He called on the Taliban and other parties to join the peace process and urged the Afghan government to fulfill a number of demands not mentioned in the agreement, such as releasing key Taliban prisoners.

Furthermore, the agreement obliges the government in Kabul to lobby the United States and the United Nations to lift sanctions on Hekmatyar and Hezb-i-Islami. One U.S. official,speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Washington will seriously consider such a request by Kabul:

“We will seriously consider any sanctions delisting request put forward by the government of Afghanistan," the U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.

"If the security council deems the sanctions imposed on certain individuals to be outdated and no longer in the interest of Afghan peace and stability, then we will need to reconsider these measures."

Hekmatyar, the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, was designated a "global terrorist" by the U.S. government in February 2003 and blacklisted at Washington's request by the UN a few months later. His rehabilitation is being heavily criticized in Afghanistan and abroad. Human Rights Watch researcher Patricia Gossmann called Hekmatyar's return an affront to his victims and warned that this "will compound the culture of impunity that the Afghan government and its foreign donors have fostered."

Criticism came also from the Taliban, albeit for other reasons. The group emphasized thatHekmatyar "committed a major crime" by signing a peace deal with the Kabul government,damping hopes for a similar agreement with the Taliban in the near future.

Nevertheless, several countries welcomed the peace agreement, including the United States and Pakistan, the two nations that have played the biggest role in enabling Hekmatyar's rise to power and his decades-long warlord career.

But some observers cautioned against overestimating the impact of the deal. As Zamir Kabulov, the Russian President's special envoy to Afghanistan, noted, Hezb-i-Islami is no longer what it used to be in terms of military and political power:

"Basically, this is a positive but mostly symbolic step because the Hezb-i-Islami party is not an important player as far as the military confrontation in Afghanistan is concerned. If this agreement really puts an end to the confrontation between this group and the Afghan government, then it is a positive point. But we must realize that the agreement is not going to influence the military and political balance of power in Afghanistan."

Kabulov confirmed that Russia is going to participate in the upcoming Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, which is expected to pledge over $3 billion a year in development support for Afghanistan.

As usual when it comes to benevolent donors, there is a catch.

According to a leaked restricted memo, the European Union (EU) wants to make some of its aid "migration sensitive," thereby forcing the Afghan government to accept tens of thousands of refugees. Despite acknowledging the "deteriorating security situation with record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties," the EU concludes that "more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future."

Caught between Taliban attacks and U.S. drone strikes, many Afghans are trying to flee the endless violence. Forcing refugees to return to the war-torn country and pouring more money into a corrupt system seems more like a recipe for disaster than a long-term solution.

Georgia Investigates Another Saakashvili 'Coup Plot'

With the parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 8 rapidly approaching, tensions between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and the United National Movement (UNM) of former President Mikheil Saakashvili are running high, once again.

In the run-up to the elections, Georgia's Prosecutor General's Office brought new charges against four Saakashvili-era officials for their role in the bloody dispersal of anti-government protests in May 2011. Only one of them, former security chief Data Akhalaia, is not sitting in prison. Akhalaia left Georgia after the UNM lost power in 2012, thereby escaping prosecutionto this day.

In connection with the new charges against Akhalaia and other Saakashvili-era officials, the Georgian authorities also wanted to question former Deputy Interior Minister Giorgi Lortkipanidze, who followed his old boss to Ukraine and is now serving as Odessa's police chief. After Lortkipanidze refused to show up for questioning, the Tbilisi City Court sentencedhim to pre-trial detention for exceeding official powers during the 2011 protests.

As Ukraine has established itself as the preferred destination for Georgian criminals, an extradition seems highly unlikely, regardless of the charges and their merit.

Lortkipanidze is perhaps best known for his involvement in a secret government training program for Chechen fighters, which received some attention after one of Lortkipanidze's former employees was named as the mastermind behind the June 2016 Atatürk Airport attack. Fortunately for Lortkipanidze, the current Georgian government is not willing to go down that road.
Saakashvili and the United National Movement are confident that they will be able to end the reign of the governing Georgian Dream alliance on October 8, paving the way for the return of former Georgian officials who fled aborad.

During a campaign rally in Zugdidi on September 26, Ukrainian citizen Saakashvili told his supporters via video link from Ukraine that the UNM's election victory is "absolutely inevitable" while his wife Sandra Roelofs claimed that Saakashvili will return to Georgia after the election "to celebrate victory together with us."

Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria responded to Roelofs' comments by saying that the country's law enforcers would take "relevant steps" as soon as Saakashvili crosses the border.

One day later, on September 27, Georgia's State Security Service announced that it has launched an investigation under Article 315/1 of the Criminal Code into a possible conspiracy to overthrow the government in connection with an audio recording (English transcript) that was uploaded on YouTube overnight.

The voices featured in the recording purportedly belong to Saakashvili and five MPs from the United National Movement. They talk about paying protesters and establishing some kind of Georgian Maidan on Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue to bring about a "revolutionary scenario":
Petre Tsiskarishvili: "In reality, there will be popular uprising and f*ckin' helter-skelter. We’re still in the East. There will be f*ckin' Gaddafi. They must drag him out and f*ck him in the *ss with a stick."

Saakashvili: "I’m glad we’re on the same page, and I think most people are, too. It’s just that we must punch their lights out openly, but the time is not ripe, and Rustavi 2 will make sure it is ripe."

After the recording emerged, the UNM said it "strongly denies planning destabilization, plotting or having any scenario for revolution." Saakashvili and the implicated MPs dismissed the audio recording as a fabrication. Parliamentarian Petre Tsiskarishvili suggested that the State Security Service put together doctored recordings of various wiretapped conversationswhile his colleague Akaki Bobokhidze denied having held any phone conversation with Saakashvili this year.

Last October, similar recordings of two phone conversations between Saakashvili, senior UNM leader Giga Bokeria and Rustavi 2 director Nika Gvaramia about a "revolutionary scenario" were leaked during the Rustavi 2 court battle. In this particular case, Bokeria and Gvaramia confirmed the authenticity of the recordings, whereas Saakashvili insisted that the calls had been intercepted and doctored by Russian intelligence. At the time, the State Security Service also launched a coup investigation under Article 315/1, the results of which have not been reported.

All of this makes the latest leaked audio recording and coup investigation even more curious.

U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly was quoted as saying that "the only way to come to power is through the ballot box; any other way is illegitimate." This would mark a major shift in U.S. policy and complicate Saakashvili's efforts to return to Georgia.

Opinion polls indicate that neither Saakashvili's UNM nor the Georgian Dream alliance will be able to win a majority in the new parliament. The power struggle between both sides is set to continue and could become even more interesting after the October 8 elections.

Azerbaijan's Iskander Problem

On September 21, Armeniacelebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence with a major military parade in the central square of the nation's capital Yerevan.

After Russian-made Iskander missiles were spotted during a rehearsal a few days earlier,neighboring Azerbaijan watchedthe Armenian military equipmenteven more carefully than usual.During the military parade on September 21, Armenia showcased two Iskander launchers and two reloading vehicles alongside other new equipment.

Given that Armenia's acquisition of Iskander missiles hasn't been announced officially, thedisplay of the powerful short-range ballistic missile system prompted a lot of speculation in Armenia and abroad. Armenians speculated that the missiles were perhaps restricted for use only against Turkey - or that Russia's Iskander-M missiles in Armenia were being used in a joint Russian-Armenian PR stunt to placate the population.

Shortly after the first pictures emerged, two "managers of the Russian military-industrial complex" confirmed the delivery of Iskander missiles to the Armenian military, makingArmenia the first foreign state to have the missile system. One source suggested that the acquisition was intended to deter Azerbaijan from attacking Armenian population centers and from carrying out its threat to inflict "crushing blows" on Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.

According to Sergey Minasyan, Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, the Iskander missiles have been in Armenia's arsenal for quite some time and for that reason Azerbaijan decided not to launch large-scale artillery attacks against strategic Armenian forces or population centers during the so-called Four-Day War earlier this year.

Azerbaijan tried to play down the significance of Iskander missiles in Armenian hands.

Speaking at the 2nd Azerbajian International Defense Industry Exhibition (ADEX), the head of Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense Industry Yavar Jamalov stressed that Armenia merely acquired the export version Iskander-E, not the more advanced Iskander-M system:

"Armenia did not obtain "Iskander M" missiles, which are able to bring down the target at a distance of 500 km, but "Iskander E" sighting range of which are 280 km. The service life of these ballistic missiles had already expired."

Russia and Armenia were reportedly negotiating about the delivery of Iskander-M systems, but it is unclear which version Armenia eventually obtained.

While claiming that Azerbaijan is not worried about Armenia's Iskander-E missiles, Jamalovannounced that Baku is now trying to acquire the necessary technology for producing ballistic missiles with a range of 280 km.

Many analysts suspect that Azerbaijan is working on a deal with Pakistan. According to some reports, Baku has been in talks with Islamabad to purchase Pakistan's Shaheen 1A (Hatf IV) missile system, which is comparable to the Iskander system.

In the run-up to the ADEX 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev received a Pakistani delegation headed by Pakistan's Minister of Defense Production Rana Tanveer Hussain. The two sides agreed to expand their cooperation in the defense sector anddiscussed the production of ballistic missiles, among other things.

As the arms race in the South Caucasus is heating up, Aliyev also found the time to consolidate his grip on power in Azerbaijan.

On September 26, Azerbaijan held a referendum on 29 proposed amendments to the constitution. Aliyev found strong support for all amendments. 91.2 percent voted in favor of extending the presidential term from five to seven years. Neither allegations of fraud nor the fact that the vote-count total exceeded 100 percent seemed to bother Aliyev. He said the referendum showed "the great confidence that the people have placed in our policy."

Azerbaijan's undisputed leader can now focus on solving the country's Iskander problem.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- Newsbud Author & Analyst

Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is

currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 28, 2015

Russia Lashes Out at ISIS Sponsors Who Tried to Seize Chechnya, Georgian Government Determined to Destroy Saakashvili Party & More!

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

Former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili have left Georgian politics some time ago, one more voluntarily than the other, but the conflict between Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream and Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) continues to shape the country's political landscape to this day. In an effort to curtail the UNM's influence in the media, the Georgian Dream-led government is currently trying to shut down the influential pro-UNM private TV broadcaster Rustavi 2. This amounts to a declaration of war from the UNM's point of view. The Saakashvili party responded by calling for the resignation of the government and snap elections, to no avail. After Tbilisi's flirt with Gazprom added more fuel to the fire, the exchange of blows then escalated into all-out war a few days ago, when another Saakashvili-era rape video found its way onto the Internet:

UNM regional offices assaulted amid rape video scandal United National Movement’s several regional offices were attacked in Georgia on Monday, in the wake of publication of disgusting video depicting rape of a detainee allegedly during the previous government. Small crowds of 30 to 100 protested at Kutaisi, Batumi, Gori, and Ozurgeti offices demanding to ban the UNM. In several occasions a violent squabble happened between the protesters and UNM members. In Kutaisi protesters broke into the office but police managed to drive them out.

The UNM, former ruling party and currently the main opposition power, claims the protests have been masterminded by the authorities, as many members of the local authorities and local offices of the ruling Georgian Dream were present during the rallies.

