The New Great Game Round-Up: April 7, 2015

Russia Promises More Military Aid to Silence Tajik Complaints, Putin Concerned About Future Unrest in Russia & 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 ISIS threat in Afghanistan has been hyped by everyone and his brother ever since the first ISIS flag was seen in the war-torn country. It didn't take long before some insurgents left the Taliban to join the new hip terrorist group. As the rivalry between the two groups escalated, wannabe Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even went as far as calling Taliban leader Mullah Omar "a fool and illiterate warlord." Predictably, Mullah Omar didn't respond to the insult. The Taliban leader has not been seen or heard from in years, fueling speculation that he is already dead. This is now becoming a major problem for the Taliban because al-Baghdadi has declared himself "Caliph" of the world's Muslims, finding a sympathetic ear with more and more jihadists. In an effort to counter the growing influence of ISIS in Afghanistan and to remind the world that Mullah Omar is still relevant, the Taliban just published a 5,000-word biography of the reclusive Taliban leader but it is highly doubtful whether that will be enough to stop more insurgents from pledging allegiance to ISIS:

Uzbek Group In Afghanistan Pledge Allegiance To Islamic State

A group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan, claiming to be from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), says it is pledging allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group. A person calling himself Sadulla Urgenji said the IMU no longer views Taliban leader Mullah Omar as leader since he has not been seen for some 13 years and, "according to Shari'a," can no longer be leader. Urgenji said his group was recognizing the authority of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State group.

Russia Promises More Military Aid to Silence Tajik Complaints

The statement was made in a recently released video that purportedly shows IMU members beheading an Afghan soldier. Urgenji announced that the IMU has captured 30 Afghan soldiers in retaliation for the arrest of several female IMU members in Faryab Province and he warned that more soldiers will be beheaded unless the Afghan authorities agree to swap prisoners. Faryab Province has seen substantial militant activites in the past year, much to the dismay of neighboring Turkmenistan. Considering that the IMU has operated alongside the Taliban in the region up until now, it will be interesting to see how the pledge of allegiance to ISIS affects the relationship between the IMU and the Taliban. While the situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border continues to make headlines, another Central Asian country is also extremely worried about its Afghan border and alarmed at the ISIS threat, whether real or perceived:

Tajikistan alarmed by IS activity at its border with Afghanistan Tajikistan is alarmed by the activity of Islamic State’s armed groups close to its border with Afghanistan, a spokesman for the republic’s State Committee for National Security told TASS on Wednesday in comments on the border situation.

"Over the recent time, we have been witnessing movements of armed groups in the [northern] Afghan provinces of Tahar and Kunduz about 60-80 kilometers from the zone of responsibility of our Pyandzh border guard detachment," the officer said. He said the aim of this activity was not yet clear, but such concentration of armed groups was alarming, as routes of terrorist groups went through areas not controlled by the Afghan government forces.

Not everyone shares this assessment. Afghan border police chief Mohammad Shafiq Fazli dismissed concerns about the security situation on the border as "baseless" after Nikolay Bordyuzha, head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), commented on the issue saying that CSTO forces could be at the border in three days and repel any threat emanating from Afghanistan. Moreover, Tajik independent terrorism expert and security service veteran Davlatkhoja Nazirov told Asia-Plus in an interview last month that world powers such as the United States and Russia are hyping the threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups to the make the country more pliant on regional policy issues. There is certainly some truth in this but Tajik officials have done their part as well and concerns about militant activities in northern Afghanistan are not completely unfounded. The issue was high on the agenda during the recent CSTO meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe and Tajik officials used the opportunity to complain about the failure of some members to come up with the promised military aid:

Tajikistan says CSTO decision on strengthening border security with Afghanistan not working Tajikistan is not satisfied with the implementation of the decision of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on assistance in strengthening the security at the border with Afghanistan, said Minister of Foreign Affairs Sirodzhdin Aslov following the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the CSTO countries in Dushanbe on Thursday. “We analyzed the progress of the Council's decisions on the provision of assistance to Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border. The decision has not been implemented fully so far, therefore, the partners were urged to undertake the practical measures to implement this decision,” said Aslov.

In September 2013, the CSTO agreed to support Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border but only Belarus and Armenia have fulfilled their obligations so far and Tajikistan is still waiting for some of the promised military aid. Tajik officials have complained a few times about the slow pace of Russian military aid in recent months and the latest complaint was probably also directed at Moscow. Interestingly, shortly after the Tajiks vented their anger at the CSTO meeting in Dushanbe, Russian business daily Kommersant quoted unnamed sources in the Russian General Staff as saying that Russia is prepared to supply about $1.2 billion worth of weapons and military equipment to Tajikistan within the next few years to fight ISIS. According to the sources, most of the aid will be second hand hardware, some of which will apparently come from Russia's military base in Tajikistan [emphasis mine]:

Russia to increase the number of its troops in Tajikistan The number of troops deployed at Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan will be increased 1.5-fold during the next five years — from today’s 5,900 up to 9,000, Major-General Yevgeny Tubol, the 201st base commander, told journalists on April 3, the Ozodi radio (the Tajik service of Radio Liberty) reported. The general also said that the base is currently receiving new types of military equipment. 

In his words, the military equipment currently used at the base will be modernized and passed over to the Tajik army.

Putin Concerned About Future Unrest in Russia

In order to increase the number of troops at the military base in Tajikistan, Russia won't even have to send Russian soldiers to the country. The Russian military can recruit unemployed Tajiks instead. At the beginning of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that allows foreigners not only to serve in the Russian military but also to fight for Russia. And a few weeks later, Tajikistan's parliament paved the way for its citizens to do so. If the ISIS fear-mongering is to be believed, this will happen sooner rather than later. Russia appears to be preparing for more unrest in Central Asia, which indicates that Russian officials either believe their own fear-mongering or don't believe that Washington's new Central Asia policy is really about "countering violent extremism." Syrians can tell you a thing or two about it. That seems to have been on Putin's mind as well when he addressed Russia's top security officials during a board meeting at the end of last month:

Russians trained by ISIL may be used against home country People with origins in Russia are being trained by a number of international terrorist organizations and may be used against their home country at some point, President Vladimir Putin said. "People with origins in Russia and some other CIS countries are being trained in the so-called conflict hotbeds, for instance, by ISIL in Syria and a number of other countries and may be eventually used against us, Russia, and our neighbors," Putin said at a meeting of the Federal Security Service Board. So, it is important to take additional measures towards severing international contacts and resources of terrorists, "blocking their arrival in and departure from Russia, and stopping their movement around regions, including new constituent territories of the Federation, Crimea and Sevastopol," the president said.

When ISIS terrorists release one of their ludicrous videos threatening to shoot the next video in Dushanbe or in the Kremlin, hardly anybody is shaking with fear but the Russian authorities have every reason to be worried about the number of jihadists from CIS countries in Syria. According to Russia's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Sergey Melikov, more than 1,500 terrorists from the North Caucasus are fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Melikov also claimed that at least five veterans of the Syrian war were killed during counterterrorism operations in Russia in 2014. Regardless of whether or not that number is correct, it is safe to say that only few terrorists have returned so far. Thanks to the jihadists' focus on Syria, the situation in the North Caucasus has been relatively calm and due to the Ukrainian crisis, many Russians are now much more optimistic about the situation in the North Caucasus with Kadyrov being one of the biggest winners of this change of opinion:

Russians have more trust in Kadyrov The number of Russia's residents, who express trust in the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, has increased by 22% as compared with 2006, said the "Levada-Centre". More and more people treat the situation in Chechnya as peaceful and calm; and 33% of respondents believe that this is a result of Kadyrov's activities. In April 2007, there were 18% of such respondents; and in November 2011 – only 13%. Only 3% of respondents are sure that Chechnya will separate from Russia, while in 2007 the figure was 11%.

As previously discussed, Kadyrov needs every support he can get because his enemies in Moscow are currently trying to take him down a peg or two. Hardly a day goes by without new reports about the Nemtsov killing and the ongoing investigation. The Russian authorities are reportedly looking for Ruslan Geremeev, who is too close to Kadyrov's No. 2 Adam Delimkhanov to play the fall guy, and the main suspect Zaur Dadayev reiterated that he was forced into a confession as more and more questions emerge. Meanwhile, Kadyrov picked up another award and started to focus on the annual Warrior Competition in Jordan, where his special forces will represent Russia and do their best to beat the Americans. Up until now, there is no indication that Putin could drop his most loyal regional leader. The Russian President knows full well how important it is to maintain interethnic and interfaith harmony in Russia. That is why he just created a new government agency to this end:

Experts: Putin's New Ethnic Affairs Agency Aims to Thwart Political Threats President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to launch a government agency charged with maintaining interethnic and interfaith harmony in Russia is a bid to prevent foreign powers and internal opposition factions from seeking to exploit a weak spot in Russia's power structure, analysts told The Moscow Times. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a series of state bodies ostensibly designed to deal with ethnic issues. But since 2001, when the Ministry of Federal Affairs, National and Migration Policy was disbanded, the country has lacked a government organ dedicated exclusively to maintaining harmony between Russia's many ethnic groups.

Alasania at Loggerheads With Georgia's "Pro-Russian" Government

It is not hard to guess which "foreign powers" Putin had in mind when he made this decision. Inciting interethnic hatred has long been Washington's preferred strategy, not only in Russia. Therefore, it comes as no real surprise that the newly established Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs will be headed by a former FSB commander who served in Chechnya and saw at first hand how dangerous these destabilization efforts are. As often discussed, the U.S. can count on several allies when it comes to destabilizing the North Caucasus. Russia's two neighbors in the Caucasus and vital NATO member Turkey are probably the first ones which come to mind. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are united in their hostile policy vis-à-vis Russia but that is not all. The three countries form a strategic triangle and maintain very close political, economic and military ties, as can be seen from projects such as the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) or the frequent trilateral meetings:

Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan vow to boost cooperation Defense Ministers from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia have repeated their desire to boost cooperation in a bid to enhance peace, welfare and stability in the region. The ministers' remarks came during a press conference following their meeting at the Tblisi Marriot Hotel in the Georgian capital of Tblisi.

Georgia's Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze said the cooperation of the three countries would continue with high-level activities, adding: "This (military) cooperation only aims to provide peace in the region."

Russia and Armenia surely beg to differ with Janelidze's claim that closer defense cooperation between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan "only aims to provide peace in the region." Although the new Georgian Defense Minister picked up where his popular predecessor Irakli Alasania left off, Alasania's firing is still a hot topic in Georgia. The former Defense Minister recently claimed that he was fired because he wanted to sign an agreement to acquire air defense systems from France, which was met with fierce opposition from former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is still pulling the strings behind the scenes, and current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. As usual, Alasania implied that Ivanishvili and Garibashvili were trying to appease Moscow but his claims were denied by Garibashvili, Janelidze and France's ambassador to Tbilisi who stressed that the Georgian government doesn't oppose the arms deal:

Accusations Fly in Georgia’s Potential French Arms Deal Georgian Defense Minister, Mindia Janelidze, has strongly denied his predecessor Irakli Alasania’s allegations and said that talks on purchasing air defense system from France are continuing. Usually media shy Defense Minister Janelidze had to appear twice on TV late on Friday evening giving interviews separately to public broadcaster and Maestro TV, claiming that contrary to allegations voiced by Alasania, leader of the opposition Free Democrats party, negotiations on arms deal with France is well on track and will have “its logical conclusion.” He, however, also said that “rumors” and political “speculation” has harmed this process “to some extent.” French ambassador in Tbilisi, Renaud Salins, said on April 3 that “discussions” continue on this matter.

It is not the first time that the "pro-Russian" government in Tbilisi has come under pressure for "appeasing" Moscow and it won't be the last time that the likes of Alasania and Saakashvili make these kind of allegations but Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration is irreversible, as Georgian officials often emphasize. That was also one key take-away from Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili's state of the nation address, which was again snubbed by Garibashvili and several government members. Other key points of Margvelashvili's speech were that the feud between him and Garibashvili harms the country, that Georgia's NATO integration "is not directed against anyone" and that Russia is evil. It is hardly surprising that the U.S. and the EU see no reason to complain about Tbilisi. Alasania, Saakashvili & Co. advocate a more aggressive policy than their masters in Washington and Brussels. Perhaps Alasania should think about moving to Kiev where he can act out his wildest fantasies alongside Saakashvili:

Ukraine Rejects Georgia’s Request for Extradition of Saakashvili Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine said on April 1 it declined Tbilisi’s request for extradition of Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who now serves as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s adviser. Saakashvili is wanted by the Georgian authorities on multiple criminal charges, which he denies as politically motivated. Court in Tbilisi ordered Saakashvili’s pre-trial detention in absentia in August, 2014. “As a result of review of [Georgia’s extradition request] Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine has concluded there is a significant risk that extradition request for Saakashvili was made by the competent Georgian agency with the purpose of his prosecution for political motives,” Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement on April 1, adding that extradition of Saakashvili would be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights.