“These groups have been mobilized by the authorities, which try to mitigate outrage for its attempts to seize Rustavi 2 (TV),” Nugzar Tsiklauri, MP, said to journalists. 

Georgian Government Determined to Destroy Saakashvili Party

Evidence suggests that the video was leaked by the Georgian government in order to ramp up the pressure on the UNM. The video first surfaced on a website in Ukraine, where Saakashvili has started a second career as governor of Odessa, and the leak coincided with the release of the latest poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) showing a sharp decline in support for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. While Saakashvili was celebrating the poll results on Facebook, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili appeared before to press to question the credibility of the NDI poll and draw attention to the rape video, which surfaced shortly after the poll was released. Garibashvili used the opportunity to highlight once again that the previous administration was a "sadistic regime, which was torturing [its] own population brutally." One day later, the attacks against UNM offices across the country started and Prime Minister Garibashvili made no move to stop the violence, quite the contrary:

PM: UNM Has ‘No Right to Remain in Politics’ PM Irakli Garibashvili said UNM opposition party is a “criminal organization”, which has “no right to remain in politics” and “aggression” against the party is “natural” after videos of sexual abuse of detainees by law enforcement officers, when UNM was in power, were leaked to public domain. Speaking during a government session on Thursday morning, PM Garibashvili said, referring to UNM: “They should be grateful for the fact that over the past three years people have not done to them the same what is depicted in these videos – my remarks might be rude, but they deserve it.” In his lengthy statement the PM also commented on ownership dispute over the Rustavi 2 TV and also said that the UNM should “give up plans for any kind of provocation”, otherwise warned that the opposition party “will get what it deserves” from the people.

Several Western-backed civil society organizations, such as U.S. government-funded Transparency International Georgia and George Soros' Open Society Georgia Foundation, condemned Garibashvili's remarks and called on the government to "immediately eradicate violent actions" and "refrain from aggressive rhetoric and public statements that incite violence." Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili also sounded the alarm and tried to calm the waves but Garibashvili and the Georgian Dream party are determined to crush the United National Movement once and for all. Amid the video scandal fallout, the government continued its campaign against Rustavi 2, much to the dismay of the U.S. State Department and other supporters of the broadcaster. And while President Margvelashvili was still trying to mediate, Georgia's security service took the fight against the UNM to a whole another level:

Security Service Says Probe Opened into Alleged ‘Conspiracy to Overthrow’ Govt The Georgian State Security Service said in a brief statement on Saturday it has opened investigation under article 315 of the criminal code involving “conspiracy to overthrow” the government. It said that the probe was launched “based on operative-investigative activities carried out by the counter-intelligence department and information reported in the media outlets.” The State Security Service has declined to elaborate on its statement. “Information reported in the media outlets”, noted in the security agency’s statement, appears to be a reference to a text, which was posted on a murky website called “Ukrainian WikiLeaks”, hosted and registered in Russia, and then re-printed or reported by some Georgian media outlets, including Imedi TV, on October 23. The text in question, veracity of which has not been substantiated in any way, is alleged to be a transcript of a conversation between Georgia’s ex-President and governor of Odessa region in Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili, and one of the leaders of UNM opposition party Giga Bokeria in Istanbul airport on October 22. According to this text, carried by the website which is focused mostly on publishing unsubstantiated stories against Saakashvili, the two men were speaking about plotting an attack against Rustavi 2 TV personnel in order to then trigger mass protests against the government.

A few days before the Georgian State Security Service announced its investigation, Saakashvili and his former national security advisor Bokeria participated in the congress of the European People's Party in Madrid. Bokeria's wife Tamar Chergoleishvili, who was leading the recent protests against Tbilisi's talks with Gazprom, confirmed that she and her husband met Saakashvili at Istanbul airport but both denied the coup allegations. UNM leader Bokeria suggested that the government had made up the transcript and pointed out that this "shows that the current government is in agony." Prime Minister Garibashvili begs to differ and keeps launching one attack after another against the UNM. He emphasized that "time is up for them in Georgia." It remains to be seen whether or not his words will come true but it is safe to say that the conflict between the two parties won't be resolved anytime soon:

Georgian Energy Minister Speaks of Need to Buy Russian Gas Energy Minister, Kakha Kaladze, said on October 20 that Georgia will have to buy gas from Gazprom on top of what the country is already receiving from Russia as a transit fee, claiming that “there is no possibility” to import additional volumes from Azerbaijan. “There is no possibility to buy additional gas from Azerbaijan. If there was such a possibility then why were we buying additional volumes of gas from Russia, on top of what we were receiving as a transit fee, in previous years, including when [UNM] was in government?” he said. UNM lawmakers dismissed Kaladze’s claims as a “lie.” MP Giorgi Gabashvili condemned government’s intention to increase Russia’s share in Georgia’s gas supplies as a “traitorous step” that would be a blow for country’s energy security.

Russia Lashes Out at ISIS Sponsors Who Tried to Seize Chechnya 

Georgia-Russia relations have improved since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power. Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian Prime Minister's Special Representative for relations with Russia, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin are scheduled to meet in Prague next month to continue talks on normalizing ties between the two neighboring countries. South Ossetia's plans to join Russia could impede the rapprochement but Moscow wants to postpone this issue indefinitely, for various reasons. Russia is currently focused on its campaign in Syria and the fight against ISIS, which might be expanded from Syria to Iraq or possibly even Afghanistan. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of the fact that Moscow's primary objective is to support the Syrian government, Western governments and media are still complaining that Russia is bombing the wrong terrorists. The Kremlin is less interested in differentiating between the various jihadist gangs, knowing full well that the real threat are the powers behind these groups and not "al-Qaeda" or "ISIS":

Lawmaker: IS sponsors once tried to break Chechnya from Russia Sponsors of Islamic State, a terrorist group banned in Russia, once tried to break Chechnya away from Russia, the chairman of the State Duma lower house’s international affairs committee, Alexey Pushkov, said on Friday. "Those behind Islamic State are the same people who were in the past destabilizing Central Asia and attempted to break Chechnya away from Russia," Pushkov said at talks with a delegation of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. "That is why, it not an abstract threat for us, and in carrying out our military operation in Syria we are indeed fighting for the strengthening of our own security," he said, explaining Russia’s stance.

Alexey Pushkov's words didn't get the attention they deserved. This marks the second time this year that a senior Russian politician has hinted at the Pentagon-led 'Gladio B' operations in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. In a two-hour documentary released in April, President Putin noted that, during the early 2000s, Russian intelligence agencies had gathered evidence proving that U.S. intelligence in Azerbaijan was supporting separatists in the North Caucasus. Putin recalled how Moscow's complaints were ignored and how his counterparts told him that "they had decided for themselves by then that Russia would cease to exist in its current form." Pushkov picked up where Putin left off by highlighting the connection to current events in Syria. Moreover, just a few days earlier, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had used a similar reasoning to explain why Russia has to get involved in Syria:

‘ISIS was created against Russia’ – Kadyrov Islamic State was “created first of all against Russia” said the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, warning of the threat that the militant group and the conflict in Syria pose to Russia’s security. “If we think that the Syrian issue will be resolved quickly and will not affect the security of our country, it is not true. I am sure they will show up. ISIS was created primarily against Russia,” Kadyrov said during a press conference in Grozny. The Chechen leader has also offered to impose capital punishment on terrorists and those who “recruit, distort the [Muslim] religion, and misinterpret the Quran.”

Kadyrov is still waiting for Putin's permission to go to Syria and join the fight. In the meantime, the Chechen leader will have to make do with jihadists in Russia. Due to the military intervention in Syria, Russian law enforcement agencies feel compelled to present credible terror threats at home. In recent weeks, several plots have been foiled and dozens of suspects arrested. Each and everyone is now being linked to ISIS. Kadyrov's men played a vital role in foiling one of the high-profile "ISIS plots" and the Chechen President lamented that this hasn't been properly acknowledged by Moscow. Perhaps it would have been wiser to keep quiet about this issue considering that the foiled plot raises more questions than answers. But Kadyrov is not known for keeping quiet. He is still talking about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and vouching for the innocence of the main suspect who wants to clear his name:

'Send me to Syria to fight Isil,' Boris Nemtsov murder suspect asks Vladimir Putin The former solider accused of murdering Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has asked Vladimir Putin to send him to Syria to fight Isil, in a bid to prove his "patriotism" and clear his name. Zaur Dadaev, who denies involvement in the contract killing of Mr Nemtsov in February, wrote to Russia’s president last week to protest his innocence and complain that he had been tortured into giving a false confession. He went on to ask Mr Putin that he be sent to join Russian forces in Syria to prove his "loyalty" and "innocence" on the field of battle.

Dostum's Offensive Exposes Turkmenistan's Border Woes

It is only a question of time before Russian volunteers will show up in Syria but Zaur Dadaev won't be one of them. As Russia's campaign in Syria is picking up pace, the Kremlin is stepping up its ISIS rhetoric. Listening to the Russian Foreign Ministry, one might get the impression that the Islamic State is about to take over Afghanistan as well. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned recently that ISIS has settled in 25 out of 34 Afghan provinces. This seems to be over the top. The Islamic State has managed to gain a foothold in Afghanistan but its Afghan branch has been largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar after being defeated by the Taliban in other provinces. Moreover, the group is already in disarray because one of its senior leaders suddenly realized that he had joined a bunch of thugs who don't care about Islamic principles. Therefore, it is highly improbable that Russia would feel compelled to support the Taliban in order to contain the ISIS threat:

A Taliban-Russia Team-Up Against ISIS? A former Afghan Taliban governor and member of the group’s military committee, who does not want to be cited by name, tells The Daily Beast that “the American global attitude and the threat from ISIS makes for a convergence of Taliban and Russian interests, and we could not rule out further cooperation, depending on the emerging scenario in the Middle East.” That is, if Russia proves successful in its Syrian venture to defend the Assad dictatorship (which is far from certain), the Taliban will be encouraged to increase their contacts and perhaps cooperation with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But for now the contacts with Moscow are being kept very quiet and often are conducted through cut-outs. The main venue for the talks is Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan’s embattled Kunduz province, whose intelligence operatives may have been involved with a substantial shipment of arms to the Taliban. The government and intelligence services of Tajikistan are understood by the Taliban to have remained close clients of Moscow.

As Joshua Kucera notes, the more plausible explanation for Tajikistan's arms shipment to the Taliban is "that Tajikistan had access to weapons that the Taliban wanted, and needed to get its soldiers back." The Taliban had captured four Tajik border guards and demanded weapons in exchange for their release. Curiously, The Daily Beast didn't mention Qatar's vital role in brokering the release of the guards but this would probably undermine the narrative of a larger Russian-Taliban cooperation. Afghan officials apparently don't read The Daily Beast and think they can trust the Russians. As Afghanistan descends into chaos, Kabul is turning to Russia for help. President Ashraf Ghani has asked Moscow for artillery, small arms as well as Mi-35 helicopter gunships and the recent Russia trip of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum seems to be paying off. Dostum has now returned to the frontline in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been gaining ground in recent weeks:

Dostum's Northern Offensive Highlights Ex-Soviet Ties On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed. Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid. After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.

Dostum returned to the frontline just after the Taliban had seized Faryab's Ghormach District, which borders Turkmenistan. Therefore, the Afghan Vice President lost no time in trying to retake Ghormach. On October 24, Afghan officials announced that government forces have regained control of the district. Dostum's forces also launched an offensive in Jowzjan province and managed to retake another district on the Turkmen border. Several dozen Taliban fighters were chased to an island in the Amu-Darya river, which divides Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. Only a few days after the Turkmen government was vehemently denying that there has been any unrest along its border, Dostum's offensive reduced Ashgabat's claims to absurdity. As the fighting reaches Turkmenistan's door step, Ashgabat can no longer deny the reality on the ground and Turkmen forces have to get involved:

Afghanistan-Turkmenistan Plan Joint Operation in Border Areas TOLOnews correspondent Wali Arian who is embedded with troops in Khamab district of Jawzjan province has reported that the Afghan security forces have cleared the district from insurgents. "We have regular contact with our Turkmenistan border forces, they have also certified their [Taliban] location, we will coordinate with them, they [Turkmens] have also moved on that side to attack them," Dostum said. He went on to say: "We have also undertaken our own plans, you can see up to 100 heavy weapons deployed over there, they [Taliban] will be arrested. They will be arrested, if they resist, they will be eliminated."

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 20, 2015

Turkmenistan to CIS: ‘Move Along Folks, Nothing to See Here!,’ United National Movement Protests Georgia's Talks with Gazprom & More!

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

Islamabad's recent offer to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table for renewed peace talks with the Afghan government is just one example of Pakistan's influence over the Taliban movement in general and its new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in particular. According to some Taliban sources, Pakistan is now taking a two-pronged approach in dealing with the movement. On the one hand, the Pakistani authorities are backing Mansoor and negotiations with Kabul but, on the other hand, they are also supporting the hawkish anti-Mansoor faction in order to keep the new supremo in check and continue the fight in Afghanistan. A senior Afghan intelligence official confirmed this, pointing out that Pakistan recently helped Mansoor's rival Abdul Qayyum "Zakir" launch large-scale offensives in the south of the country, which prompted Mansoor to offer Zakir to become his first deputy or Taliban shadow defense minister. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note that the United States is now implicating Pakistani intelligence in the Taliban's takeover of Kunduz as well:

APNewsBreak: US analysts knew Afghan site was hospital American special operations analysts were gathering intelligence on an Afghan hospital days before it was destroyed by a U.S. military attack because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity, The Associated Press has learned.

The special operations analysts had assembled a dossier that included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of the Pakistani operative and activity reports based on overhead surveillance, according to a former intelligence official who is familiar with some of the documents describing the site. The intelligence suggested the hospital was being used as a Taliban command and control center and may have housed heavy weapons. After the attack — which came amidst a battle to retake the northern Afghan city of Kunduz from the Taliban — some U.S. analysts assessed that the strike had been justified, the former officer says. They concluded that the Pakistani, believed to have been working for his country's Inter-Service Intelligence directorate, had been killed.

U.S. Keeps Troops in Afghanistan as Kabul Takes Desperate Measures 

The Associated Press emphasizes that it is unclear whether the responsible commanders knew about these reports or that the site was a hospital. But although the U.S. keeps changing its story every few days, it is becoming more and more evident that the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz was deliberately targeted. The American military's "unannounced and forced entry" into the hospital compound immediately after the bombing suggests that Washington is not telling the whole truth. Interestingly, there is no public evidence to suggest that a Pakistani was killed in the attack, which makes the allegations against the ISI even more curious. Meanwhile, government forces have managed to drive the Taliban out of Kunduz - the Taliban claim to have withdrawn by their own choice "to avoid further civilian casualties" - but the situation remains highly volatile. The fall of Kunduz has put Afghanistan back on the map and U.S. President Barack Obama used the opportunity to announce that thousands of American troops will stay in the country when he leaves office:

Citing 'very fragile' security in Afghanistan, Obama slows pace of U.S. troop withdrawal Reversing policy on Afghanistan, President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he will prolong the 14-year-old U.S. military engagement there, effectively handing off the task of pulling out troops to his successor. Calling it a "modest but meaningful" adjustment to winding down the American presence in Afghanistan, Obama said Afghan forces were not yet as strong as they needed to be given a "very fragile" security situation and the United States will maintain a force of 9,800 through most of 2016. Obama had previously aimed to withdraw all but a small U.S.-embassy based force in the capital, Kabul, before he leaves office in January 2017. Under the new plan, troops will be drawn down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017 and will be based at four locations - Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.

It comes as no real surprise that Obama won't keep his promise to end the war in Afghanistan. First of all, Obama is not known for keeping his word, and second, it has long been painfully obvious that the Afghan security forces are unable to cope with the deteriorating security situation. U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani and the American military, which had been lobbying for slowing the withdrawal, immediately welcomed Obama's decision but the announcement also engendered criticism. The Taliban reacted as expected, emphasizing that this "means they aren't sincere about a peaceful solution to the Afghan crisis." Russia's Foreign Ministry joined in the criticism as well and stressed that "this forced step is another graphical evidence of the full blunder of the 14-year Washington military campaign and its allies in Afghanistan." And nothing illustrates this better than Kabul's latest idea:

Afghan Plan to Expand Militia Raises Abuse Concerns With the Afghan security forces gravely challenged by Taliban offensives, the government is moving to rapidly expand the troubled Afghan Local Police program by thousands of members, Afghan and Western officials say. The move to expand the police militias, prompted by the disastrous loss of the northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban almost three weeks ago, is being described by officials speaking privately as an attempt to head off panic in Afghan cities threatened by the insurgents. But the expansion also amounts to an open admission that the United States’ main legacy in Afghanistan — the creation of nationalized police and army forces numbering more than 350,000 members — is failing under pressure even before any final American military withdrawal. On Thursday, President Obama called off that pullout, originally due at year’s end, leaving 9,800 American troops in the country for at least another year.

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is part of the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan. U.S. planners created the ALP in 2010 to support the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP). General David Petraeus modeled the program after the 'Sons of Iraq' initiative. Many ALP members are former Taliban who are now on the payroll of the United States. It is not difficult to imagine what will happen when the money dries up. But the biggest problem are the serious human rights abuses at the hands of ALP units, which are nothing more than village militias with AK-47s. Contrary to what the name suggests, Afghan Local Police members don't have police powers and don't care about the law. Although ALP forces have repeatedly been accused of all kinds of heinous crimes, including torture, rape and murder, Kabul is now planning to expand the program. This shows that the Afghan authorities are becoming increasingly desperate in the face of Taliban advances across the country:

Another Afghan district falls to the Taliban Reports from the northwestern province of Faryab indicate that the Taliban has overrun yet another district in Afghanistan. Ghormach, a district that borders Turkmenistan, is now effectively under Taliban control, according to the jihadist group and the Afghan press. The fall of Ghormach took place just 10 Days after the Taliban seized the districts of Garziwan and Pashtun Kot in Faryab; the Afghan government later claimed to have liberated Garziwan. On week prior, the Taliban attempted to seize control of Maimana, the provincial capital of Faryab. The two districts are on the outskirts of Maimana, and control access from the east.

Turkmenistan to CIS: Move Along Folks, Nothing to See Here!

Ghormach's seizure by the Taliban is not only noteworthy because the district borders Turkmenistan but also because warlord-turned-vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum and his family are still being celebrated for the successful government offensive in Faryab province. As previously discussed, the success in Faryab was short-lived. The insurgents picked up where they had left off as soon as Dostum returned to Kabul. Faryab has long been one of the most contested provinces in Afghanistan and it looks as if this won't change anytime soon. To make matters worse, the situation on the Tajik border isn't much better either. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about Russia's possible return to the Tajik-Afghan border. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov fueled the speculations in the run-up to last week's Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting, which focused on the issue:

Russia, ex-Soviet states to jointly defend borders in crisis The leaders of ex-Soviet states, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, responded to growing instability in Afghanistan on Friday by agreeing to create a joint task force to defend their bloc's external borders if a crisis arises. The move could mean that Russian troops, as part of collective forces, will be deployed to Afghanistan's borders as the U.S.-led coalition gradually withdraws from the country, leaving behind a power vacuum. They agreed on the creation of what is described in a summit document as a "grouping of border (forces) and other institutions from CIS member states designed to resolve crisis situations on the external borders".

Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to convince his CIS colleagues that closer military cooperation is necessary because the situation in Afghanistan is "close to critical". However, it remains to be seen how much this agreement is actually worth. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, for his part, remarked after the meeting that the CIS is pretty much useless and that the issues discussed "are detached from reality." Disagreements between CIS members have often rendered the organization useless. So Karimov might have a point. At any rate, Russian President Putin and Kazakh President Nazarbayev used the latest CIS meeting in Kazakhstan to draw attention to the alarming situation in Afghanistan and to call for closer cooperation in dealing with the problem. Whereas Tajikistan welcomed the initiative, Turkmenistan preferred to deny that there is any problem and to attack anyone who suggests otherwise:

Turkmenistan Strongly Denies ‘Incidents’ at Afghan Border Turkmenistan has registered no incidents at its border with Afghanistan, the Central Asian state's government said on Friday, denouncing as untrue a remark by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The strongly worded statement came ahead of a meeting of ex-Soviet nations to discuss the security of Afghan borders, among other issues, and followed comments by Nazarbayev who said he was aware of "incidents" that had happened at the Afghan-Turkmen border, but did not elaborate. "The Turkmen side expresses its extreme concern and incomprehension with regards to such a statement by the president of Kazakhstan about the situation on Turkmenistan's state border, which is untrue," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Turkmenistan's strongly worded statement indicates that Nazarbayev struck a nerve by bringing up the situation on the Afghan border. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry was not impressed by the harsh words coming from Ashgabat and defended Nazarbayev's remarks. After all, it is absolutely ludicrous to deny that there has been unrest on the Turkmen-Afghan border. Last year, Turkmen forces even crossed the border in order to drive the insurgents back and there have been several "incidents" ever since. According to the foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, the Turkmen military has stationed up to 70 percent of its combat-ready military equipment along the Afghan border. The Turkmen government is obviously aware of the alarming situation in northern Afghanistan, but for some reason Ashgabat is now trying to play down the issue. Perhaps this has something to do with Turkmenistan's efforts to push the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, regardless of whether or not that makes any sense:

Hunt on for leader to lay $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline The four-nation consortium has revived the search for a leader to help lay the $10-billion TAPI gas pipeline, laying bare the lack of confidence among the countries to go ahead on their own and threatening to delay the project further. Just two months back, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India had agreed to co-own the project with TurkmenGaz, the state-owned firm of Turkmenistan, expected to make the majority investment in laying the 1800-km pipeline that would begin the construction work in December. Now again the timeline looks shaky. "The key challenge is to select a consortium leader or a partner. We are still looking for one," said BC Tripathi, chairman of GAIL, the state-run firm that represents India in the consortium. The top executives of GAILBSE 1.97 % and other state companies representing three other nations have been negotiating the terms between themselves and figuring out the nuances of the project for the last two months since the oil ministers of the four countries agreed in Ashgabat to go on their own without waiting for a firm with experience in laying and operating pipeline to lead the consortium.