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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: March 31, 2015

Guangzhou: New Hot Spot of China's War on Terror, Obama's Decision to Slow Withdrawal Undermines Afghan Peace Talks & 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.

In recent weeks, Uyghur terrorists have been making headlines in several countries, ranging from Turkey to Indonesia and of course China. The Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned that Uyghur would-be terrorists who travel to the Middle East could return and fuel the insurgency in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang's party chief Zhang Chunxian revealed during a meeting at the annual session of the National People's Congress that local authorities "have broken up terror groups who were plotting violent attacks on Chinese soil after fighting in battles in Syria with the IS." Although ISIS's threat to China is often exaggerated, Beijing's concerns are not unfounded. As discussed in a recent episode of Porkins Great Game, efforts are underway to smuggle Uyghurs out of China and turn them into jihadist mercenaries for U.S.-NATO terror operations. In order to nip the threat in the bud, Beijing wants to prevent Uyghurs from fleeing the country and catch those who have left:

China's Secret Plan to Track Militants and Bring Them Home Days after Indonesia arrested four Uighur terrorism suspects in September in the country’s east, China dispatched three intelligence officers to ask authorities to hand them over. While Indonesia initially demurred, China has now secured a preliminary agreement for the men to be returned after a trial in Jakarta, according to Irfan Idris, a senior official at Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency. The four, who are yet to be charged, face potential execution if repatriated. China pressed for the deal as part of a global operation begun last year to return terrorism suspects to Chinese soil, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the initiative is confidential. Many of the suspects are members of the Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslim minority, they said.

Guangzhou: New Hot Spot of China's War on Terror

The suspects in question are believed to be part of the group that carried out the horrific knife attack at Kunming's railway station in March of last year. Given that China just executed three men for leading the Kunming attack, it is safe to assume that the arrested Uyghurs will be executed if the Indonesian authorities hand them over. The four men and five other Uyghurs, who managed to escape, had entered Indonesia from Malaysia with Turkish passports, posing as asylum seekers. This has become a preferred strategy among Uyghur insurgents. Turkey's role in all of this was exposed at the beginning of this year in the course of the ongoing tug-of-war between Beijing and Ankara over Uyghur refugees in Thailand. While Turkey is playing the benevolent guardian of all Uyghurs, China is trying to convince the rest of the world that not all Uyghurs leaving the country are innocent refugees:

South China now favoured way out of country for IS recruits: terrorism expert China's southern seaboard has replaced the mountainous and tightly guarded western frontier as the preferred route for Islamic extremists to slip recruits out of the country, according to a leading expert on terrorism. Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, claimed that "over 400 Uygurs have left, most through Hong Kong via Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to join the IS [Islamic State]". Gunaratna's claim comes as a leaked Guangdong police document revealed that the authorities broke up a Pearl River Delta syndicate that smuggled at least six Uygurs to Macau on February 18 and 24. The document said the syndicate was planning to smuggle more Uygurs hiding in Guangzhou, Foshan and Zhongshan to Macau before police busted the ring on March 2.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Police Force played down the issue, saying that the city's terrorist threat level remained moderate but the recent emergence of ISIS flyers in Hong Kong suggests that there might be something to Gunaratna's claim. Citing Hong Kong news reports, U.S.-based Chinese political news outlet Duowei News pointed out that Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong have been receiving leaflets encouraging them to join ISIS. Even more interesting is the flyer's assertion that recruits will be sent to "carry out missions" in Xinjiang. The authorities in Hong Kong are clearly alarmed by the ISIS flyers and the same is probably true of the authorities in mainland China. As the above-mentioned break-up of another smuggling operation shows, China's fight against terrorists and would-be terrorists is not confined to Xinjiang. Southern China is becoming an increasingly important part of the battlefield. Uyghurs who are hiding in and around Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of Guangdong province, have caused a lot of trouble in recent weeks:

Police shot dead two Uygur women before railway knife attack in Guangzhou Police shot dead two ethnic Uygur women who resisted arrest and detained more than a dozen Uygur men during a late-night raid in a village outside Guangzhou just hours before the knife attack at the city's main railway station on March 6, which left 13 people injured, witnesses said. Residents of Xiniujiao - or Rhino Horn - village who witnessed the police raid told the Sunday Morning Post that more than 100 officers, some of them armed, had swooped on the suspects during the Lantern Festival on March 5. Three knife-wielding men attacked passers-by and passengers at random in the rail attack earlier this month. Police have been tightlipped about the ethnicity of the assailants, saying only that one had been shot dead and another arrested.

According to Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, the perpetrators of the knife attack at Guangzhou's railway station had planned to be smuggled to Macau before traveling to the Middle East via Southeast Asia to join ISIS. But they were forced to stay in Guangzhou after the boat they had arranged sank late last month. Four days after the break-up of the above-mentioned smuggling ring and hours after police raided a group of 40 Uyghur terror suspects from Xinjiang hiding in an apartment in Guangzhou's Baiyun district, the men launched the attack, resembling the Kunming attack in many ways. Guangzhou appears to be the new hot spot in China's fight against smuggling and terrorism. A few days ago, the South China Morning Post broke the very interesting story of a self-claimed "American scholar," who visited South China Normal University to recruit Uyghurs and smuggle them to Malaysia:

Terrorists 'recruited Uygur students at Guangzhou university' Uygur students in Guangzhou have been warned to stay away from "outsiders" after several were recruited by a suspected religious extremist and had been missing since last year, various sources told the South China Morning Post. A man claiming to be a US national conducting social science research visited the campus of the South China Normal University [SCNU] last year. Sources said the man recruited several Uygur students, gave them money and arranged for them to flee to Malaysia. It is not clear if Malaysia was their final destination, or whether they were headed for Turkey or Syria, as some believe.

Obama's Decision to Slow Withdrawal Undermines Afghan Peace Talks

As usual, the NED-funded World Uyghur Congress lost no time in playing down the issue but this story highlights that the Chinese authorities have to be on their guard. And although "China's southern seaboard has replaced the mountainous and tightly guarded western frontier as the preferred route for Islamic extremists," the situation in neighboring Afghanistan gives reason for concern as well. On March 22, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah traveled to Washington for a five-day visit. The two Afghan leaders met with President Barack Obama and senior U.S. officials to discuss the troop withdrawal, reconciliation talks with the Taliban and other important issues. Ghani began the visit by thanking the Americans "who have sacrificed continuously since September 11th to bring us freedom and hope" before asking Obama to keep more troops in Afghanistan. Obama didn't know exactly which Afghan President he was talking to but he needed no second invitation:

Obama slows withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan President Barack Obama on Tuesday granted Afghan requests to slow the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and said he would maintain a force of 9,800 through the end of 2015 while sticking to a 2017 exit plan. Capping a day of VIP treatment for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House, Obama said the U.S. force would be kept at its current strength to train and assist Afghan forces, who took over responsibility for the fight against Taliban and other Islamic militants at the start of the year. Obama said the pace of the U.S. troop reduction in 2016 would be established later this year and the goal remained to consolidate U.S. forces in the country in a presence at the Kabul embassy at the end of 2016.

It remains to be seen if the U.S. will really retain only a small force at the Kabul embassy after 2016. There are already some doubts and Afghan leader Ghani has expressed a need for foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2016. Since taking office in September of last year, Ghani has been doing Washington's bidding and this has finally paid off. During his visit to Washington, the Afghan President received the "Distinguished Leadership Award" from the Atlantic Council and the United States Institute of Peace, presumably for being a better puppet than predecessor Hamid Karzai. Ghani also secured more U.S. funds for the Afghan security forces who are suffering from a number of problems, including "serious combat losses" and desertions. But American taxpayers will be relieved to hear that Afghanistan will be able to pay for its own security forces within a decade - at least this is what Ghani promised U.S. lawmakers. Possibly, the problem will resolve itself when the Taliban take over:

Slowing down of US pullout to affect peace efforts: Taliban President Barack Obama’s decision to slow the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan would hamper peace efforts, the Taliban said on Wednesday, vowing to continue fighting. “Obama’s announcement to continue to keep troops in Afghanistan is a response to the peace efforts,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. “This damages all the prospects for peace. This means the war will go on until they are defeated,” he said.

Not everyone was happy with Ghani's U.S. visit and the news from Washington. It is to be feared that Obama's decision to slow the "withdrawal" will undermine the peace talks, which had seen some progress due to China's efforts. Ghani attracted a lot of criticism for pushing for U.S. troops to stay longer. The Afghan High Peace Council, the official body overseeing the Afghan peace process, and other influential players in the region warned that Ghani is sending the wrong message to the Taliban. The statement by Taliban spokesman Zabuhullah Mujahid proves them right. Perhaps Ghani was too busy hyping the ISIS threat to recognize that there is a downside to keeping U.S. toops in the country. Just ahead of his visit to the U.S., the Afghan President acknowledged for the first time that ISIS is gaining influence in Afghanistan and by the time he arrived in Washington, Ghani was hyping the threat like none other:

Ghani: Islamic State 'terrible threat' to western, central Asia Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that Islamic State and its allies pose a "terrible threat" to the countries of western and central Asia. In a speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Ghani said Islamic State militants are already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan "to test for vulnerabilities."

Turkmenistan Looking for Help to Defend Afghan Border

Nobody is going to deny that ISIS flags are becoming more popular in Afghanistan but ISIS doesn't pose a "terrible threat" to Central Asia. Furthermore, the links between ISIS in Afghanistan and the "original" ISIS in the Middle East are tenuous at best. Some insurgents who have previously fought for the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or other groups are now pledging allegiance to ISIS. This has prompted a lot of fear-mongering in Central Asia and Russia. As previously discussed, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have every reason to be worried in light of the deteriorating security situation along their borders and the massing of fighters in northern Afghanistan but ISIS is not going to conquer Central Asia anytime soon. Turkmenistan is arguably the country which has been affected the most by the volatile situation in northern Afghanistan:

Four Said Killed By Police In Violence Near Afghan-Turkmen Border A local leader in an ethnic Turkmen village near Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan says police killed at least four people and wounded at least seven others while dispersing a protest. The head of Qarqeen village council, Gulam Rasul Qaryadar, told RFE/RL that police fired shots on March 16 after ethnic Turkmens gathered in front of the district administration building, demanding help from the authorities to stop what they say are efforts by Turkmenistan to take land they claim as their own.

The villagers have said that Turkmen forces are grabbing their land on an island that was formed several years ago in the Amu River, which serves as part of the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

Territorial gains by the Taliban and other groups prompted Turkmenistan last year to "invade" Afghanistan and the situation on both sides of the border has been highly volatile ever since. While ethnic Turkmens in northern Afghanistan are urging the Afghan authorities to investigate the deadly shooting by police, the Turkmen authorities are reportedly using the Taliban/ISIS threat to arrest would-be protesters. But Ashgabat doesn't take the situation lightly. General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, revealed during a recent Congress hearing that Turkmenistan has approached the U.S. asking for military aid to address the instability on the Turkmen-Afghan border. And if the Turkmen exile website Chronicles of Turkmenistan is to be believed, even foreign troops have already been deployed to the border:

Report: Troops From Uzbekistan And Russia Deployed To Turkmenistan-Afghanistan Border Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan are helping Turkmenistan guard its border against militant incursions from Afghanistan, an Turkmenistani exile website reports, citing residents of border areas. According to the report on Chronicles of Turkmenistan, "residents of Afghan border villages have recently noticed the presence on Turkmen territory border units from Uzbekistan." And it added: "About a month ago military instructors from Russia also appeared on the border. Obviously, the Turkmen authorities appealed to the Russian leadership for help guarding the border with Afghanistan, a situation where, with the arrival of warm weather, has begun to heat up."