United National Movement Protests Georgia's Talks with Gazprom

Although a TAPI consortium leader is nowhere to be found and the Taliban are making themselves at home on the Turkmen-Afghan border, Turkmenistan is already starting with the construction of the ambitious pipeline project in an attempt to diversify its gas exports. In order to lessen the increasing dependence on China, the Turkmen authorities are also turning to Japan and still promoting the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Russia's launch of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea should serve as a warning to supporters of the Trans-Caspian project but Ashgabat and Baku refuse to give up on the pipe dream. Azerbaijan's efforts to strengthen its position in the energy market suffered recently an unexpected setback when close ally Georgia announced its plans to buy more gas from Russia and Iran. The words of Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze caused a great stir and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili had to travel to Baku to calm the waves:

Georgian PM Reaffirms ‘Friendly, Strategic’ Relations with Azerbaijan PM Irakli Garibashvili said on October 12 that Tbilisi’s relations with Baku will remain “friendly and strategic” and dismissed talk of “diversification, replacement of Azerbaijani gas” supplies as “utterly absurd”. 

Georgian Energy Ministry said late last week that Tbilisi was open for talks with Gazprom on possible gas supplies for private entities in Georgia in order to, as Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze and his deputy put it, “diversify” energy supplies for the country. Kaladze, who met Gazprom chief executive in Brussels in late September, reiterated on October 12 that private entities might be interested in purchasing Russian gas if the price is acceptable. After the Georgian Energy Minister spoke about possible gas supplies from Gazprom last week, PM Garibashvili made a brief and unannounced visit to Baku on October 10, where he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, triggering speculation in Tbilisi that the surprise visit aimed at mending ties after potential fallout caused by Tbilisi’s suggestions over Gazprom gas supplies.

Georgian opposition parties tried to exploit the situation and some people went as far as alleging that the government plans to revise the country's relations with Azerbaijan. Garibashvili vehemently denied this and assured everyone that things will stay as they are. The Georgian Prime Minister stressed that talks with Gazprom are just about a possible increase of transit of natural gas to Armenia. Neither President Giorgi Margvelashvili nor the Georgian opposition were entirely convinced by Garibashvili's words. Last Friday, Tbilisi police detained Tamar Chergoleishvili, the head of pro-Saakashvili TV channel Tabula TV, one of her producers and another activist when they were hanging up posters mocking former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Gazprom. One day later, a few hundred protesters gathered in front of the central government building to protest against the negotiations with Russia's energy behemoth:

Tbilisi Protests Russia’s Gazprom On Saturday, at the State Chancellery, the protest ‘No to Gazprom’ rallied against Gazprom’s possible entrance into the Georgian energy market. Energy giant Russia is believed to attempt to re-enter Georgia and is said by some to be a non-trivial tool for the Russian government to manage political processes on the ground. The concerns arose after the government initiated talks with Russian energy company Gazprom. The rally involved politicians, public activists and members of the National Movement, as well as concerned citizens from all over Georgia. Tabula, a political magazine, organized the protest action against Gazprom’s possible entrance into the Georgian energy market.

Tamar Chergoleishvili is not only the head of Tabula TV but also the editor-in-chief of the Tbilisi-based Tabula magazine. Tabula is known for its pro-United National Movement (UNM) views, which is hardly surprising considering that Chergoleishvili is the wife of senior UNM leader Giga Bokeria. As mentioned last week, the opposition party is currently trying to prevent the government from taking control of another important pro-UNM media outlet. According to the latest polls, neither the Georgian Dream ruling coalition nor the UNM have benefited from the endless fighting. Although many voters are disappointed by the government, the UNM isn't gaining any support as more and more Georgians don't know which party they should vote for. But more worrying for the West are the rising pro-Russian sentiment and the declining support for joining the European Union and NATO:

NDI Poll on Foreign Policy Issues

Number of Georgian respondents who support “government’s stated goal to join the EU” has dropped by 17 percentage points over the past year to 61%, according to a public opinion survey, commissioned by the NDI and fielded by CRRC in August. Asked whether they support or not Georgia joining Russia-led Eurasian Union, 31% responded positively, same as in April 2015, and 46% negatively, up by five percentage points from four months earlier. When the respondents were offered a choice between two answers – “Georgia will benefit more from joining EU and NATO”, and “Georgia will benefit more from abandoning Euro-Atlantic integration in favor of better relations with Russia” – 45% chose the former and 30% the latter.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 13, 2015

U.S. Tries to Keep Georgia in Line, Afghanistan Turns to Russia for Help as Taliban Gain Ground & More!

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor faced a lot of opposition within the movement, when he officially took over from Mullah Omar two months ago. Several leading Taliban commanders decided to go their own ways and Mullah Omar's family only reluctantly endorsed the new supremo. Despite all that, the Taliban have stepped up their game in the first few weeks of Mansoor's reign, dashing Kabul's hopes that the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death would weaken the group. It seems like an eternity ago that Kabul and the Taliban were holding peace talks to stop the fighting. At the end of July, the two sides were about to meet in Pakistan for the second round of talks when Afghan intelligence leaked Omar's death to the press, thereby unleashing a new wave of violence. After the Taliban demonstrated their power in Kunduz, Pakistan renewed its offer to restart the talks and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reminded his Afghan colleagues that they should have kept their mouth shut:

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif says working for revival of Afghan peace talks The Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he is trying to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban group which was stalled by the announcement of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death. In televised remarks to the media Nawaz said “The news of Mullah Omar should not have been broken just before the start of the second round of talks.” Sharif further added “We are now trying to resume the (peace) process and pray to God to crown our efforts with success.”

Afghanistan Turns to Russia for Help as Taliban Gain Ground

Given that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) more or less controls Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the Pakistani government should be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, or at least the faction that is interested in talks with Kabul. Mansoor supported the reconciliation process and authorized the delegation for the first round of talks. That is why several top Taliban commanders turned against him. U.S. Gen. John F. Campbell, the top commander of U.S. and allies forces in Afghanistan, just told the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee that 60 percent to 70 percent of the Taliban movement may ultimately be reconciled with Kabul but that is of course still a long way off. As for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, they will have no choice but to talk to Mansoor and his Pakistani backers if the Taliban continue to gain ground across the country:

Afghan Taliban’s Reach Is Widest Since 2001, U.N. Says The Taliban insurgency has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, according to data compiled by the United Nations as well as interviews with numerous local officials in areas under threat. In addition, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan over the past two weeks has evacuated four of its 13 provincial offices around the country — the most it has ever done for security reasons — according to local officials in the affected areas. The data, compiled in early September — even before the latest surge in violence in northern Afghanistan — showed that United Nations security officials had already rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either “high” or “extreme,” more than at any time since the American invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001.

As The New York Times pointed out, the United Nations' assessment is at odds with Gen. Campbell's rosy assessment in his recent testimony to Congress. The top U.S. commander even had the nerve to play down the alarming situation in Kunduz, while at the same time, the U.S. was using the latest crisis to tell its NATO allies that they will probably have to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has already endorsed the idea. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is seeking help from other countries as well. Last week, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum visited Grozny and Moscow to ask for Russian support in the fight against ISIS. During his meetings with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and top Russian officials, Dostum commended Russia's campaign in Syria and stressed that Kabul needs Moscow's support because "ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead." This clearly resonated with his Russian hosts:

Afghanistan's Dostum Turns To Old Ally Russia For Help "The Russian side is committed to support and help Afghanistan in terms of helping its air and military forces," Dostum's spokesman, Sultan Faizy, told RFE/RL by telephone. "We're lacking air support, weapons, ammunition. We need a lot of backing and support to fight against terrorism." But Faizy said that would not mean direct military intervention by Russia, which is still mindful of the 1979-89 war that killed some 15,000 Soviet soldiers and has repeatedly said it would not send troops to Afghanistan. Faizy said that Moscow had promised to evaluate the situation in Afghanistan and "see what they can help with."

An Afghan parliamentary delegation also visited Moscow to ask for support. Russian Federation Council member Igor Morozov told TASS that the Afghans cited a lack of helicopters as the reason for the Taliban takeover of Kunduz and Morozov used the opportunity to have a dig at the Americans. Zamir Kabulov, President Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, announced after the meetings that Moscow and Kabul are planning to sign a deal on the delivery of several Mi-35 helicopter gunships later this month. That is music to the ears of Afghan Air Force (AAF) commanders who have repeatedly complained about the useless MD 530F helicopters provided by the United States. Whether or not Russia considers extending its "anti-ISIS" bombing campaign to Afghanistan, remains unclear. Kabulov dodged the question when he was asked but he provided an explanation for the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan:

ISIS training militants from Russia in Afghanistan, 'US and UK citizens among instructors' Russian officials accused Washington of orchestrating the deterioration of security in Afghanistan and the expansion of Islamic State there. “It seems like someone’s hand is pushing freshly trained ISIL fighters to mass along Afghanistan’s northern border. They don’t fight foreign or Afghan government troops,” Kabulov said. He added that on several occasions Taliban groups that refused to join Islamic State were “set up” to be targeted by airstrikes. “The Afghan Army practically has no aircraft. Only the Americans do. These details bring some very bad thoughts and concerns. We have to take them into account and draw conclusions accordingly,” he said.

Russia Sends Helicopters to Alleviate Tajikistan's Border Woes 

Kabulov emphasized that the Afghanistan branch of ISIS numbers already 3,500 fighters despite emerging only one year ago. Russia's military intelligence chief Igor Sergun added that the Islamic State's expansion in Afghanistan is in line with Washington's long-term goal of destabilizing Central Asia and "surrounding Russia and China with a network of regimes loyal to America and hotspots of tension." As the situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorates, Russian officials seem to be stepping up their ISIS rhetoric in an effort to justify further military involvement in the region. Although the Russians are clearly exaggerating the threat posed by ISIS, the increasing activities of insurgents on the Tajik-Afghan border cannot be denied. Tajikistan's intelligence agency claims that more than 1,000 Taliban fighters have massed in close proximity the border and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently briefed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the latest developments during a meeting in Sochi:

Tajikistan 'Extremely Concerned' About Situation Along Afghan Border President Emomali Rahmon has said Tajikistan was "extremely concerned" about the situation along the Tajik-Afghan border. During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on October 6, Rahmon said the situation in Afghanistan was "getting worse by the day." "Practically, fighting is going on along more than 60 percent of the Tajik border with Afghanistan," he added.

Russian President Putin also voiced concerns about the deteriorating situation on the border but both leaders agreed that there was no need for boosting Russian military presence in Tajikistan. Apparently this didn't include helicopters. One day after the meeting between Putin and Rahmon, a Russian Defense Ministry official announced that Russia will reinforce its 201st military base in Tajikistan with Mi-24P attack and Mi-8MTV transport and combat helicopters. The helicopters will be stationed at Ayni Air Force Base, which was renovated with $70 million from India a few years ago. Both India and Russia have been trying to gain control of the base, to no avail. The Tajik Defense Ministry just clarified that Russia can use the base but it remains under Tajik control. Russia's military presence in the country is a controversial issue because Russian soldiers are not always on their best behavior:

Russian officer sacked for assaulting Tajik taxi driver A court at Russian’s military base in Tajikistan has delivered a judgment over the case of Russian officer Denis Borisenko, who was charged with assaulting a Tajik taxi driver and stealing his vehicle. Under a ruling handed down at the court at the Russian military base, Senior Lieutenant Denis Borisenko was sacked and he will pay compensation (60,000 Russian rubles (RR) to local tax driver Dilshod Khoushov. According to investigators, Borisenko was drunk when he attacked Khoushov and drove away in his car. Borisenko later hit another vehicle and was detained at the scene. 

A few weeks ago, two other Russian soldiers were convicted of killing a Tajik taxi driver and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Such crimes and similar incidents reignite the never-ending debate about Russia's military presence in the country from time to time but the Tajik government hasn't been swayed by the criticism. In fact, Dushanbe has never been easily swayed by criticism. Washington has apparently realized this and preferred to keep quiet while the Rahmon regime was cracking down on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Even after the IRPT had been branded a terrorist organization, the U.S. only voiced mild criticism in an emailed statement, which went largely unnoticed. Meanwhile, the Tajik authorities are coming up with evermore charges against arrested IRPT lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov and the remaining top officials of the Islamic Renaissance Party:

Tajik Prosecutors Say 23 Islamic Party Officials Arrested Tajik prosecutors say 23 top officials of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (HNIT) have been arrested, many on suspicion of leading a deadly mutiny by a serving deputy defense minister in early September. The Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office said on October 6 that criminal probes are under way against the party officials who face charges including terrorism, inciting religious and racial hatred, and attempting to seize power by force. Many also face forgery, fraud, and other economic crime charges.

U.S. Tries to Keep Georgia in Line

As Tajikistan continues its crackdown on the IRPT without much resistance from the West, Georgia is probably wondering what the secret is. After the Georgian authorities recently tried to shut down pro-opposition private TV broadcaster Rustavi 2, the United States immediately reprimanded the government and U.S. Ambassador Ian C. Kelly met with Rustavi 2 executives to assure them that the U.S. Embassy "is closely following" the case. Rustavi 2 has long been a thorn in the side of the current government due to its close ties to former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM). Three opposition activists were detained for assaulting a lawmaker from Georgian Dream ruling coalition during a rally in support of Rustavi 2 in front of the parliament building. The UNM has tried to exploit this by calling for a snap election but even other government critics reject the idea:

Free Democrats against holding snap election The Free Democrats has rejected a proposal by the National Movement to hold a snap election one year before the next scheduled one. The Free Democrats has now ruled out supporting a snap election. The party was a member of the Georgian Dream coalition but withdrew in November, when party leader Irakli Alasania was dismissed as defense minister. Also the foreign minister and minister of Euro integration resigned in protest and are now active members of the Free Democrats. Maia Panjikidze, the former foreign minister, said Tuesday that the Free Democrats do not support holding a special election. She said there is indeed dissatisfaction about the government, but it is a signal for them to feel responsibility. However, she said, only one year is left until the parliamentary election. 

Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats would like to remove the "pro-Russian" government of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili sooner rather than later but they won't join forces with the UNM to this end. In Georgia, the crimes of the Saakashvili regime haven't been forgotten. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is now considering to take a break from prosecuting Africans and Serbs to investigate one of these crimes: the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. Much to the dismay of Moscow, the statements coming from The Hague and Saakashvili's reaction suggest that an investigation is going to be every bit as "objective" as previous ICC "investigations." After all, the ICC would never dream of going after a would-be NATO member. Georgian Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli underlined Tbilisi's commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration once again during recent meetings with EU and NATO officials in Brussels but the Georgians have no illusions:

Georgian Deputy FM: MAP Not Expected at NATO Warsaw Summit

Georgia is not likely to get NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the alliance’s summit next year in Warsaw, Deputy Foreign Minister, Davit Dondua, said. According to him the Georgian officials and diplomats’ rhetoric abroad in communication with NATO partners is different from messages they try to use for domestic consumption in Georgia. He said that although knowing that there is a little chance for MAP, Georgia is still pushing the issue intensively in its talks with NATO partners as a “bargaining” tool in order to then get at least something; but domestically, he said, the authorities do not want to prioritize MAP in order not to create false expectations, because it will then cause frustration, which will be exploited by the “Russian propaganda” in Georgia.

Georgia's quest for NATO membership has played into the hands of the "Russian propaganda" and contributed to a rise of pro-Russian sentiments in the country, as more and more people began to realize that Georgian soldiers are dying in Afghanistan for nothing at all. Equally worrying for the West are Tbilisi's latest efforts to expand economic cooperation with Russia and Iran. Georgia wants to diversify its gas imports away from Azerbaijan, which provides about 90 percent of the country's gas imports at the moment. That is why Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze met last month with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller to discuss Russian gas supplies. To make matters worse, Khaladze announced a few days ago that Georgia is not only talking about additional supplies from Russia but also "actively working in respect of Iran." This didn't go down particularly well in Washington:

Deputy FM Says Georgia Told by U.S. not to Rush into Full-Scale Cooperation with Iran Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, Davit Dondua, said the U.S. has asked Tbilisi to “refrain from full-scale cooperation” with Iran until Tehran fully complies with the Vienna nuclear deal reached in July. “We have permanent contacts with our American colleagues, who are asking us to refrain from full-scale cooperation with Iran and from becoming open [for Iran] for now – until all the commitments agreed in Vienna are fulfilled and until Iran is given final green light,” Dondua said on October 9. “We are telling our American and other friends that we remain committed to the policy and sanctions pursued by [the West] in respect of Iran, but you should also take into consideration specifics of Georgia’s situation. Iran is a regional state, our important partner, including from the economic point of view, and we want some sort of space for maneuvering,” Dondua said.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 6, 2015

China Keeps Mum on Violence as Xinjiang Marks 60th Anniversary, If ISIS Won't Come to Kadyrov-Kadyrov Will Come to ISIS & More!

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region 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.

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. 

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.

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.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: September 29, 2015

Tajikistan's Attempt to Prove IRPT-Nazarzoda Plot Backfires, Taliban Seize Kunduz as U.S. Mulls Drawdown Options & More

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

With the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine dominating the headlines, the latest escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has gone largely unnoticed. It all started on September 24, when Azerbaijani forces shelled Armenian villages in the northeastern Tavush region close to the border. Mortar and gunfire killed three civilian women, aged 41, 83 and 94, and wounded four other residents. It was the highest number of civilians killed in one day for quite some time. Moreover, targeting villages with mortar fire is not a common tactic and has only rarely been seen since the end of the war in 1994. As Armenia called on the international community to get involved and prevent a further escalation of the conflict, Azerbaijan tried to play the innocent by using Israel's tried and tested 'human shields' rhetoric. But it quickly became clear which side is provoking an escalation:

Four Armenian Servicemen Killed by Azerbaijani Fire Four Armenian servicemen were killed today in an offensive operation launched by Azerbaijan on Sept. 25. Norayr Khachatryan (b. 1995), Robert Mkrtchyan (b. 1995), Harout Hakobyan (b. 1997), and Karen Shahinyan (b. 1997) of the Artsakh Armed Forces were killed in the Azerbaijani attack, announced the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR) Ministry of Defense. According to the Ministry, Azerbaijani forces used Turkish-made TR-107 rocket launchers in the attack. Intensive shelling reportedly took place on Sept. 24 and 25. A day earlier, 83-year-old Parakavar resident Baydzar Aghajanyan and Berdavan residents Shushan Asatryan, 94, and Sona Revezyan , 41, were killed by Azerbaijani artillery fire targeting Armenian border villages in Armenia’s Tavush province. Four other residents were also wounded in the attack.

Azerbaijan Kills Armenian Grannies, Blames Armenia

True to form, after killing seven Armenians in two days, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of escalating the conflict in an attempt to derail negotiations between the countries' Foreign Ministers and the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in New York. Ironically, that is exactly the strategy that Azerbaijan has been using time and again in the run-up to important meetings and negotiations. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs were not swayed by Baku's antics and urged the warring parties to accept an OSCE mechanism to investigate ceasefire violations. Armenia has already agreed to discuss the details of the mechanism and Azerbaijan is now under pressure to follow suit. The month of September has taken a turn for the worse for Baku. Two weeks ago, Azerbaijani officials were chuffed to bits, thinking that they have a golden opportunity to claim the moral high ground in the conflict with Armenia:

Armenian 'Activist' Defects To Azerbaijan An Armenian man has defected to archrival Azerbaijan in a case that is sure to rankle in Yerevan. Vahan Martirosian, who says he is the head of an NGO called Internal National Liberation Movement, told reporters in Baku on September 18 that he had requested political asylum in Azerbaijan. There is no NGO by that name in the official registry. Martirosian slammed the policies of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, calling them anti-Armenian, and said Azerbaijani media are the only source offering "truthful information" about the current situation in Armenia.

Azerbaijani media is not exactly known for offering "truthful information" about anything but Martirosian went even further in his efforts to please his new hosts. The Armenian "activist" vowed to draw the international community's attention to the "criminal regime" of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and claimed that most people living in Nagorno-Karabakh would vote to join Azerbaijan if they were allowed to hold a referendum. Martirosian's strange Baku press conference perplexed not only the Armenian authorities but also the country's opposition and civil activists because they couldn't recall ever meeting him during protests in Armenia. Ruzanna Marguni, the woman who accused Martirosian of stealing $3,800 from her apartment before he left the country, described him as "a skillful fraudster." This being the case, Martirosian's defection is not the propaganda coup the Aliyev regime had been hoping for and it won't help to deflect attention from Azerbaijan's crackdown on journalists and human rights activists, which is once again causing tensions between Baku and the West:

Aliyev Goes On The Attack Against EU Values Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has thrown down the gauntlet in the face of criticism from the European Union, accusing the bloc of being "anti-Azerbaijani" and mocking European values amid the ongoing refugee crisis. During a joint press conference with visiting Czech President Milos Zeman in Baku on September 15, Aliyev blasted a recent European Parliament resolution that condemned his country's human rights situation and called for the release of all political prisoners and imprisoned journalists. Speaking earlier on September 15 at the opening ceremonies of a new school in Baku, Aliyev called on the country's youth to stay away from "foreign influence and the so-called Western values that our people do not share."​

Aliyev and Co. were furious about the latest "anti-Azerbaijani" European Parliament resolution. Baku responded by canceling the planned visit by a European Commission delegation and by suspending its participation in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, an inter-parliamentary forum of the EU and its eastern neighbors which was established as part of the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative. Some Azerbaijani lawmakers have even called for rethinking Azerbaijan's participation in the Eastern Partnership. As usual, Baku's anger about "anti-Azerbaijani" activities is not only directed at Brussels but also at "some circles" in the United States. After cracking down on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) at the end of last year, the Aliyev regime is now going after Voice of America and other foreign media outlets. And last but not least, Azerbaijan continues its half-hearted campaign against the U.S.-backed Gülen movement, much to the joy of Turkish President Erdogan:

Azerbaijan deports Turkish citizens for Nur movement propaganda Turkish citizens, suspected of promoting the Nur movement in Azerbaijan, were deported from the country.   The Yasamal district court fined Turkish citizens Sunkur Nurulla and Senol Miktat AZN 2000 under article #300.04 (violation of the law on religious freedom) of the Code of Administrative Offences.   Under the court decision, they were deported from Azerbaijan. In addition, 5 Azerbaijani citizens faced fine AZN 1500.