The report should be taken with a grain of salt because there have not been any independent verifications of the information but it underlines concerns about the situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border and Ashgabat's ability to deal with the threat on its own. Turkmenistan is now experiencing the disadvantages of its neutrality. Neither American nor Russian help will come with no strings attached. It is not unlikely that this will affect Turkmenistan's pipeline politics. Unperturbed by the chaos in Afghanistan, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow just instructed his country's oil and gas leaders to accelerate the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Turkmenistan plays a decisive role in two major U.S.-backed pipeline projects, TAPI and the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which is now back on the table despite vehement Russian opposition:

EU wants to revive gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan The European Union is seeking to revive a gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan to Europe and involve European energy companies, an EU diplomat in Turkmenistan said. Denis Daniilidis told Reuters that Maros Sefcovic, the EU's head of energy union, was going to visit Turkmenistan in coming months to restart talks about the TransCaspian pipeline. While he did not provide other details, Turkmen officials said earlier this month that "active" negotiations were under way to supply Europe with between 10 and 30 billion cubic metres of gas per year.

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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: March 18, 2015

Nemtsov Killing Sparks Turf War Between FSB & Kadyrov, Afghan Chaos Panics Neighboring Countries & 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.

Although it is still not clear who is responsible for the assassination of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov within sight of the Kremlin, it is safe to say that Nemtsov's killing has been a gift from heaven for Washington. Western media had solved the case before Nemtsov's body was cold: Putin did it! And even if Putin did not personally pull the trigger, the Russian President is still responsible for Nemtsov's death because he did create the "atmosphere of hate" in Russia, which enabled the killing. Neither the suspicious timing of the assassination nor the ensuing clan war in the Kremlin led Western pundits to rethink their assessment. But the Russian media's coverage in the aftermath of the murder has been hardly any better. Russian media put out several more or less absurd theories, from promoting the Charlie Hebdo angle to blaming the Nemtsov killing on the inept Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) or the new leader of the "Chechen rebels" fighting for Kiev in the Donbass:

Pro-Kremlin Newspaper Spins Conspiracy Theory That Nemtsov Was Killed By Pro-Kiev Chechen Two weeks after the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) has revived a claim first floated a few days after his death and then abandoned - that Adam Osmayev, a pro-Kiev Chechen fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass, is somehow linked to Nemtsov's death. KP says they have obtained an "exclusive interview" from an officer of the FSB who is in the investigation group for Nemtsov's murder. The unnamed officer "gave the name of the most likely contractor of the shooting of the politician [Nemtsov]."

Nemtsov Killing Sparks Turf War Between FSB & Kadyrov

As previously mentioned, Adam Osmayev succeeded Isa Munayev as head of the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion after the latter was killed near Debaltseve. Osmayev is famous for his ambitious plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin, which ended in a total disaster. Suggesting that Osmayev was behind the Nemtsov hit is ludicrous but for some reason Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) decided to revive this conspiracy theory. Initially, the FSB could sell a neat little version of events to the public: Zaur Dadayev, a devout Muslim and former Chechen police officer, killed Nemtsov because he was angered by Nemtsov's support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. However, the FSB version started to unravel very quickly when Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov praised Dadayev as a "true patriot of Russia," signaling that he doesn't agree with the narrative put forward by FSB director Alexander Bortnikov and his men. As it became clear that Dadayev was tortured into confessing to the murder, the FSB version fell apart completely and the turf war between the FSB and Kadyrov came out in the open:

Nemtsov Probe Exposes Widening Rift Between Kadyrov, FSB The Boris Nemtsov murder investigation is the latest episode of an ongoing struggle between Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov — President Vladimir Putin's protege — and Russia's federal law enforcement officials, analysts told The Moscow Times on Wednesday. The often brazen lawlessness with which Kadyrov's loyal forces have reputedly operated in Chechnya, across Russia and abroad has long been a sore spot for federal law enforcement agencies, according to Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "From what I can see, there has always been friction between Kadyrov and the federal forces, because Kadyrov only answers to Putin. This has irked people, especially since Putin awarded him the Order of Honor," said Malashenko.

Chechen Republic head Kadyrov can always count on the support of his mentor Putin but he has made several enemies in Moscow, including FSB director Bortnikov, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and his deputy Vyacheslav Volodin. Not everyone likes the fact that Kadyrov has become one of the most powerful men in Russia. His enemies appear to be using the Nemtsov murder to put him in his place. The FSB's clout in the North Caucasus has shrunk as Kadyrov's influence increased or as opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta put it, "law enforcement and the secret services have been repeatedly humiliated for the sake of 'political stability' in the Caucasus." The bad blood between the FSB and Kadyrov goes back several years but the security service is apparently determined to settle a score with Kadyrov now. Not only did they try to pin the Nemtsov assassination on Kadyrov, with curious timing, the FSB also leaked damning information to the press regarding another case:

"Novaya Gazeta": customers of attempt on Mayor of Khasavyurt are close to Kadyrov's retinue The attempted murder of the Mayor of Khasavyurt Saigidpasha Umakhanov was ordered by people close to the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, said a source from special services of Dagestan, citing the testimonies of the residents of Chechnya, convicted in this case. Its figurants include Shaa Turlaev, a former adviser to Kadyrov, who is now wanted, and Adam Delimkhanov, an MP of the Russian State Duma, the "Novaya Gazeta" reports. 

The "Caucasian Knot" has reported that in March 2014, in Khasavyurt, the residents of Chechnya Ramzan Djabrailov and Badrudin Kachaev were detained on suspicion of plotting an attempt on the above Mayor Saigidpasha Umakhanov. On February 17, they were sentenced to 9 and 12 years in prison, respectively.

Adam Delimkhanov is a close relative of Kadyrov and he is Kadyrov's first choice to replace him as head of Chechnya if the Chechen leader decides to take up a new job in Moscow, which has been discussed for a while. The FSB seems to have other ideas. The question is why Kadyrov and his men are being targeted now - at an inconvenient time. After all, the U.S. deep state, in the person of Brookings president Strobe Talbott, made it quite clear to the Russians that they should brace themselves for a third Chechen war in the foreseeable future. Regardless of what one thinks of Kadyrov's methods, nobody can deny that he has done a remarkable job in Chechnya. Whether he overstepped his bounds and exported his way of solving problems to Moscow or the FSB played a more sinister role in Nemtsov's assassination to get rid of Kadyrov, is anybody's guess but the current turf war definitely plays into Washington's hands, which opens up another possibility. Neither Kadyrov nor the FSB flinch from killing people but there is a difference between going after Chechen "dissidents" in Turkey and shooting an almost irrelevant opposition figure right in the middle of Moscow:

Russian intelligence agency accused of poisoning Chechens in Istanbul A Chechen activist has died in Istanbul after being hospitalized with his family members for food poisoning, as some of his relatives and Turkish activists accuse the Russian intelligence agency of poisoning wild garlic sent to him from Chechnya. During the funeral ceremony at Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque on March 3, several of Saduev’s relatives claimed “the Russian intelligence poisoned him like former KGB agent Alexendar Litvinenko and Arab fighters in Chechnya.” The head of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH), a conservative NGO in Turkey, said during the funeral that he also thought the Russian intelligence agency was behind Saduev’s death. “I’m addressing my Chechen brothers: Be very careful, no one among you is safe. Be careful of what you eat and where you go,” İHH head Bülent Yıldırım said, claiming Moscow prepared “a new assassination list” to target Chechen dissidents in Turkey.

Tajikistan Worried About All Kinds of Extremist Groups

It comes as no real surprise that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is worried about the health of Chechen "dissidents" in Turkey. IHH has long played a vital role in U.S.-NATO terror operations and knows full well that not all Chechens living in Turkey are as innocent as the Turkish authorities would have us believe. There are several reasons for Turkey's willingness to shelter "dissidents" from various countries but altruism is not one of them. The hospitality of the Turkish authorities is a thorn in the side of the respective governments, which have to get creative to eliminate their adversaries in Turkey. Poisoning appears to be a very popular at the moment, as demonstrated by the recent assassination of Tajik opposition politician and businessman Umarali Quvatov in Istanbul. Quvatov's wife, Kumriniso Hafizova, and her two sons were hospitalized and diagnosed with poisoning after the family had been lured into a trap by a fellow countryman and follower of Quvatov's opposition movement:

Three Arrested As Tajik Opposition Tycoon Buried In Istanbul Hafizova confirmed earlier reports saying that on March 5, she, Quvatov, and their two sons had been invited for dinner at the house of Sulaimon Qayumov, a 30-year-old Tajik citizen who has been residing in Istanbul for several months. Hafizova said that she, Quvatov, and their sons felt sick after consuming food offered by Qayumov and rushed out for fresh air. An ambulance eventually arrived at around 10:30 p.m. When they were outside, Hafizova said, an unidentified man approached Quvatov from behind and fired a single shot to his head before fleeing.

The host Qayumov and two other Tajik men have been arrested in connection with the murder but mourners left no doubt that "the killer of Tajik opposition leader, martyr Umarali Quvatov, is dictator Emomali Rahmon." Quvatov was the founder and leader of opposition movement Group 24, which has come under increasing pressure in recent months. In October of last year, Group 24 was labeled an "extremist" movement and banned in Tajikistan after the group had called for anti-government protests in Dushanbe. Lately, the Tajik authorities went after members of the movement in Tajikistan and abroad. Although Group 24 did not pose a threat to the rule of President Rahmon, it would be premature to dismiss the possibility that Dushanbe had a hand in Quvatov's killing. Perhaps somebody was getting tired of sending extradition requests to Turkey. The Tajik regime prefers to eliminate any threat to its rule, regardless of whether the threat is real or not:

Russian Defense Ministry: IS Poses Threat To Tajikistan In comments that are sure to exacerbate ever-growing fears of militancy in Central Asia, Russia's deputy defense minister has warned that militants from the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan pose a threat to Tajikistan. Anatoly Antonov reminded reporters in Moscow on March 5 that the IS group already had a presence in Afghanistan. Antonov said that the IS militant group posed a threat to Russia's partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance comprising Russia and five other post-Soviet states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The main threat posed by the militants is to Tajikistan, Antonov explained.

The Tajik authorities apparently agree with Antonov's assessment. According to Tajik intelligence, between 500 and 1,000 insurgents have appeared on the Tajik-Afghan border. Russian and Central Asian officials regularly exaggerate the ISIS threat but there is certainly some truth in the claim that fighters are massing in northern Afghanistan. Whether they sport the ISIS flag or belong to other groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is not Dushanbe's primary concern. What matters is that they don't cross the border into Tajikistan. The Tajik military is even practicing for an emergency. Over 30,000 soldiers from all cities and districts of southern Tajikistan participated in the recent military drills, which simulated an incursion from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. Not everyone shares the opinion of U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Susan Elliot that Tajikistan is able to protect its own borders and Russia prefers to play it safe:

CSTO Says Troops 'Could Be In Tajikistan In Three Days' The head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) says its military forces could be at the Tajik-Afghan border within three days if a conflict broke out there. Speaking at a press conference in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, late on March 13, Nikolai Bordyuzha said CSTO forces could repel any threat emanating from the Afghan side of the border. Bordyuzha said Russia is not looking to create a "second front in Tajikistan, but [Russia] would never permit the security of a CSTO member to be in doubt."

Afghan Chaos Panics Neighboring Countries 

While the Russian and Tajik authorities are keeping a close eye on the Tajik-Afghan border, the Turkmen authorities are doing the same on their part of the Afghanistan border. In contrast to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan was already forced to take action last year, when Turkmen forces "invaded" Afghanistan to repel insurgents. Ethnic Turkmens living on the Afghan side of the border are fed up with Turkmenistan's incursions but they will have to put up with similar Turkmen actions in the future, as some 2,000 militants from ISIS, the Taliban and the IMU are conquering more and more territory in Afghan districts just south of the Turkmen border. The militant groups causing trouble in northern Afghanistan include many foreign fighters. Dozens of Uzbek families have relocated to Faryab province after leaving Pakistan's tribal areas and the presence of Arabic-speaking jihadists in the area has fueled fears that ISIS is coming:

Turkmenistan Mobilizes Military Against ISIS Threat Turkmenistan is undertaking the first large-scale mobilization of its reserve military forces since gaining independence, which government officials say is required to ward off the threat of ISIS forces gathering in neighboring Afghanistan. That's according to a report in Central Asia Online, a Pentagon-funded news website known mostly for its sunny promotion of the activities of some of the world's most authoritarian governments. This report, even though it falls into that same pattern, is nevertheless pretty extraordinary for the fact that it gets several Turkmenistan officials to talk on the record, and some of them even disagree with one another. "This is the first large-scale and serious ... mobilisation of reservists in the nearly 24 years of the country's independence," Defence Ministry official Agamyrat Garakhanov told Central Asia Online, calling the number of called-up reservists a "state secret".