Tajikistan's Attempt to Prove IRPT-Nazarzoda Plot Backfires

If Aliyev eventually wants to get rid of the Gülen movement altogether, he can ask his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon for advice. Rahmon is currently demonstrating how to rid oneself of pesky opposition groups. Government forces had a hard time catching former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda but the Tajik regime is now making the best of the situation by using Nazarzoda's rebellion to crush the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) once and for all. To this end, they have come up with an elaborate plot linking Nazarzoda and the IRPT, putting even the most ludicrous conspiracy theories to shame. On September 17, Tajikistan's Prosecutor General's office set the stage with an official statement saying that IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri had ordered Nazarzoda to establish 20 small criminal groups. Charitable foundations of foreign countries allegedly provided the funding. This story is becoming more convoluted and more implausible day by day:

Tajikistan State Media Rants Undermine Uprising Account In providing updates to its would-be insurgency and smears of the opposition almost daily, Tajikistan’s government has succeeded mostly in undermining its own credibility.

A dispatch circulated by Khovar state news agency on September 26 reaches new heights of implausibility. The story contends that the alleged renegade deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had plotted his uprising since 2010 in collusion with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT). Allegations that plotting should have been happening for so long at the highest level is at best an astonishing admission of incompetence by Tajikistan’s security structures. Alternatively, Dushanbe is spinning a yarn in full confidence that nobody within the country, including all the diplomatic stations based there, will dare to question its narrative.

International extremist organizations, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. and the EU have all featured in recent Tajik state media ramblings about the alleged Kabiri-Nazarzoda plot. Ironically, Washington has been remarkably silent on Tajikistan's crackdown and just showcased its support of the Rahmon regime by donating tactical equipment worth $260,000 to the country's OMON unit, which made headlines a few months ago when its commander defected to ISIS. Khovar lashed out at the U.S. nevertheless. Even Russian analysts, who are usually quick to blame unrest in Central Asia on the West and/or extremists, had to take flak because they dared to cast doubt on the government's narrative. Dushanbe's main problem is that the narrative doesn't stand up to scrutiny, as the Tajik authorities learned when they confronted IRPT deputy leader Mahmadali Hayit with a member of Nazarzoda's group:

IRP deputy leader confronted with member of Abduhalim Nazarzoda’s group His defense lawyer, Jamshed Yorov, says Hayit was confronted with one of members of mutinous general’s armed group on September 22. “The men said that Mahmadali Hayit and IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri allegedly met with General Abduhalim Nazarzoda on March 6 and drew the plan of attacks on the government institutions and distributed public positions among them,” they lawyer said. “Hayit, however, managed to prove that there was no such a meeting. At that time, Hayit was at IRP’s head office to hold a post-election meeting. All accusations were rebutted,” Yorov noted.

Predictably, the Tajik authorities couldn't take the embarrassment. Jamshed Yorov's colleague Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is also defending the Islamic Renaissance Party, was pressured to abandon his clients and later detained after he refused to play along. Buzurgmehr's detention came shortly after the Prosecutor General's office formally charged the 13 arrested IRPT members with creating a criminal organization. They face between 15 and 20 years in jail if they are found guilty. As Buzurgmehr told RFE/RL's Tajik service before his arrest, the IRPT members deny having anything to do with Nazarzoda's rebellion and the creation of criminal groups. It appears that this won't stop the Tajik regime from prosecuting them. However, instead of putting all their efforts into destroying the IRPT, the Tajik authorities would be well advised to pay more attention to the alarming situation on the Afghan border:

Islamic Jihad Union claims to control areas along Afghan-Tajik border

The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), an al Qaeda and Taliban-linked group that operates in Afghanistan, has claimed it controls large areas of the northern border with Tajikistan. While the IJU’s claim cannot be independently confirmed, the jihadist group released several photos of a small team of fighters purportedly crossing the Amu Darya River in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. It is unclear exactly where the crossing took place, but it likely occurred in the district of Qala-i-Zal, the only district in Kunduz that borders the Amu Darya River. The northern Kunduz districts of Imam Sahib and Dasht-i-Archi, which also border Tajikistan and the Panj River, are considered to be contested or controlled by the Taliban. The IJU is an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which joined the Islamic State this past summer. The IJU swore allegiance to the Taliban’s new emir, and has been active in the Taliban’s “Azm” spring offensive.

Taliban Seize Kunduz as U.S. Mulls Drawdown Options 

As if the IJU's announcement was not worrying enough, the Taliban have been making significant progress in Kunduz province in the last few days. The provincial capital has been under siege for months and was already on the verge of falling to the Taliban earlier this year. After keeping the insurgents at bay during the summer, government troops eventually lost the fight for Kunduz on September 28, when the Taliban managed to take over the city. One of their first actions was to release 700 prisoners - most of whom were Taliban - from Kunduz city prison. New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor lost no time in commenting on his first major victory and urged residents to cooperate with the city's new masters. As the world reacted with shock to the news, the Afghan government tried to play down the devastating defeat and vowed to retake the city but that is easier said than done:

Afghan Forces Seek to Regain Kunduz, Major Northern City, From Taliban A day after the Taliban took their first major city in 14 years, a counterattack was underway Tuesday, but ground forces sent from other provinces to recapture the northern city, Kunduz, were delayed by ambushes and roadside bombs, officials said. American forces carried out an airstrike outside the city Tuesday morning, said Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the United States forces in Afghanistan. He did not specify the target, but said the strike was carried out to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces. Ghulam Rabbani, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said ground forces from Kabul and the northern province of Balkh had been repeatedly ambushed by the Taliban on their way to Kunduz. Some of the reinforcements were waiting in nearby Baghlan to meet with the forces from Kabul, said Col. Abdul Qahar, an Afghan Army spokesman in the north.

In addition to offensives in Kunduz and Helmand province, Taliban fighters have also been consolidating their grip on areas in eastern Afghanistan, where they just overran a U.S.-built military outpost on the Pakistani border. As discussed last week, warlord-turned-vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum succeeded in driving back the insurgents in Faryab province but his victory was short-lived. All in all, the security situation in Afghanistan is alarming, to the say least. To make matters worse, the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State recently launched its first attack on Afghan security forces. Up until then, ISIS had largely focused on fighting the Taliban. The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed and even the U.S. is now acknowledging the threat after initially playing down the issue. In light of the Taliban's largest victory in years and the rise of ISIS, the timing of General John Campbell's testimony before Congress about the U.S. "withdrawal" could hardly be any better:

U.S., Allied Military Review New Options for Afghan Pullback U.S. and allied defense officials, increasingly wary of White House plans to scale back the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, are reviewing new drawdown options that include keeping thousands of American troops in the country beyond the end of 2016, American and allied officials said. The top international commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, has sent five different recommendations to the Pentagon and to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Brussels, each with its own risk assessment, officials said. Some officials worry that too large a cut could cause the Afghan government to come under increased pressure from the Taliban and other militants, officials said. Others believe a smaller force of several thousand Americans still could be effective at backing the Afghan government.

The options range from keeping the current U.S. presence of about 10,000 toops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 to continuing with the planned drawdown to a force of several hundred troops by the end of 2016. Taliban leader Mansoor has already announced his preferred option, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Washington is probably not going to consider this option and the continued presence of thousands of U.S. contractors is a non-negotiable matter, anyway. The only ones leaving Afghanistan currently in record numbers are Afghans, much to the dismay of the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that he wants to tackle the problem by introducing a "combination of security and economic measures." He didn't specify which sort of measures he was alluding to but Kabul's social media campaign is definitely not going to stem the tide:

Afghanistan Tries To Stem Tide Of Migration 'Brain Drain' "Don't go. Stay with me. There might be no return!" That's the message Kabul is sending to Afghans thinking of abandoning their home country for a new life in the West. The Refugees and Repatriations Ministry has launched a slick social-media campaign to get its message out, and doesn't pull any punches in its effort to dissuade Afghans from making the jump to Europe. Graphics being circulated on Facebook and Twitter show that the ministry is using a healthy dose of stark images and guilt to urge Afghans to fulfill their patriotic duty and stay on to help rebuild their war-torn nation.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: September 22, 2015

Tajikistan Exploits General's Rebellion to Crush IRPT Once & for All, Kadyrov Takes Unique Approach in Dealing with ISIS Recruitment & More

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

At the beginning of last week, the leaders of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan gathered in the Tajik capital Dushanbe for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The summit came at an inconvenient time for host Emomali Rahmon, who was struggling to quell a small rebellion led by former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda. Rahmon had sacked Nazarzoda immediately after identifying him as the mastermind of the attacks that rocked the country on September 4. The renegade general subsequently fled with his supporters toward Romit Gorge, about 45 kilometers east of Dushanbe, and kept the Tajik authorities on their toes for several days. Nazarzoda's rebellion overshadowed Tajikistan's 24th independence anniversary as well as the CSTO summit and left dozens of people dead until the general was eventually eliminated on September 16:

Tajik Mutineer And Special Forces Commander Killed In Battle Tajikistan's authorities say they have killed the fugitive general who mutinied two weeks ago. In the fight, however, the commander of the most elite special forces unit in the country, the Alfas, was killed as well. The former general, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, was killed on September 16 at 14:00 local time after a day-and-a-half-long battle in the Romit Gorge at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, Tajikistan's Interior Ministry and State Committee on National Security said in a joint statement. During the fighting, the chief of the Alfas, Colonel Rustam Khamakiyev, and three other officers of the Alfas and OMON (a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry) were killed, the statement added.

Tajikistan Exploits General's Rebellion to Crush IRPT Once and for All 

The motive for Nazarzoda's mutiny remains unclear and there are many different theories about what caused the violence, ranging from a coup attempt to the always popular Islamist angle. However, the most likely explanation seems to be that the former Deputy Defense Minister went rogue after being warned about an impending prosecution against him. Nazarzoda was a field commander of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during the Tajikistani civil war and joined the Defense Ministry in 1997 after the government signed a power-sharing deal with the UTO. Despite the power-sharing deal, the Tajik regime has tried to neutralize a number of former UTO commanders over the years. The crackdown on political opponents is now again picking up pace. At the end of last month, the Tajik Justice Ministry banned Central Asia's only officially registered Islamic party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and Nazarzoda's rebellion offers a perfect opportunity to crush the IRPT once and for all:

Tajikistan Pins Recent Violence on Islamic Party Slowly, over months and years, the government of Tajikistan has been eroding the peace accord that ended the civil war. On September 4, a pair of attacks in and near Dushanbe set off a chain of accusations that have seemingly ended with the final closure of the country’s most prominent opposition party*. If the state is to be believed, a constellation of bogeymen connived to overthrow the government right under the defense ministry’s nose. The Tajik Prosecutor-General’s office released an official statement today linking the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), its exiled leader Muhiddin Kabiri, and (until the day of the attacks) Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda. The statement says that Nazarzoda, on behalf of Kabiri and the IRPT, established 20 “small criminal groups” in recent years. The two attacks in early September–in Vahdat and Dushanbe–were preceded by an influx of “so-called charitable funds of foreign countries.”