Many of the reservists are being sent to the Afghanistan border, where they are supposed to defend the country against the ISIS threat. If the situation on the border continues to deteriorate, it won't be long before the Turkmen government longs to return to the days when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan. With U.S. and NATO officials celebrating the ISAF mission as a "great success," the Obama administration will have a hard time explaining why plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of the year are being abandoned and why it is necessary to keep most of the American troops in the country. Meanwhile, China and Pakistan are trying to end the violence in Afghanistan with diplomacy. After Beijing put out all the stops to convince the Pakistani government and the Taliban of restarting stalled peace talks, there has been some progress but many obstacles remain:

Exclusive - Secret meetings in Pakistan expose obstacles to Afghan peace talks Days after word leaked that the Afghan Taliban had signalled willingness to enter talks to end Afghanistan's long war, senior representatives of the militant group visited Islamabad for secret discussions on the next step forward. They left with a blunt message from Pakistan: the Taliban must end a rift between two top leaders, or talks might never get off the ground.

The two senior Taliban figures in question are political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who favours negotiation, and battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who opposes talks with Kabul.

At least Pakistan appears to be supporting the peace talks, which is most likely owed to Chinese pressure. Afghanistan's Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah revealed a few days ago that China had also played a more important role than previously known in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table. According to Abdullah, Beijing has held "one, two or three rounds" of talks with the Taliban in the past few months. China doesn't want to make the same mistakes as the U.S. and tries to deal with the mess in Afghanistan without sending troops across the border, although this is becoming an option as well. The Chinese authorities might have to resort to the military option if the peace talks fail and the violence in Afghanistan starts to affect China's Xinjiang region, which faces enough problems:

'China convicted over 700 for secessionist activities in 2014' China convicted and sentenced more than 700 people for instigating separatism and terrorism last year, mainly in the Muslim-dominated volatile Xinjiang region where militants linked with al-Qaeda have carried out attacks. The Supreme People's Court today said that 712 people were sentenced for instigating secessionist activities and participating in violent terrorist attacks, a jump of 13.3 per cent year-on-year. In a report to the National People's Congress, Chief Justice Zhou Qiang said that those convicted were involved in 558 cases, up 14.8 per cent.

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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: February 23, 2015

Uyghur Terrorists Making Headlines in Turkey- China-Indonesia, Victoria Nuland and USAID Go on South Caucasus Tour & 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 "Euromaidan Revolution" was a resounding success. In fact, it was so successful that the "heroes of the Euromaidan Revolution" and their compatriots are now fleeing the country in record numbers. Fortunately, this won't affect the regime in Kiev, which prefers to appoint foreigners to important positions. Ukraine is primarily relying on Georgian experience to "conquer the whole of Russia," as former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili put it. But Saakashvili's presence and the ever-increasing number of Saakashvili-era officials in Kiev have drawn heavy criticism from Georgia since the former President and several of his associates face criminal charges at home. Predictably, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ignored all warnings from Tbilisi and decided to appoint Saakashvili as his non-staff advisor and as head of Ukraine's Advisory International Council of Reforms, where he can use his "knowledge, experience and unique know-how" to develop proposals and recommendations for implementing reforms in Ukraine. Tbilisi's reaction was not long in coming:

Tbilisi Summons Ukrainian Ambassador over Saakashvili Georgian Foreign Ministry has “invited” Ukrainian ambassador in Tbilisi, Vasyl Tsybenko, “to talk on many issues” including about appointing Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is wanted by the Georgian authorities, as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s adviser, Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Davit Kereselidze, said on February 16. He said that although this appointment was “surprising” to Tbilisi, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson also stressed that “nothing will obstruct” strategic partnership between Georgia and Ukraine. “Let’s not cause a stir out of it,” Kereselidze said at a news conference responding a question about summoning of the Ukrainian ambassador. “Ukraine is our strategic partner, which is an important country with which we have and will have friendly relations.”

Kiev's Preference for Georgians Strains Georgian-Ukrainian Relations

Although the Georgian government continues to insist that everything is fine, it is safe to say that Kiev's preference for Georgians has strained relations between Kiev and Tbilisi. The Georgian authorities won't go as far as prosecuting former Georgian servicemen who fight for the Ukrainian regime in the Donbass but they have made it clear that Saakashvili & Co. should be arrested and extradited. Unperturbed by the criticism, Ukraine's Ambassador to Georgia, Vasyl Tsybenko, defended Saakashvili's appointment, saying that "Ukraine is an independent state" and that the guys in Kiev can "make the decisions they think are necessary." Calling Ukraine, or rather what's left of Ukraine, an independent state is of course ridiculous and it is a debatable point whether it is really necessary to fill even more key posts with Saakashvili-era officials. Tsybenko was summoned to explain not only Saakashvili's appointment but also what other former Georgian officials, such as ex-Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, are doing in Kiev. Both Saakasvhili and Adeishvili are wanted in Georgia:

Georgian Prosecutor’s Office: ‘Ukraine Refuses to Extradite Saakashvili’ Georgian Chief Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement on February 17 that despite its request, Ukraine has “not cooperated” with Georgia and refuses to extradite ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili and ex-justice minister Zurab Adeishvili. On February 13 Saakashvili, wanted by the Georgian authorities, was appointed by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko as his adviser and head of International Advisory Council on Reforms. The Georgian Foreign Ministry summoned Ukrainian ambassador in Tbilisi over Saakashvili’s appointment. Although ex-justice minister of Georgia Zurab Adeishvili, who is also wanted by Tbilisi, has no official post in the Ukrainian government, he is informally advising Ukrainian authorities, according to former Georgian officials now working in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials stressed that issue is still being discussed and that they have not made a final decision on whether to extradite Saakashvili and Adeishvili but the Georgian Chief Prosecutor's Office lost no time in sending another extradition request to Kiev in an effort to demonstrate its determination. Although many Georgians would like to see their former President behind bars, it is highly unlikely that Saakashvili or any other former Georgian official will be extradited. Kiev and Washington count on their "expertise" in the fight against evil Russia. Who better to coordinate the issue of arms supplies to Kiev than Saakashvili? A few days ago, Saakashvili boasted that he convinced U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012 to supply Georgia with powerful defensive weapons. To Saakashvili's horror, the weapons were never delivered because the "pro-Russian" government of Bidzina Ivanishvili had other ideas. He also blamed Ivanishvili, who left politics in late 2013, for the current decline of Georgia and vowed to return to power to save the country from "catastrophe." This may prove to be difficult. Even Washington's other favorite in Georgia doesn't want anything to do with him:

Free Democrats: No deal with Saakashvili party After exchanging barrels of criticism, Georgia’s two main pro-western political parties deny likelihood of future political alliance. At least one of them, Free Democrats of the former defense minister Irakli Alasania, is obviously firm in its loath toward alliance with Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement. In an unlikely sharp remark, former diplomat Alasania called Saakashvili ‘Baron Münchausen’, referring to the fictional German nobleman, a pathological liar.

In contrast to Saakashvili and Alasania, the current Georgian government is not hellbent on starting a war with Russia. But that doesn't mean that Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration is at risk. Georgian-U.S. military cooperation continues and NATO's joint training center in Georgia is expected to open its doors by the end of this year. Although Georgian and NATO officials have repeatedly said that the training center is not aimed at Russia, the Kremlin is alarmed and justifiably so. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently discussed "the non-stop process to drag Georgia into NATO" with his South Ossetian counterpart David Sanakoyev. South Ossetia called NATO's plans to set up training center in Georgia "provocative" and Foreign Minister Sanakoyev stressed that South Ossetia is still worried about the possibility of a Georgian attack. That's one of the reasons why South Ossetia signed this week a new border agreement with Russia, much to the dismay of Georgia:

Georgia Condemns Deal Between Russia, South Ossetia as Step Toward Annexation Georgia has condemned the signing of a border agreement between its breakaway region of South Ossetia and Russia, accusing Moscow of moving closer to annexing a territory it supported in a five-day conflict in 2008. Moscow went further by signing a "strategic partnership" agreement with Abkhazia last November, seven months after annexing Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and throwing its weight behind separatists battling in eastern Ukraine. Russia says it wants to sign a similar document to integrate its security forces and military with South Ossetia's, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed a preliminary agreement with his counterpart in the separatist region on Wednesday.

Victoria Nuland & USAID Go on South Caucasus Tour 

Russia's Foreign Ministry had the ludicrous idea that the border agreement would dispel "Georgia's insinuations about alleged preparations for annexation and accession." As expected, it had the opposite effect. While Georgian officials were freaking out, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland offered moral support, stressing that the U.S. will continue to support Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. During her visit to Georgia, Nuland also commented on the spat between Tbilisi and Kiev over Saakashvili. She reminded the Georgian authorities that Georgia and Ukraine should support each other in this "very imporant moment," as both countries "seek to pursue the path of Euro-Atlantic integration." Georgia was the second stop on Nuland's Caucasus tour. At the beginning of this week, the infamous U.S. diplomat visited Azerbaijan and she was not alone:

US Assistant Secretary: Last 10 days were quite busy period for US-Azerbaijan relations

"At all the meetings, we conveyed the same message that the US welcomes the cooperation it has build with Azerbaijan over a period of more than 20 years. We want  to see an independent and democratic Azerbaijan, and to continue the relations built between the two countries 20 years ago. I’ve been traveling to Baku since 1993. The two countries cooperate in the three areas – security, economy-energy and democracy. We have jointly fought against terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan and Kosovo,” the US official underlined.   The assistant secretary said she arrived in Azerbaijan together with regional representatives of the US Department of Defense and European Command.   “Discussions are underway on joint exercises, training and strengthening of peacekeeping forces,” Nuland noted. 

There has been a lot of talk about Azerbaijan's shift away from the West but the continuing military cooperation tells a different story. Nuland also emphasized that energy ties between the U.S. and Azerbaijan "are in an excellent condition," which leaves the "democracy" issue as the point of contention. Color revolution expert Nuland met with President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov as well as members of Azerbaijan's civil society, who are having a rough time. The deteriorating human rights situation was high on the agenda during Nuland's meeting with Aliyev and she stressed the importance of a dialogue between the country's authorities and civil society, making the rather curious remark that a "color revolution is not necessary, when government and civil society are talking with each other." Against this backdrop, it is also interesting to note that Victoria Nuland is not the only color revolution expert currently touring the South Caucasus:

USAID Acting Assistant Administrator Susan Fritz Travels to the Caucasus U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Acting Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia Susan Fritz will travel to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia from February 20 - March 5. Acting Assistant Administrator Fritz's visit will include meetings with government officials, civil society, international partners, and USAID staff in these countries. This will be Acting Assistant Administrator Fritz's first visit to the Caucasus in her new capacity. During her trip to this important region, she plans to reaffirm the United States' commitment to working with our partners to promote stable, democratic, resilient societies and support energy security and economic growth throughout the region.

Victoria Nuland ended her South Caucasus tour with a visit in Armenia, where she explained to members of Armenian civil society how to make molotov cocktails and cookies. Joking apart, the Assistant Secretary of State lauded Armenia's viable civil society and pointed out that the dialogue between government and civil society is of key importance. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych learned this the hard way. Since Nuland is known for her indiscretion, it came as no real surprise that she managed to upset the authorities in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh even before she got to the country. During a press conference in Baku, Nuland advised Armenia to make a "humanitarian gesture" by releasing the Azerbaijani prisoners Dilgam Askerov and Shahbaz Guliyev, who were detained in Nagorno-Karabakh last year after the murder of an Armenian teenager. If the Aliyev regime had talked directly to the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, the appeal would have had a better chance of success:

Deputy: Nuland should advise Azerbaijan to petition to Karabakh Victoria Nuland should have instead given advice to the Azerbaijan government to petition to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) authorities about the future of the Azerbaijani saboteurs, NKR National Assembly member Gagik Petrosyan told Armenian News-NEWS.am. In his words, Nuland should have expressed her view when Azerbaijan was carrying out acts of sabotage and killing a sleeping man. To note, Armenian lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan was killed in his sleep by Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov, and with an axe, during a NATO Partnership for Peace program in Budapest on February 19, 2004. “It would have been better if the US Department of State had focused on the fact that the Azerbaijani saboteurs are killing children. Had they been prisoners of war, perhaps I would have agreed with Nuland; but they are saboteurs,” Petrosyan stressed.

Uyghur Terrorists Making Headlines in Turkey, China & Indonesia

As Victoria Nuland and USAID visit the South Caucasus, the Russian authorities have every reason to be alarmed. Thousands of Russians took to the streets on the recent anniversary of the Maidan coup to make it clear that they don't want any cookies from Nuland. Both Russia and China have identified color revolutions as a serious threat and agreed to work together "to withstand this new security challenge." China is already working on a Russian-style 'foreign agent' law, which aims to regulate the activities of foreign non-governmental organizations in the country. Moreover, Russia and China are still fighting against the destabilization of the North Caucasus and Xinjiang, respectively. Therefore, the increasing number of Russian and Chinese nationals joining the "Syrian rebels" gives Moscow and Beijing a headache. Only a few days ago, Turkish military forces detained a group of would-be terrorists from Xinjiang:

Seven Chinese nationals detained attempting to enter Syria through Turkey The Turkish Armed Forces General Staff Headquarters announced on Saturday that seven citizens of the People’s Republic of China had been apprehended by military forces in the southern province of Hatay. The Chinese nationals were apprehended within the 2nd Border Regiment, Pulluyazı Border Outpost Command area of jurisdiction by border guards as they were trying to illegally enter Syria. The General Staff Headquarters identified them as hailing from the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region in northeastern China. The Chinese nationals were handed over to the authorities.

Perhaps, this was a gesture of good will by the Turkish authorities after China had drawn attention to the fact that Turkey plays a decisive role in destabilizing Xinjiang. The exposure of Turkey's role prompted Turkish National Police Chief Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz to travel to Beijing and assure the Chinese government that Ankara will be more cooperative in the fight against terrorism in the future. But it remains to be seen if the Turkish authorities will really walk the talk. In recent weeks, Beijing has been very outspoken about the real players behind the terrorist threat. On occasion of the recent White House conference on countering violent extremism, China's official Xinhua news agency published an editorial accusing the U.S. of playing "the role of a terrorist breeder." This attack came on the heels of new reports about violence in Xinjiang. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this week that a suicide bomber killed up to eight people on February 13 and a few days later another attack left 17 people dead:

Clashes kill 17 in China’s restive west Seventeen people have reportedly been hacked, stabbed or shot to death in the latest episode of deadly violence to hit China's far west. Police were searching homes in a town called Yaqaeriq when a group of around 10 people turned on them, giving chase with knives and axes. In the ensuing violence four officials were killed. Police shot dead nine suspects and four passers-by who were apparently caught in the crossfire.

As is often the case, the Chinese authorities are trying to keep a lid on the latest outbreak of violence. If RFA's reporting is to be believed, the situation in Xinjiang is still very volatile and chaotic despite excessive police presence. During the incident in Yaqaeriq, a group of men managed to snatch firearms away from the police "who did not know how to use the guns" and one policeman told RFA that two of the assailants had escaped with a firearm. While China continues to struggle with the insurgency in Xinjiang, other countries in the region are also looking for Uyghur militants. Uyghur terrorist suspects with Turkish passports are currently again making headlines in Indonesia after the recent arrest of Uyghurs who are believed to be part of the group that carried out the massacre in Kunming. China has called on its neighbors and other countries in the region to repatriate all Uyghurs as soon as they catch them and the Afghan government thought this might be a good opportunity to exert pressure on Pakistan:

Afghans arrested Chinese Uighurs to aid Taliban talks bid: officials Afghanistan arrested and handed over several Muslim Uighur militants from China's west in an effort to persuade China to use its influence with Pakistan to help start negotiations with the Taliban, Afghan security officials said on Friday. "We offered our hand in cooperation with China and in return we asked them to pressure Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban or at least bring them to the negotiating table," said one of the security officials, who attended a meeting with Chinese officials to arrange transfer of the prisoners. The Uighurs, who the Afghan officials said had trained in militant camps across the border in Pakistan, were handed over to Chinese officials last month.

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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: February 16, 2015

TAPI Saga Continues as U.S. Escalates Shadow War in Afghanistan, Indonesia Catches Kunming Attack Suspects Carrying Turkish Passports & 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 never-ending story of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline (TAPI) continued this week with a meeting of the TAPI steering committee in Islamabad. Depending on which media outlet you want to believe, the project is either about to be implemented or still the pipe dream that it has always been. After Pakistan's Dawn newspaper had argued only a few weeks ago that the pipeline is unlikely to be built anytime soon, The Daily Times claimed recently that a deal is imminent and that French supermajor Total is prepared to lead the project. Pakistan insists on choosing Total as consortium leader but the company has been reluctant to get involved unless it can secure a stake in the respective Turkmen gas field. Due to its oil price-related problems, Total is currently even less inclined to take unnecessary risks. Therefore, India is now trying to convince Turkmenistan of changing its stance:

TAPI pipeline: India asks Turkmenistan to ease rules

With construction of the USD 10 billion TAPI pipeline stuck for want of a credible operator, India today pressed Turkmenistan to relax its domestic law to help get an international firm for building the project. French giant Total SA had initially envisaged interest in leading a consortium of national oil companies of the four nations in the TAPI project. However, it backed off after Turkmenistan refused to accept its condition of a stake in the gas field that will feed the pipeline. Since the four state-owned firms, including GAIL of India, neither have the financial muscle nor the experience of cross-country line, an international company that will build and also operate the line in hostile territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is needed.

TAPI Saga Continues as U.S. Escalates Shadow War in Afghanistan

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated that the TAPI member countries have unanimously agreed to pick Total as consortium leader, adding that the French oil and gas company and the Turkmen government are yet to agree on some details. The involved parties want to fix the start date of the project when the steering committee meets again in Kabul in two months and by then it should be clear if Total is really on board. Even if everything goes according to plan, the first flow of gas is expected no earlier than 2020. Nobody knows how the security situation in Afghanistan is going to develop in the meantime. So the Kabul government might have to share the transit fees it is desperately longing for with the Taliban, the Islamic State (ISIS) or other groups, which end up in control of the territory. With the turf war between the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan intensifying, the Afghan and Central Asian authorities lose no opportunity to hype the ISIS threat and the U.S. military can do what it does best:

US kills Islamic State's deputy emir for 'Khorasan province' in airstrike: report Afghanistan's intelligence service has confirmed that the US killed the Islamic State's deputy emir for 'Khorasan province' in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan earlier today. Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was appointed the deputy governor of Khorasan province in January, was previously a senior leader in the Taliban and was a former detainee at Gunatanamo Bay. The National Directorate of Security issued a statement that confirmed Khadim's death, according to Khaama Press. Khadim was traveling in a vehicle in the northern district of Kajaki in Helmand province with his brother and four "Pakistanis" when it was targeted in a US airstrike, Ariana News reported. Since his split with the Taliban, Khadim has reportedly clashed with the group in northern Helmand. An unconfirmed report from Afghanistan indicated that he and dozens of his fighters were detained by the Taliban, but his capture was not confirmed.

The Afghan news report about Khadim's arrest by the Taliban was mentioned in a previous round-up but the "reliable source" was apparently not as reliable as Pajhwok Afghan News claimed. Although ISIS will now have to get on without its foremost recruiter in the country, it is safe to say that the much-hyped terrorist group will continue to make headlines in Afghanistan. Many people have an interest in hyping the threat, even if the insurgents are just changing their flags. Pentagon officials are starting to like the idea of ISIS in Afghanistan. What better way to justify the continuous military presence than a new boogeyman? A former high-ranking Pakistani diplomat told Sputnik lately that the U.S. harbors terrorists in Afghanistan to keep the region destabilized and maintain a military presence there. Notwithstanding that this is pretty hypocritical considering Pakistan's actions, he has a point:

White House weighs adjusting Afghan exit plan to slow withdrawal of troops The Obama administration is considering slowing its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan for the second time, according to U.S. officials, a sign of the significant security challenges that remain despite an end to the U.S. and NATO combat mission there. Under the still-evolving plans, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, could be given greater latitude to determine the pace of the drawdown in 2015 as foreign forces scramble to ensure Afghan troops are capable of battling Taliban insurgents on their own, the officials said. The options under discussion would not alter what is perhaps the most important date in President Obama’s plan: ending the U.S. military mission entirely by the time he steps down in early 2017.

General John F. Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that he supports a slowing of the troop drawdown and he is in good company. New U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter clarified before his appointment that he would consider changing the current withdrawal plans if security conditions worsen. Although Campbell lauded the efforts of the Afghan security forces during the recent hearing, it is hardly a secret that they are not up to the task despite years of extensive training by U.S. and NATO troops. All the talk about the end of the war in Afghanistan should be taken with a grain of salt. Actually, the U.S. has been escalating the war in recent months but only few people have noticed it because, as a former Afghan security official put it, "it's all in the shadows now." While the U.S. is relying on its tried and tested night raids, China is still hoping to end the violence with diplomacy. The Chinese government has again offered to mediate in stalled peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban as Beijing prepares to invest more money in Afghanistan:

Expanding its role in Afghanistan, China to help build dam, roads China has promised to help build a hydroelectric power plant in a violent Afghan border region, as well as road and rail links to Pakistan, in the latest sign it is taking a more active role in Afghanistan. The assistance will include an unspecified amount of financing, an Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, Sirajul Haq Siraj, said on Tuesday, a day after senior Afghan, Chinese and Pakistani diplomats met in Kabul. "China agreed to support relevant initiatives for projects including the Kunar hydropower plant and strengthening road and rail connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

Indonesia Catches Kunming Attack Suspects Carrying Turkish Passports

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China's offer to mediate in peace negotiations during his recent two-day visit to Pakistan, where he met with several top Pakistani leaders, including President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Economic cooperation between the two countries and the situation in Afghanistan were high on the agenda. Wang noted that "ending Afghanistan’s turmoil was a common aspiration for both countries" and both sides agreed to coordinate their efforts in this regard. China has been trying to bring all sides to the negotiation table and Taliban representatives visited Beijing last year to discuss the issue but the group clarified a few weeks ago that they had rejected China's offer because they are not interested in peace talks. Although Beijing maintains good relations with the Taliban, the Chinese authorities are increasingly worried about the situation in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban are in control of large parts of Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, which borders China's Xinjiang, and this could become a problem:

As the U.S. mission winds down, Afghan insurgency grows more complex As the United States reshapes its military footprint in Afghanistan, the Taliban is transforming into a patchwork of forces with often conflicting ideals and motivations, looking less like the ultra-religious movement it started out as in the mid-1990s. The fragmentation may suggest the movement is weakening, but it is forcing Afghanistan’s government to confront an insurgency that is becoming increasingly diverse, scattered — and more lethal. What is unfolding here in Badakhshan province offers a glimpse into these complexities — and the future of a conflict in which the U.S. combat mission is formally over. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, this was the only province it was never able to control. Now, the insurgency is making inroads here and in other parts of the north, outside its strongholds in the south and east. The Taliban in Badakhshan has gained strength precisely because it is different from the core insurgency. Its fighters are using their ethnic and tribal ties to gain recruits and popular support, while their knowledge of the landscape helps them outmaneuver Afghan security forces and control lucrative sources of funding.

The Taliban in Badakhshan province are reportedly not as radical as their counterparts in other areas of Afghanistan but they are still not the ideal neighbors when you are trying to prevent the radicalization of Xinjiang's Muslim population. China's increasing efforts to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan are primarily driven by concerns about the support Uyghur insurgents are getting from Afghanistan. For this reason, Beijing wants the Pakistani authorities to ensure that there is no infiltration from Afghanistan through Pakistan into Xinjiang. China is trying to contain the insurgency in its far west by cutting off outside support, as highlighted by the recent crackdown on illegal border crossings by Uyghurs. The arrest of several Turks and Uyghurs in Shanghai in November of last year exposed Turkey's role in the smuggling operations and shed light on the players behind the East Turkestan independence movement. A few days ago, Indonesia announced another revealing arrest:

Kunming terrorist attack suspects nabbed in Indonesia The Chinese and Indonesian governments exchanged information on nine terrorist suspects, believed to be from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, who fled to Indonesia after plotting an attack in China last year, Indonesian media reported. The Indonesian police arrested four of the nine. Three fled into the jungle and two others escaped to Malaysia. The captured suspects are likely to be extradited to China as the two countries signed an extradition treaty in 2009, Jakata Post reported. The suspects fled to Poso, Indonesia, by a land route through Myanmar, southern Thailand and Malaysia. From Malaysia, they entered Indonesia with Turkish passports, posing as asylum seekers, Saut said.