Nazarzoda in the past had links to the IRPT when both were part of the United Tajik Opposition fighting against the government but even then his connections to the party were tenuous at best. Dushanbe's claims that Nazarzoda was a member of the IRPT don't hold water. Nevertheless, the government lost no time in blaming the Islamic Renaissance Party for the outbreak of violence. IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri rejected the accusations and argued that Nazarzoda's motives rather lie in the government's "erroneous" policies. Kabiri has been living in self-imposed exile since March because he had seen it coming. While the manhunt for Nazarzoda was still underway, the Tajik authorities launched an all-out attack on the IRPT. Police seized the party's property and began arresting the remaining IRPT leaders in Tajikistan. As for Muhiddin Kabiri, he hasn't been forgotten by the Tajik regime as well:

Tajikistan reportedly turns to Interpol over IRP leader The Interior Ministry of Tajikistan is reportedly preparing documents to turn to Interpol over the Islamic Revival Party (IRP) leader Muhiddin Kabiri. An official source at the Interior Ministry says the documents for detention and extradition of Kabiri will be sent to the country where he is probably living now. “Criminal proceedings have not yet been instituted against Muhiddin Kabiri, but the Prosecutor-general’s Office is going to institute criminal proceedings against him one of these days,” the source added.

The latest crackdown may very spell the end of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Warnings that the party's closure will cause its members to go underground and join extremist groups have apparently fallen on deaf ears in Dushanbe. In the eyes of Tajik President Rahmon, most opponents are terrorists anyway. That is also a popular view among Rahmon's CSTO colleagues. As usual, threats of terrorism and extremism were high on the agenda during the CSTO summit in Tajikistan and the deteriorating situation in northern Afghanistan was of course discussed as well. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev raised a few eyebrows when he went as far as to link Tajikistan's border worries with the Nazarzoda rebellion. However, the most noteworthy statement regarding the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border came from a Kommersant source close to the CSTO Secretariat:

Russia may deploy soldiers on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan: CSTO The Russian forces may return on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan amid fears the deteriorating security situation may affect the security of Central Asian countries, it has been reported. A source close to the Secretary General of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has said the return of Russian forces on Afghanistan-Tajikistan border is not unlikely. According to the Russian newspaper – kommersant, the Russian forces may return once they receive a request from the government of Tajikistan.

Dostum Urged to Fight ISIS after Short-Lived Success in Faryab

Up until now, Dushanbe has only requested technical assistance from the CSTO and another source pointed out that the current situation does not require the continued presence of Russian forces or CSTO contingents on the Tajik-Afghan border. In the meantime, Russia is encouraging the Afghan government to deal with this problem on its own by offering more military hardware in exchange for Afghanistan's provision of security along the Tajik border. It is doubtful that this will be enough to secure the border considering the bad shape of the Afghan security forces despite years of training by the United States and its allies. Moscow is not impressed with the results of NATO's mission in Afghanistan as President Putin emphasized once again during the CSTO summit. In addition to the escalating violence, the Kremlin is worried about the rising opium production. Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, raised this issue recently at the UN Security Council:

ISIL Gains Control Of Several Drug Trafficking Routes From Afghanistan The Islamic State (ISIL) extremist group has taken control of a number of drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan, Russian envoy to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said Thursday. The envoy urged the UN Security Council to closely monitor and respond quickly to developments in the drug situation in Afghanistan, as international terrorist groups use drug trafficking to fund their activities. "There is information that a group of militants from ISIS [IS] already control a part of the routes of illegal drug supply from the Badakhshan Province [in northeastern Afghanistan]," Churkin said.

Taliban fighters are constantly causing trouble in Badakhshan but Churkin's assertion that ISIS controls a part of the drug supply routes from the province comes as a surprise. It is not the first time that Russian officials have highlighted the connection between ISIS and the Afghan drug trade. Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, claimed last year that ISIS "obtains fabulous profits by providing half of the total heroin supply to Europe via destabilized Iraq and some African countries." After suffering a few setbacks in Afghanistan, ISIS has gained a foothold in the war-torn country and is now vying with the Taliban for influence. As the fighting between the two groups escalates, some people are pinning their hopes on First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum to destroy ISIS' stronghold in Nangarhar province and repeat the success of his Faryab campaign. They seem to have missed that Dostum's success in Faryab didn't last very long:

Troops Battle Insurgents in Faryab After Short-Lived Clearance Despite weeks of military clearing operations in Faryab, to rid the area of insurgents, the militants immediately returned to their old battle field following Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum's return to Kabul. In August, Dostum donned his military uniform and joined troops on the Faryab frontline. After only a few weeks they cleared the area. However, peace was short-lived and insurgents have once again overrun the area.

Two months ago, Dostum and the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor agreed to join forces with government troops in order to subdue the insurgents in northern Afghanistan. Noor has recently followed Dostum's example in leading military operations in the north but as Dostum's short-lived success in Faryab shows, defeating the insurgency won't be easy. While the government is stepping up its efforts, the Taliban are trying to settle differences that emerged after the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death. Mullah Omar's family and several other leading Taliban figures didn't approve of new supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Instead they preferred Mullah Omar's son Yaqoob. After weeks of infighting and intense negotiations, Yaqoob and his family eventually agreed to a power-sharing deal and pledged allegiance to Mansoor, much to the dismay of the remaining Mansoor critics:

Afghan Taliban divided as talks between two factions fail The Afghan Taliban may split into two factions, said a spokesman for one group on Saturday, because they cannot agree who should be leader following the death of their founder.  

On Saturday, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a spokesman for the anti-Mansour faction, said talks between Mansour and the dissatisfied commanders had failed. Niazi's comments come after Omar's son Yaqoob and brother Manan swore allegiance to Mansour this week. Omar's family had initially opposed Mansour but agreed to support him after he agreed to a list of their demands. Niazi said Mansour had threatened to cut Taliban funds that Manan had been receiving if he did not support Mansour's leadership.

Kadyrov Takes Unique Approach in Dealing with ISIS Recruitment

A split of the Taliban into two factions would complicate the messy situation in Afghanistan even further and drive more Taliban fighters into the arms of ISIS. The much-hyped terrorist group has managed to establish new branches in several countries by wooing jihadists away from other groups. The Islamic State's "Wilayat Qawqaz" in the North Caucasus is a prime example of this highly successful franchise model. ISIS' Caucasus branch made headlines at the beginning of this month when it claimed responsibility for its first official attack in Russia, which allegedly targeted barracks of the Russian army in southern Dagestan. Unfortunately, security forces and local residents were quick to deny that an attack took place and pointed out that the supposed target doesn't even exist. To make matters worse for "Wilayat Qawqaz," ISIS recruiters in Chechnya are facing unexpected problems:

Chechen Leader Takes Unique Approach in Dissuading Youths From Joining ISIL Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov has taken a blunt approach to flushing out pro-ISIL extremist sentiment in his republic, holding direct face-to-face talks with youths suspected of supporting the terror group, Chechen television channel Grozny has reported. At the event, conducted earlier this week, Kadyrov faced down several young men, who he shamed for voicing their sympathies for the terror group on social media. The talk was attended by local Imams, the heads of municipalities, and the youths' parents; it was then broadcast on Chechen television. Speaking at the event, parents noted that they had tried to raise their children to become pillars of support for their families, devout Muslims and worthy members of their communities and their country. They emphasized that they did not need sons "who betrayed family, relatives, friends, Islam and the Chechen people."

Kadyrov made it quite clear to the humiliated ISIS supporters that "there's no place in Chechnya for anyone who even glances in the direction of ISIS." The Chechen leader is well known for his unorthodox measures and never shies away from causing a scandal. Lately, Kadyrov picked a fight with the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk city court over a ruling that labeled a booklet containing quotes and commentary on verses from the Quran as "extremist." He vowed to appeal the court ruling and branded the responsible judge and prosecutor "national traitors and shaitans [devils]" - a term that is usually reserved for terrorists. Kadyrov also didn't mince his words when he added his two cents to the debate on the alleged participation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in the First Chechen War. While it seems highly unlikely that Yatsenyuk fought in the North Caucasus, other Ukrainians definitely supported the "Chechen rebels" and two of them just went on trial in Chechnya:

Russia puts Ukrainians on trial for Chechnya killings Two Ukrainians went on trial in Russia on Tuesday accused of murdering dozens of Russian soldiers in Chechnya in the 1990s while fighting with separatists in a nationalist hit squad. The powerful Investigative Committee said that the supreme court of Chechnya in Grozny began hearing the case of Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpyuk, both of whom are charged with murder and belonging to a militant organisation. The men have been held in pre-trial detention for over a year after being arrested separately when they came to Russia last year.

Klykh and Karpyuk are accused of being members of the infamous Ukrainian ultranationalist group Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People's Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO), which bears all the hallmarks of NATO's 'Gladio' operations. Since its inception in late 1990, UNA-UNSO participated in several conflicts against Russia or Russian-backed forces, ranging from the War in Abkhazia to the First Chechen War. Last year, the group caught again Russian authorities' attention when its members featured prominently in the Euromaidan movement. Chechnya's supreme court will probably use this opportunity to make an example of the two Ukrainian defendants after Ukrainian nationalists repeatedly voiced support for their "Chechen brothers" and even celebrated the terrorist attack in Grozny last December. Although the situation in the North Caucasus has been relatively quiet in recent months, the local authorities have to keep their guard up all the time:

Another Imam Shot Dead In Russia's North Caucasus An imam in Russia's Daghestan region in the North Caucasus has been killed. The Investigative Committee of Russia says two masked men shot dead Magomed Khidirov early in the morning of September 9 while he was on his way to a mosque in Novy Kurush. The killing of Khidirov, 34, came three weeks after another Islamic cleric, Zamirbek Makhmutov, 32, was shot dead in Russia's Stavropol region neighboring Daghestan.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: August 12, 2015

Russian Soldiers Cause a Stir in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan Refuses to Give Up on Pipe Dreams & More!

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

The recent confirmation of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar has aggravated the alarming situation in Afghanistan. New Taliban supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is struggling to stop the factionalism that has been fueled by Omar's death and the Afghan peace talks have been put on hold for the time being. Many of Mansoor's critics oppose the talks with Kabul and favor Mullah Omar's son Yaqoob as Taliban leader. A few days ago, Afghan parliament member Abdul Zahir Qadir created a stir when he claimed that Yaqoob was assassinated in the Pakistani city of Quetta on behalf of Mansoor and Pakistani intelligence agencies. The Taliban immediately denied the claims but Yaqoob's whereabouts are still shrouded in mystery. As more and more leading Taliban figures come out in opposition to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, senior members of the movement are meeting in Pakistan to resolve the dispute:

Taliban Hold Open Meetings in Pakistan to Discuss Leadership

Senior members of the Taliban are reportedly holding open meetings in Pakistan to discuss the disputed appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as the group's new chief in the wake Mullah Omar's death. Several top Taliban leaders have expressed strong opposition to Mansour's leadership, calling him a puppet of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Sources within the Afghan government told TOLOnews on condition of anonymity on Thursday that scores of Taliban members - including both those who agree and disagree with Mansour's appointment - met with clerics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan on Wednesday to resolve the dispute over Omar's successor.