As previously discussed, many Uyghurs are trying to leave China via Southeast Asia and the Chinese authorities have made it clear that not all of them are innocent refugees and that Southeast Asia has become a transit point for Uyghur would-be terrorists. The nine suspects in Indonesia are believed to be part of the group that carried out the massacre at Kunming's railway station in March of last year. Chinese officials stated at the time that the Kunming attackers had tried to leave China and "become jihadis overseas" but failed to do so and decided to launch an attack at home. The captured suspects in Indonesia gave inconsistent statements. At first, they admitted having come from Xinjiang but retracted their statements later and said that they had come from a town in Turkey. World Uyghur Congress deputy head Seyit Tümtürk, the go-to guy for Uyghurs in Turkey, can perhaps clear up where they came from. Meanwhile, China's fight against the 'East Turkestan forces' continues and the Chinese authorities are trying to ensure the stability of Xinjiang by all available means:

China to boost financial help for troubled Xinjiang Four of China's top financial regulators vowed on Thursday to step up policy support for the poorer southern portion of the troubled western region of Xinjiang to boost economic development and ensure stability there. Authorities have employed a carrot and stick approach to bring Xinjiang under control, massively ramping up security but also pumping in money, in a recognition of the economic roots of the unrest, especially in the poorer southern portion. In a joint statement, the regulators, including the central bank, said they would deepen indirect fund-raising, expand direct financing, encourage financial innovation and step up infrastructure projects.

Armenia Has Second Thoughts about Eurasian Economic Union

Xinjiang's economic development is making good progress despite the outside interference. Although the autonomous region is currently facing a slowdown in foreign trade due to falling commodity prices, Xinjiang's trade with Russia has skyrocketed in the last year - another sign of the increasing economic cooperation between the two close allies. A $242 billion high-speed rail link from Beijing to Moscow is going to solidify the relationship in the future and Russia's Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov announced recently that China is now even showing interest in establishing a free trade zone with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) after overcoming a lot of skepticism. The EEU got off to a very bad start, not least because of the economic war against Russia. Although it did not take long before Belarus and Kazakhstan questioned their decision to join the trade bloc, they have no plans to leave the EEU. The same is true of Armenia but that didn't stop Yerevan from resuming talks with Brussels about an European Union Association Agreement:

Armenia: Yerevan Mending Fences with EU With the Russian economy hitting the skids, it looks like Armenia wants to hedge its economic bets. Although Yerevan became a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in January, a senior Armenian government official told EurasiaNet.org that the country is working to complete an updated version of an EU Association Agreement that Armenian officials put on hold back in 2013. Balancing trade and other commitments inherent in EEU membership along with those involved with an EU association agreement appear, at least on paper, to be problematic. But that isn’t deterring Yerevan. A need for money seems to be the main motivation. With Russia, Armenia’s main economic partner, suffering the effects of both low oil prices and Western sanctions, Armenia saw its remittances from guest workers abroad fall by 39 percent in 2014, and exports sag by 18 percent, according to the National Statistical Service. And so far, the expected economic benefits of joining the EEU have not materialized. Simplified export-import procedures are not in effect yet, while import duties have been raised on over 7,000 products.

Brussels has been undeterred by Armenia's decision to ditch the EU and join the EEU. Traian Hristea, EU Ambassador to Armenia, emphasized a few days ago that the EU will not leave Armenia and continue to support reforms in the country. With relations between Armenia and Russia strained due to the killing of an Armenian family by a Russian serviceman, the EU lost no time in offering Armenia an association agreement without its free-trade component. The recent visit by Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan to Moscow could also play into Brussels' hands. Abrahamyan tried to secure a big loan or investments and to get a lower gas tariff from Russia in exchange for a partial shift from dollars to rubles in gas settlements, to no avail. So far, the Kremlin has been silent on the new Armenia-EU talks about an association agreement but this was perhaps a broad hint. To make matters worse, the trial of Russian soldier Valery Permyakov is still whipping up feelings as well:

Protesters demand handover or Russian soldier to Armenian law enforcers A group of protesters held an action in front of Prosecutor's Office on Thursday demanding guarantees that the accused would be handed over to Armenian law enforcement agencies (photo). The participants demanded justice, transparent investigation and handover of Valery Permyakov, they handed over a letter to Prosecutor General Gevorg Kostanyan.

As reported earlier, six members of the Avetisyan family—including a two-year-old girl—were shot dead, and a six-month-old baby was wounded in their house in Gyumri on January 12; and the baby boy died in hospital on January 19.

Armenia has formally asked Russia to hand over Permyakov but Moscow insists on prosecuting the soldier on the Russian miliary base in Gyumri, where he has been held since his arrest. The killing of the Armenian family has raised questions about the Russian military presence in Armenia but the Armenian authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place because they cannot do without Russian support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. Russia's 102nd Military Base in Gyumri is one of the few things deterring Azerbaijan from launching an all-out war against Armenia. The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has made it clear that Russia will fulfill its obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if Armenia is attacked. In this light, it is very interesting that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now looking to join the same organization:

Azerbaijan, Armenia To Become SCO Observers? Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said. The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.

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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: February 9, 2015

Ukraine to Conquer "The Whole of Russia" Using Georgian Experience, India-Russia-China Anti-Terror Campaign Makes Pakistan Nervous & 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 end of last month, U.S. President Barack Obama made history with his three-day visit to India. Obama became the first American leader to be honored as chief guest at India's annual Republic Day parade and the first U.S. President to visit India twice in his tenure. His trip has been hailed as a milestone in Indo-American relations because it allegedly demonstrates that India is tilting toward the U.S. in its foreign policy, ending its policy of non-alignment. It is indeed possible that India will end its non-alignment policy in the foreseeable future but it is doubtful that this entails closer Indo-American ties. Obama did his best to destroy his popularity with the people in India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not a big fan of Washington anyway. As previously discussed, Modi's election paved the way for a rapprochement between India and China, culminating in Beijing's endorsement of India's accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). To make matters worse for the U.S., the Modi government has refused to reconsider India's policy toward Moscow and strengthened the strategic partnership with Russia. This week's trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of India, Russia and China revealed the synergy between the three countries:

India and Russia back China's call for 'new world order' Russia and India added their voices on Monday to China's call for a new world order and endorsed Beijing's plans to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war. In a joint communique, the three nations vowed to "build a more just, fair and stable international political and economic order" and a "multi-polar" world. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said all states should be involved in creating "a modern security architecture" in the Asia-Pacific; his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi , said the region should not be caught up in a zero-sum game.

India-Russia-China Anti-Terror Campaign Makes Pakistan Nervous

The Chinese authorities have warned India against falling into the "Western trap" by working against China. Since both counties are not interested in participating in a zero-sum game, they are looking to accommodate each other. Therefore, India won't join the "China containment brigade." In return for New Delhi's support, China and Russia endorsed India's push to join the SCO and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Furthermore, India secured greater Chinese support for its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which would be an important step on the way to a multi-polar world. While most countries prefer a multi-polar world to the current order, the sole remaining superpower begs to differ. As The Diplomat's Shannon Tiezzi noted, the interests of India, Russia and China "continue to converge in ways the U.S. would not approve of." This includes economic cooperation, such as the idea of a Russia-China-India gas pipeline, as well as anti-terror cooperation, which was high on the agenda in Beijing:

India, Russia and China join forces to fight terror at trilateral meet India joined hands with Russia and China on Monday to fight terror, pledging at their 13th trilateral meeting to crack down on not only terrorists but also those who finance and give refuge to them. The three nations issued a strong joint statement on terror, saying religious, racial and ethnic divisions were no justification for terrorism. Without naming any country, the communiqué said there was a need to “bring to justice perpetrators, organisers, financiers and sponsors of terrorist acts”.

India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that Russia and China have decided to back the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), which was proposed by India in 1996 and has been a controversial subject ever since. The resolution is aimed at punishing Pakistan for its support of Kashmiri militants in the Kashmir conflict against India, thus the news didn't go down well in Pakistan. Although China had stressed only a few days prior that Pakistan is an "irreplaceable all-weather friend," Beijing's decision to back the resolution comes as no real surprise. Pakistan is playing a dangerous game by sheltering and supporting insurgents from various countries, including Uyghurs from Xinjiang. Last year, the Pakistani authorities agreed to help China with its fight against the "East Turkestan terrorist forces" after the Chinese government had ramped up the pressure on Islamabad. Beijing can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the dubious activities of its "irreplaceable all-weather friend," as the region's stability becomes more important for both countries:

Sino-Pakistan economic corridor nears implementation phase China is pushing for the development of an economic corridor to Pakistan as a key component of its national development strategy of "One Belt and One Road," according to the Shanghai Securities News. During a meeting with Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan, on Jan. 30 in Beijing, Chinese premier Li Keqiang said that a Sino-Pakistan economic corridor functions as the strategic framework for the cooperation of the two nations. Shanghai Securities News said the Sino-Pakistan economic corridor project will begin implementation this year, highlighting the construction of major transportation infrastructure.

In order to obtain Islamabad's support for its fight against the insurgency in Xinjiang, China has promised Pakistan billions of dollars in investment. Now it is up to both countries to ensure that Pakistan's troubled relationship with extremist networks and militants doesn't impede the implementation of the planned economic corridor from the Pakistani port city of Gwadar to the ancient Silk Road trading hub of Kashgar in Xinjiang. Since China's "New Silk Road" depends on stability in Xinjiang, Beijing is increasingly worried about Uyghurs gaining combat experience abroad. The Chinese authorities are now trying to shut down what state media call the "underground railway," as highlighed by the arrest of several Turks and Uyghurs in November of last year in Shanghai. Many Uyghurs are trying to leave China via Southeast Asia and the Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan recently reported that Malaysia has become a main "transfer station" for new recruits hoping to join the Islamic State (ISIS). Some of them change their opinion about ISIS once they get to the Middle East but by then it is too late:

Islamic State kills Chinese militants The Islamic State (IS) has killed three Chinese militants who tried to leave the group, an official from the Kurdish security force in Iraq told the Global Times. 

The Kurdish security official said Wednesday that in the past six months, IS has executed 120 of its members who attempted to escape from the group and leave Iraq and Syria. Among the 120, three were Chinese citizens and were members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a terrorist organization that is also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party. Singapore-based Chinese news portal zaobao.com earlier reported that around 300 Chinese extremists were fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq after travelling to the two countries via Malaysia.

"Chechen Rebels" Busy in Syria & Ukraine, Can't Liberate Chechnya

As highlighted in a previous round-up, NATO member Turkey plays a decisive role in smuggling Uyghurs out of China and in recruiting Uyghur fighters for ISIS or other terrorist groups in Syria. This has strained relations between Ankara and Beijing. While individuals like Seyit Tümtürk from the NED-funded World Uyghur Congress (WUC) are denouncing China's "persecution" of Uyghurs and promoting Turkey as the only safe place for their "brothers from East Turkestan," the Chinese government is growing increasingly impatient with anyone who suggests that the Uyghurs leaving China are all just innocent refugees. Turkey's National Police Chief Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz visited Beijing last month to put oil on troubled waters. Lekesiz stressed that Turkey would never support activities harming China's interests and offered to beef up law enforcement and security cooperation but Beijing knows full well that Ankara cannot be trusted. One need look no further than the arrest of Turks and Uyghurs in Shanghai or the last major terrorist attack in Russia's North Caucasus to understand Turkey's role in the New Great Game. If the Chinese have second thoughts about Turkey's intentions, they can ask Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov who knows a thing or two about this issue. Kadyrov usually doesn't mince his words when it comes to NATO-backed terrorism:

Chechen leader blames US & Western intel for Islamic State terrorists Ramzan Kadyrov has accused the US and other Western nations of “spawning” the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group in order to incite hatred towards Muslims all over the world. “Today, no one doubts the fact that this group has been spawned by America and other Western countries in order to spark hatred of Islam in the hearts of people all over the planet, to stop the process of mass conversion to Islam,” the head of the Chechen Republic wrote on his Instagram page. Kadyrov also suggested the West was backing IS in order to distract public attention from numerous problems in the Middle East, in the hope of destroying Islamic nations from inside.

A few days earlier, Kadyrov had accused the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies of using fake social media accounts to recruit young Russians for ISIS and other terrorist groups. Judging by his frequent use of Instagram, it is fair to say that the Chechen leader is a social media expert. Some people are trying to use this against him but no one can deny that Kadyrov has managed to achieve what many others have failed to do: making ISIS nervous. While Kadyrov's nemesis Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Abu Omar al-Shishani, is still nowhere to be found, his old colleagues from Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) are using the opportunity to slam ISIS for using inexperienced recruits as cannon fodder, an accusation that has been made before against Batirashvili. Given that the "Chechen rebels" are busy quarreling with each other in the Middle East, the situation in the North Caucasus has been relatively calm in recent months, except for the high-profile attacks in Grozny. Moreover, NATO's Chechen mercenaries are currently not only fighting in Syria but also in Ukraine:

Veteran Chechen Commander Killed Fighting in Ukraine Prominent Chechen commander Isa Munayev has reportedly been killed in eastern Ukraine, where he was battling alongside Kiev government troops against pro-Moscow separatists. Munayev — a veteran of Chechnya's wars for independence from Russia — was killed Sunday near the town of Debaltseve, said Amina Okuyeva, a press officer for the Dzhokhar Dudayev peacekeeping battalion, which Munayev commanded. He was providing cover for Kiev-loyal forces that were withdrawing after "successfully completing a mission" when he was killed by artillery fire, Okuyeva said Monday in a statement posted on the Odessa Crisis Media Center website.

During the Second Chechen War, Isa Munayev was the military commandant of Grozny and head of the Interior Ministry of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria under Aslan Maskhadov. After the "Chechen rebels" had been largely defeated, Munayev fled to Denmark, where he lived for a couple of years before coming to Ukraine to stop the "moskals." To this end, Munayev formed the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, which consists of Chechens, Russians, Ukrainian and Georgians. The Kiev regime depicted him as a hero and mourned his death, whereas Chechen President Kadyrov insisted that Munayev never was a warrior or a real man. Furthermore, Kadyrov made the ludicrous claim that Munayev's close associates Adam Osmayev and Amina Okueva had organized his murder on behalf of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the CIA after the intelligence agencies realized "that Munayev is not worth even a devalued hryvnia." Adam Osmayev, who succeeded Munayev as head of the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, has an interesting history as well:

Adam Osmaev assumes command of battalion fighting for official Kiev A native of Grozny Adam Osmaev, who had been once accused of plotting a terror act against the Russian President Vladimir Putin, has headed the "International Peacemaking Battalion named after Dudaev", created by Isa Munaev, a former Chechen field commander, and taking part in the war in Eastern Ukraine as a part of the antiterrorist operation (ATO). In October 2014, the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office excluded the terrorism article from his indictment. On November 18, 2014, the Primorsky District Court of Odessa found Osmaev guilty of illegal handling of explosives, reckless destruction of another's property and forging documents, sentenced him to 2 years 9 months and 14 days in jail and released him in the courtroom, because he had already served this term in the SIZO.

Ukraine to Conquer "The Whole of Russia" Using Georgian Experience

As Chechen terrorists are leading Kiev's so-called anti-terror operation, Western media is doing its best to whitewash anyone who is fighting for the Ukrainian regime. Osmayev made headlines when he was jailed for trying to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin but his early release from prison didn't attract much attention. Admittedly, it is difficult to keep track of all the criminals who are finding a new job in the "New Ukraine." Not everyone is as publicity-seeking as former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who is currently making the case for arming Ukraine. A few days ago, Saakashvili caused a lot of laughter when he told Ukrainian television that a properly armed and prepared Ukrainian army could "capture the whole of Russia." Saakashvili is of course speaking from his own experience. In 2008, the U.S.-trained Georgian army almost captured the whole of Russia after Saakashvili started the Russo-Georgian War. The Ukrainian authorities can consider themselves lucky that the Georgian leader is ready to use all his experience to help the New Ukraine:

Georgia's ex-president Saakashvili seeks to become Ukraine’s anti-corruption chief Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili confirmed on Monday that he is ready to fight for the post of Ukraine’s national anti-corruption bureau chief. In an interview with the Censor.net news portal, Saakashvili said corruption is one of the main enemies of Ukraine and he could introduce an action plan based on Georgia’s experience of fighting against corruption. Saakashvili said he could use his international ties to focus on the issues of returning to Ukraine the arrested assets of a corrupt group linked to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

While the former Georgian President is offering Kiev his help to return the assets of corrupt individuals linked to former President Yanukovych, Georgia is still trying to capture Saakashvili and seize his assets. Saakashvili's old nemesis, former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is making sure that nobody forgets which crimes Saakashvili and his associates committed during their reign in Georgia. Ivanishvili announced last month in a much-noticed TV interview that he is planning to do a TV series of 200 episodes about Saakashvili's rule. The richest man in Georgia also used the opportunity to criticize Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement (UNM), for encouraging youth to fight in Ukraine, stressing that Saakashvili & Co. "should first ask their own children to go." As previously pointed out, the regime in Kiev would be lost without its Georgian fighters and Saakashvili-era officials:

Wanted Georgian ex-justice minister spotted in Kiev Georgian Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, who has been wanted for more than a year and is subject to an Interpol Red Alert, was recently spotted in Ukraine. The Georgian Prosecutor General’s Office has now asked the Ukrainian government to detain Adeishvili and extradite him to Georgia. Adeishvili has been wanted since November, 2013, for involvement in the staging of torture of prisoners, of trying to run an opposition-affiliated bank into bankruptcy, and for the cover-up of the murder of bank employee Sandro Girgvliani in 2006.

According to Deputy Interior Minister Archil Talakvadze, Tbilisi has sent the necessary documentation about the charges against Adeishvili to Kiev and is now waiting for a response. Many people in Georgia demand that officials who broke the law during the Saakashvili regime are held to account but Kiev and Washington might have other ideas. Tbilisi won't risk annoying its masters in Washington just to hold a few criminals to account. After Ivanishvili recently dared to draw attention to the dubious role of NGOs in the country, he was immediately rebuked by U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland and Ivanishvili's protégé, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, tried to calm the waves. The Georgian government knows that wrong decisions could prompt a Georgian Maidan because the country is a crucial outpost in the new Cold War against Russia. The U.S. is planning to boost military and economic aid to Georgia and NATO is going ahead with the implementation of its 'substantial package' of cooperation with Georgia despite all Russian warnings:

NATO training center in Georgia to escalate tension in Black Sea region — Russian diplomat NATO's plan of setting up a training center in Georgia is a step towards escalating tension in the Black Sea region, Russia’s representative at NATO Alexander Grushko told reporters on Friday. "A training center in Georgia is a step, which cannot be taken other than provocative. NATO does not need any centers," the diplomat said. "We shall be looking into the issue, but establisheng NATO military objects in Georgia is a step towards tension and aggravation of the regional security." "Our position is that in the Black Sea region there are all conditions to have security provided by regional states. I mean by countries of the Black Sea," he said.

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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: February 2, 2015

China Tries to Lure Turkmenistan with Surface-To-Air Missiles, Russia Vows to Support Tajikistan as ISIS-Taliban Rivalry Escalates & 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.

Over the years, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has proved himself to be an excellent Twitter warrior. Aliyev regularly uses his favorite medium to blow his own trumpet and blast arch-enemy Armenia. So he started the new year by calling Armenia "a powerless and poor country," which "is not even worthy of being a servant." The conflict between the two neighboring countries over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated in recent months. Although international mediators have repeatedly called on both sides to work towards a peaceful solution, the clashes intensified again in January. On Thursday, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said it had shot down an Armenian drone near Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia dismissed the statement as "absurd." Despite all that, Aliyev is touting Azerbaijan as "an island of stability." Most people will also have a hard time agreeing with Aliyev's claims that "the fight against corruption and bribery is proving very successful" and that "no-one is prosecuted or arrested for a critical opinion in Azerbaijan." Baku's unprecedented crackdown on journalists, human rights activists and NGOs has drawn a lot of criticism from the West. Even "civil society" expert George Soros is deeply concerned:

George Soros urges President Aliyev to loosen his stranglehold over civil society The Open Society Foundations are deeply concerned about the intensifying campaign against civil society in Azerbaijan, including the detention of several prominent human rights activists. In April, the authorities targeted Open Society’s foundation in Baku, the Open Society Institute–Assistance Foundation. They froze the foundation’s local bank account and seized its computers, as well as questioned former employees. The Open Society Foundations dismiss any allegations of wrongdoing. George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, met with President Ilham Aliyev in Davos, Switzerland, and urged the president to loosen his stranglehold over civil society and to end his harassment of legally registered charitable organizations.

Atlantic Council Working on Transatlantic Strategy for Europe's East

Aliyev knows full well that he is not in a position to defy Soros and the U.S. deep state, which Soros represents. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Azerbaijan will abandon its pro-Western course, as many people have suggested in recent months. Baku's friends in the U.S. are already trying to pour oil on troubled waters. This week, The Washington Times launched a marketing campaign for the Aliyev regime. The highlight was an article by former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives Dan Burton, in which he explained why "America and the rest of the free world need more friends like Azerbaijan." Burton is currently the chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance. He can look back on a long career as lobbyist for Azerbaijan, Turkey and Pakistan and FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds included Burton in her State Secrets Privilege Gallery with good reason. Speaking of 'Gladio B,' former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, whose name might sound familiar to readers of The Lone Gladio, likewise urged the U.S. to pay more attention to Azerbaijan. It is well known that Aliyev's fiefdom in the South Caucasus is very important to the U.S. and NATO. The Atlantic Council's new strategy for Eastern Europe will definitely take this into account:

“Toward a Transatlantic Strategy for Europe’s East” conference held in Washington

The Atlantic Council in partnership with the government of Latvia has hosted a conference titled “Toward a Transatlantic Strategy for Europe’s East” in Washington. Head of the Azerbaijani Parliamentary delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Samad Seyidov attended the conference. Mr. Seyidov jointly with Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia and Georgia, the Deputy FM of Ukraine and a Polish official participated in the “Toward a Europe Whole and Free" program.

Azerbaijan's neighbor Georgia plays an equally important role in Washington's plans to create a Europe "whole and free," which means the consolidation of a unified Europe controlled by Brussels on behalf of the United States. Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili attended the Atlantic Council conference during her four-day visit to Washington, where she met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials. Moreover, Beruchashvili found the time to talk to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) about Russia's imminent "annexation" of South Ossetia. The Georgian Foreign Minister was referring to South Ossetia's new integration treaty with Russia, which is expected to be signed later this month. Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia's has already signed a similar treaty. Russian officials have assured that neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia will be incorporated into the Russian Federation but the draft of the South Ossetia treaty tells another story:

South Ossetia is the Next Crimea Unlike the treaty of the same name that Russia signed with Abkhazia at the end of 2014, which underwent several re-writes, the draft of the South Ossetia treaty involves the transfer of huge amounts of sovereign responsibilities away from the de facto authorities in the capital Tskhinvali to the Russian Federation. These transfers are so comprehensive as to effectively signal the end of South Ossetia as an independent entity. If this treaty is signed into law, South Ossetia will lose control of its military, police, border control, judiciary and education system. In short, all of the attributes of a sovereign polity, recognized or not. The immediate impact of this will be softened due to de facto Russian control, official or via infiltration, of many South Ossetian institutions, but writing such control into law is groundbreaking.

South Ossetia has been calling for much deeper integration for quite some time, which is not difficult to understand considering Georgia's actions. While Beruchashvili was meeting with U.S. officials in Washington and helping the Atlantic Council with its "transatlantic strategy towards Europe's East," her colleagues at home were also busy furthering Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration. At the beginning of this week, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili welcomed Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, who visited the South Caucasus to discuss Georgia's integration with the EU and NATO. And shortly thereafter, they hosted NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, who flew to Tbilisi to scout out prospective sites for NATO's planned military training center in the country. Vershbow hailed Georgia's "remarkable democratic and defense reforms" and stressed that the U.S.-led military alliance is "committed to have the training center up and running later this year":

NATO To Start Military Exercises In Georgia This Year NATO's planned military training center in Georgia will start operations this year, a senior alliance official said on a visit to Tbilisi. "Starting this year, we aim to hold periodic military exercises here in your country, with NATO Allies as well as with other interested NATO partners," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at a January 30 speech in Tbilisi.