Taliban Strain Pak-Afghan Ties with New Wave of Terror

As many as 300 clerics or ulema reportedly met in Pakistan to mediate between the rival groups. Influential Pakistani cleric Sami ul-Haq, the "Father of the Taliban," was chosen by both sides to lead the reconciliation efforts. Haq has endorsed new Taliban leader Mansoor and he tried to convince Mullah Omar's family of doing the same by telling them that people would never forgive them if they "wasted sacrifices of thousands of Afghan Mujahideen by creating divisions within the Taliban movement." Mullah Omar's only surviving brother Abdul Manan Niazi, who is the anti-Mansoor faction's spokesman, said that they are willing to accept any decision taken by the ulema. The religious scholars are expected to announce their decision within the next few days. Predictably, the huge Taliban meetings didn't go unnoticed in neighboring Afghanistan. Many Afghans were furious about the fact that the Taliban were allowed to meet openly in Pakistan while unleashing a new wave of terror in Afghanistan:

Attacks on army, police and U.S. special forces kill 50 in Kabul A wave of attacks on the Afghan army and police and U.S. special forces in Kabul have killed at least 50 people and wounded hundreds, dimming hopes that the Taliban might be weakened by a leadership struggle after their longtime leader's death. The bloodshed began on Friday with a truck bomb that exploded in a heavily populated district of the capital and ended with an hours-long battle at a base used by U.S. special forces. It became the deadliest day in Kabul for years. The Islamist insurgents claimed responsibility for both the police academy attack and the battle at the U.S. special forces base, though not for the truck bomb.

Friday's attacks ended a period of relative calm in Kabul and heralded the start of a terror campaign shaking Afghanistan. One day after the attacks in the Afghan capital, up to 29 people were killed in the northern province of Kunduz when a Taliban suicide bomber targeted members of an irregular anti-Taliban militia and on Monday another Taliban suicide bombing struck Kabul, killing five people and injuring a least 16. Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh was quick to point out that new Taliban leader Mansoor is trying to show his critics that he remains committed to fighting the Afghan government. Considering that one of Mansoor's first actions was to distance himself from the peace talks, Saleh may have a point. Furthermore, Saleh emphasized Pakistan's role in enabling such Taliban attacks and this issue has also been highlighted by many other Afghans, including President Ashraf Ghani:

Afghan President Points Finger at Pakistan After Bombings in Kabul Under pressure after a wave of deadly bombings in the Afghan capital, President Ashraf Ghani on Monday accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye to mass gatherings of Taliban fighters in its territory, where such attacks are planned. Mr. Ghani’s words, a sharp break from the conciliatory tone he had taken toward Pakistan for much of his first year in office, came just hours after a suicide car-bomb struck a crowded entrance of the international airport in Kabul, leaving at least five people dead and 16 wounded. Attacks in the Afghan capital over the last four days have left nearly 70 people dead and hundreds wounded. After the news of Mullah Omar’s death, Mr. Ghani told his ministers that Pakistan had promised him that no new Amir ul-Momineen, as the Taliban call their leader, would be selected on its soil and that no large gatherings of the Taliban would take place to give him legitimacy. But within days, not only had Mullah Mansour replaced Mullah Omar and been endorsed in large ceremonies in Quetta, but also he had announced that his new deputy would come from the Haqqani network, an aggressive organizer of terrorist attacks that has strong links to the Pakistani military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

A senior Afghan official recently suggested that Sirajuddin Haqqani's was mainly promoted to Mansoor's deputy because of his networks in urban areas. It appears that he already used these networks. The attacks in Kabul bore many of the hallmarks of the Haqqani network, reinforcing Ghani's argument that "war is declared against us from Pakistani territory." Ghani essentially buried the peace process on Monday by saying that he no longer wanted Islamabad to bring the Taliban to the table. Instead he urged the Pakistani authorities to destroy the group's sanctuaries in Pakistan. As usual, the Pakistanis have other ideas. However, the overt influence over the Taliban also entails all kinds of problems. Mansoor's critics are trying to exploit this issue for their own political ends and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) cited the same point as a key reason for pledging allegiance to ISIS. Mullah Omar's death has been a gift from heaven for ISIS in Afghanistan and the group spares neither trouble nor expense to woo more fighters away from the Taliban:

ISIS release horrific execution video, claiming to be filmed in Afghanistan The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group has released a new execution video claiming to be filmed in eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. A group of ten men is shown being blown up after forcing them sit on Improvised Explosive Device (IED) planted beneath them in the ground. They have been accused of apostasy and supporting the Taliban militants in their fight against the ISIS affiliates and being the supporter of ISI.

Turkmenistan Refuses to Give Up on Pipe Dreams  

As ISIS and the Taliban are trying to outdo each other in terms of barbaric crimes, the violence is escalating all over the country. Women and children are dying in record numbers and the Afghan security forces have been suffering casualties at an "unsutainable rate" for quite some time. To make matters worse, Kabul is losing even more fighters due to desertions. That is why local militias are playing an increasingly important role, especially in northern Afghan provinces such as Faryab. Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is now personally leading the fight in Faryab to take the pressure of the local pro-government forces, which were unable to cope with the Taliban on their own. He would have preferred to bring his own 9,000-strong militia to the frontline but President Ghani didn't allow this for various reasons. Nevertheless, Dostum didn't travel to Faryab without support. He took his two sons along to show his determination. Not only Afghanistan is counting on the Dostum family to win the fight on the Turkmen border. Turkmenistan is already pushing ahead with ambitious plans:

Consortium Leader Picked for Trans-Afghan Pipeline The pipeline intended to forge a new export route through Afghanistan for Turkmenistan’s natural gas riches has made a fresh stride with the naming a consortium leader for construction. Turkmenistan’s state news agency reported on August 6 that state-owned Turkmengaz will be in charge of bringing TAPI — named for the initials of the four countries it crosses — into existence. Backers of the project, which include the United States and the European Union, appear to be unfazed by occasional and loosely sourced reports of unrest along the Turkmen-Afghan border that would stand to disrupt any major construction work. Security issues do not typically feature in official statements on TAPI, which suggests either that anxieties are overblown or that the parties to the project are simply hoping for the best.

French energy giant Total and several other foreign majors initially evinced interest in leading the consortium, but only on condition of getting a stake in the Turkmen gas field that will feed the pipeline. Turkmenistan refused to accept this condition, prompting one company after another to back out of the project. Even as Turkmenistan was coming under increasing pressure to diversify its gas exports, the Turkmen authorities didn't budge an inch. However, they didn't want to give up on the pipeline either. In a last-ditch attempt to implement the project, Ashgabat proposed to put Turkmengaz in charge of constructing the pipeline. The three other TAPI countries were apparently every bit as desperate as Turkmenistan and endorsed the idea despite Turkmengaz's lack of capacity and experience. Although the construction is scheduled to begin in December, TAPI's actual implementation remains highly doubtful and the same is true of Turkmenistan's other pipe dream:

NATO: We'll Help Protect Trans-Caspian Pipeline

NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said. The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition. But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it...

Lahue pointed out that the construction of the Trans-Capsian gas pipeline is technically possible and suggested that NATO's "protection" could remove political obstacles. Given that Washington and Brussels are the driving forces behind the Trans-Caspian project, Lahue's bold statement comes as no real surprise. Russia and Iran, the project's opponents, have seen it coming. That is why they convinced the other Caspian states of rejecting a foreign military presence (i.e. NATO) in the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan desperately wants to diversify its gas exports, and even more so after the recent dispute with Gazprom over unpaid deliveries, but Ashgabat will think twice about asking NATO for "protection." Currently, Turkmenistan's only viable pipeline project is the fourth branch line of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which could yield at least a small-scale expansion into Kyrgyzstan's energy market:

Kyrgyz, Turkmen leaders discuss energy and transport issues Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have agreed to move forward in building a railroad and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Kyrgyzstan during Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's official visit to Bishkek on August 5. It is Berdymukhammedov's first official visit to Kyrgyzstan. "The construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will be implemented in the very near future," Berdymukhammedov said after his talks with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev.

Russian Soldiers Cause a Stir in Tajikistan

Tajikistan will host the longest section of the new 1,000-kilometer Line D and is already looking forward to getting millions of dollars in transit fees every year. The poor Central Asian country needs the money more than ever after remittances from labor migrants in Russia, which account for almost half of the country's GDP, declined sharply in recent months due to Russia's economic problems. One could argue that Tajikistan is suffering from Western sanctions as much as Russia. But Tajikistan's close ties with Russia are also creating other problems. The never-ending debate about Russian military presence in the country was recently reignited after a group of drunken Russian soldiers in their underwear got into a brawl with local Tajik men who confronted them about their rude behavior. And just as the Tajik government was trying to assure its people that Russian soldiers don't enjoy "judicial impunity," Tajiks were reminded of another controversial incident last year:

Tajik Murder Trial Starts For Russian Soldiers Two Russian soldiers suspected in the killing of a Tajik taxi driver last year have gone on trial in the capital, Dushanbe. Russian army's deputy platoon commander Fyodor Basimov and former military unit commander Ildar Sakhapov were arrested in August last year after taxi driver Rahimjon Teshaboev, 36, was found dead near Dushanbe. An autopsy revealed that Teshaboev, a father of three, was severely beaten before his throat was slashed. to the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Ildar Sakhapov admitted to killing the taxi driver. The judge said that Basimov had just assisted Sakhapov who had planned the murder. Two correspondents from RFE/RL's Tajik Service attended the trial and filmed a few minutes. The presiding Russian judge had granted them permission to do so but the present Russian officers were apparently not big fans of "anti-Russian U.S. propaganda tool" RFE/RL. As RFE/RL and others like to point out, hosting Russian military bases entails a few problems but that applies to foreign military presence in general. Moreover, the escalating violence in northern Afghanistan has reinforced Dushanbe's decision to let the Russians stay in the country for the foreseeable future. Instead of kicking out Russian soldiers, the Tajik authorities are going after Western-backed schools:

Tajikistan greenlights take over of Gulen-run schools Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has authorized the take over and renaming of a network of schools run by the U.S.-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen, in the country, according to Tajikistan's national news agency NIAT Hovar. In accordance with the decision signed by Rahmon, seven schools run by the Selale Educational Institution are going to be turned into public schools, and renamed as "schools for gifted children", the agency said. The decision to shut down the Gulen-run schools, and reopen them as state-run schools with different names was announced in May.

Gülen's schools in Tajikistan have been under high scrutiny for months, and with good reason. The Tajik regime sees the potential radicalization of the population as a major threat to its rule. This has led to some questionable decisions. The defection of Tajikistan's OMON commander to ISIS served as a warning that Dushanbe's war on Islam does more to fuel radicalization than to stop it but Rahmon & Co. didn't learn their lesson. Although experts are warning that the closure of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) will cause its members to go underground and join extremist groups, the regime is doing its best to destroy the IRPT. In doing so, the Tajik authorities risk boosting the terrorist recruitment that they are trying to stop. Tajikistan recently requested Interpol to put 16 Tajik ISIS fighters on the wanted list and announced that the list could be expanded significantly:

Tajikistan puts 16 people fighting for Islamic State on wanted list through Interpol

Interpol has put on the wanted list 16 Tajik citizens who are accused of involvement with the Islamic State terrorist group at the request of Tajikistan, a spokesman for Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS) told TASS on Friday. He noted that "the list of wanted Islamic State supporters could grow to 600 and more people." "More than 600 our fellow countrymen are fighting in the ranks of Islamic State, their names and presumable locations in Syria, Iraq and partially in Afghanistan, are known to the country’s law enforcement agencies. Criminal cases against them have been opened under the "mercenary activities" article," the spokesman said. "Explanatory work is conducted among relatives of Islamic State supporters, other methods are used, which made it possible to return several young people to their home country."

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here


The New Great Game Round-Up: August 5, 2015

Turkish Meddling in Xinjiang Overshadows Erdogan's China Visit, Russia: ISIS Comes- NED Goes & More

*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region 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.

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.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here