The exercises will be held at a "Joint Training and Evaluation Centre," the establishment of which NATO and Georgia announced last September. A location for the center still hasn't been determined, but one of the items on Vershbow's agenda in Georgia was to scout out locations; Civil.ge reported that one of the candidates sites he visited was the Vaziani training range near Tbilisi.

Russia Vows to Support Tajikistan as ISIS-Taliban Rivalry Escalates

In light of NATO's activities in Georgia, Russia's "annexation" of South Ossetia makes perfect sense. Meanwhile, Russia is also trying to convince Tajikistan of closer integration. Moscow would like Tajikistan to become the third Central Asian member state of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) after Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which is expected to join the bloc in May. To this end, the Kremlin wants to exploit Tajikistan's dependence on remittances from labor migrants in Russia. Remittances from Tajik workers abroad make up about 50 percent of the nation's GDP. Given that Russia's new regulations disadvantage migrant workers from outside the EEU, the Tajik authorities will have a hard time rejecting EEU membership. Furthermore, Russia eyes closer military cooperation with Tajikistan. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov stressed this again during this week's visit to the Central Asian country, as he tried to assuage concerns about slow deliveries of promised military aid:

By providing assistance to the Tajik army Russia strengthens its own security, says Russian official “Antonov noted that Russia and Tajikistan have no choice but to expand cooperation because they face common challenges and threats,” Faridoun Mahmadaliyev, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, told Asia-Plus in an interview. “We realize that Tajikistan is our advanced post in the fight against terrorism and other challenges and threats,” Antonov said. He further added that the Russian defense ministry would continue providing assistance to the Tajik armed forces.

Antonov stated that Moscow wants to strengthen the Tajik army as "an outpost of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Central Asia" and the strengthening of the Tajik-Afghan border was reportedly also high on the agenda during his meeting with Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon. Russian and Central Asian officials have recently sounded the alarm due to the growing number of insurgents in northern Afghanistan. Kidnappings along the Tajik-Afghan border highlighted that the threat has to be taken seriously. The four Tajik border guards, who were supposed to be handed over to Tajikistan last week, are still being held hostage in Afghanistan and two more border guards were lately wounded in shootouts along the frontier. Many of the insurgents in northern Afghanistan are believed to be Central Asian fighters belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or splinter groups, such as Jamaat Ansarullah. Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, raised a few eyebrows when he claimed that the jihadists are from the Islamic State (ISIS) but recent reports suggest that some insurgents have indeed joined ISIS and this has brought a new private militia into the arena:

“Marg” Group formed against Taliban and ISIS in northern Afghanistan A new group calling themselves “Marg” or “Death” announced its existence in northern Afghanistan. Dozens of members of “Marg” group yesterday went to the provincial council of northern Balkh province and announce their readiness to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Taliban in Afghanistan. Marg Group claims that more than 5,000 people have announced their allegiance with them to fight ISIS and Taliban.

Balkh province borders Turkmenistan in the north-west, Uzbekistan in the north and Tajikistan in the north-east. The Central Asian regimes will be relieved to hear that a homegrown militia is now giving the Afghan security forces a hand. But perhaps the problem will solve itself. ISIS and the Taliban are not exactly on the same page. ISIS is trying to woo fighters away from the Taliban and wannabe Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called Taliban leader Mullah Omar "a fool and illiterate warlord." As mentioned last week, former Taliban commander and Guantanamo detainee Mullah Raouf Khadim was leading ISIS's recruitment efforts in Afghanistan but the Taliban lost no time in getting rid of the competition. It remains to be seen if this signifies the end of ISIS in Afghanistan. All indications are that the much-hyped terrorist group won't give up that easily. ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani recently announced the group's leaders for "Khorasan," which covers Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Tajikistan. Hundreds of Taliban fighters have reportedly joined the new branch of ISIS in Pakistan and the insurgents, who escaped Pakistan's Operation Zarb-e-Azb, are potential recruits as well:

Militants Driven From Pakistan Flock to Afghan Towns Arab and Central Asian Islamist militants have moved into Afghanistan after a military offensive by Islamabad largely eliminated havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Afghan officials and local residents say, posing a potential new threat to the country’s already tenuous security. At least 400 families affiliated with militant groups—including members of al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—crossed into Afghanistan in December and now live in the homes of locals in lawless parts of the country, Afghan officials say. Afghan officials say these fighters aren’t engaging in combat, but their arrival comes as a robust Taliban insurgency confronts the government in Kabul. Islamic State, which occupies swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, has also sought a foothold here.

China Tries to Lure Turkmenistan with Surface-To-Air Missiles

ISIS's expansion into the region has apparently only just begun. The director of a Bishkek-based think tank told reporters last week that ISIS has allocated around $70 million to destabilize the situation in Central Asia and that the group's main target is the Fergana Valley, which spreads across eastern Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These alarmist predictions should be taken with a grain of salt. The insurgents in northern Afghanistan give the neighboring countries cause for concern but they have not even crossed the border into Central Asia. Furthermore, Uzbekistan is perfectly capable of dealing with the threat. The Uzbek regime will put the 300 armored vehicles from the U.S. to a good use, regardless of whether that means fighting ISIS or crushing dissent at home. Only Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have a good reason to worry about ISIS, the IMU or whatever else the insurgents in northern Afghanistan like to call themselves:

Islamic State fighters appear on Turkmen-Afghan border The presence of Islamic State (IS) fighters has been reported in the Almar district of Afghanistan’s Faryab province along the border with Turkmenistan, Radio Azatlyk (the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) reported on January 22 with reference to Afghan parliament member Gulmuhammed Rasuli. 

According to Rasuli, on January 21 in Kabul, heads of Afghanistan’s special services discussed the situation in the north of the country, and confirmed the fact of IS fighters’ movement from southern Afghan provinces to the north. Rasuli was quoted as saying that black flags of the Islamic State seen in Almar villages inhabited by Pushtuns testify to the presence of IS fighters close to the Turkmen border.

As previously discussed, the presence of insurgents along the Turkmen-Afghan border prompted the Turkmen regime last year to "invade" Afghanistan and push the fighters back. The situation has been very tense ever since. Most of the insurgents, who are causing trouble on the border, were members of the Taliban or the IMU but according to Rasuli, several Taliban groups in the region have now joined ISIS. In contrast to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan cannot count on support from Russia or the CSTO because the country refuses to join the Russia-led military alliance or the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for that matter. Turkmenistan attaches great importance to its neutrality. This has advantages but also some disadvantages. As the security situation deteriorates, the Turkmen authorities might be tempted to turn to Russia or China for assistance. Beijing is already trying to lure Ashgabat with HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles but this begs the question why Turkmenistan would need surface-to-air missile systems:

Central Asian countries trade with China natural gas for weapons China plans to sell HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to its Central Asian neighbors of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to reduce the price it has to pay the two countries for natural gas, reports Kanwa Defense Review, a Chinese-language military magazine based in Canada, on Jan. 25. Since natural gas produced in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is vital to China's development, the country is willing to sell advanced weapon systems such as the FD-2000, an export version of the HQ-9 missile, to its western neighbors as a way to get better deals. Yet there is a catch. If China successfully convinces both nations to purchase FD-2000s, they will then have to purchase Chinese radars, early warning aircrafts and even fighter jets to coordinate with the air defense system.

From China's point of view, the deal makes a lot of sense but the Turkmen regime would be well advised to think twice about increasing its dependence on China even more given the fact that Turkmenistan is already heavily dependent on its strategic partner. If Iran goes ahead with its plan to boost domestic gas production and stops importing Turkmen gas, Turkmenistan's gas exports will depend entirely on China's demand. China received 25.86 Bcm of Turkmen gas in 2014, a 5.3 precent increase from 2013, but still less than the 30 Bcm/year agreed between Turkmengaz and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in 2007. It is doubtful that the two companies can adhere to their agreement to boost China's imports from Turkmenistan to 40 Bcm/year by 2015. With China about to import more Russian gas, Turkmenistan is under pressure to diversify its gas exports. As expected, the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline remains a pipe dream. Turkey and Azerbaijan think that they have found the solution but Russia will beg to differ:

Turkey and Azerbaijan want Turkmenistan to join Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline - Turkish FM Both Turkey and Azerbaijan want Turkmenistan to be included in the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, an indispensable project for Turkey that will be completed within three years, Turkish foreign minister said Thursday. Addressing a press conference after the trilateral meeting of foreign ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in Ashgabat, Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu said, "TANAP is an indispensable project for us. We plan to finish this project in three years," reports Anadolu News Agency.

Cavusoglu said the secure transmission of the Azeri and Turkmen natural gas through Turkey to Europe was also discussed.

# # # #

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: January 12, 2015

Washington's Regime Change Tools Struggle in the South Caucasus, Tajikistan Scrutinizes Gülen Schools-Prepares for Afghan Spillover & 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.

Since the end of 2013, Turkey has been engulfed in a relentless power struggle between Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who left his post as Turkish Prime Minister last year just to become the country's 12th President, and the influential CIA-backed movement of self-described "imam, preacher, and civil society activist" Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in the United States ever since he was forced to flee Turkey in 1999. The conflict between the former allies has now reached a point where President Erdogan is preparing to add the Gülen movement to Turkey's "Red Book," meaning that the organization will be classified as a threat to Turkey's national security. Although the power struggle has largely been taking place in Turkey, other countries, such as Azerbaijan, have been affected as well and Erdogan is not the only one who is currently trying to contain the activities of the shadowy movement. The regimes in Central Asia are increasingly suspicious of Gülen's schools and with good reason. After Russia and Uzbekistan had already closed down the schools more than a decade ago, Turkmenistan followed suit in recent years and Gülen's schools in Tajikistan are now also under high scrutiny, as Erdogan's mouthpiece Daily Sabah triumphantly announced this week:

Tajikistan to discontinue Gülen schools, citing ‘shadowy mission’ Saidov Nuriddin Saidovich, Tajikistan's minister of education and science, announced that they will not extend the agreement they had made with the Gülen Movement over permission to operate schools in the country, since they consider the mission of the schools belonging to the group as "shadowy." 

According to the local press, an official from the ministry, Rohimjon Saidov, also said there will be an end to the agreement between the Gülen Movement and the Tajik government over the schools they run in the region. Saidov added that the deal made with the education institutions in question expires in 2015 and that the country will no longer extend it.

There are currently 10 schools in Tajikistan run by the movement. The first school affiliated with the group was opened in the country in 1992. For the last decade, the purposes of the schools have become a hot debate in the Turkish government. There have been numerous demands for their closure by Ankara.

Tajikistan Scrutinizes Gülen Schools, Prepares for Afghan Spillover

Interestingly, according to Tajik media, Saidov didn't mention the word "shadowy." Instead he said that the Tajik government is going to review the licenses of the Gülen schools because their mission is "unclear." Daily Sabah is known to overstate the case when it comes to the Gülen movement but given that Gülen's schools play a decisive part in the Islamization of Central Asia and the Caucasus region and that they have been used for various covert operations by the CIA, the Tajik authorities should consider referring to the schools' mission as "shadowy." Dushanbe has long lamented that young Tajiks, who are studying illegally at Islamic religious schools abroad, "can be easily radicalized and recruited into extremist or militant groups," while doing little to stop the indoctrination and terrorist recruitment at home. However, recent actions indicate that this could change in the near future:

Suspected Islamist Leader, Subordinates Detained In Tajikistan

The suspected leader of a cell of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and 10 alleged subordinates have been detained in Tajikistan. The Tajik Interior Ministry said in a televised statement late on January 7 that Ikrom Halilov, a former imam of a local mosque, and the others had been apprehended in Shahrinav district, 50 kilometers west of the capital, Dushanbe. According to the ministry, the group is suspected of planning to attack a police station in order to seize guns.

In recent months, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been making headlines in northern Afghanistan, where Central Asian fighters belonging to the IMU or splinter groups, such as Jamaat Ansarullah, and allied Taliban forces have been massing close to the borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. At the end of last year, Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, gave a long interview to Interfax warning of the threat to Central Asia and Russia but oddly enough, he said that the jihadists in northern Afghanistan are from the Islamic State (ISIS). Kabulov described in great detail how many fighters are concentrated on the Tajikistan and Turkmenistan beachheads and he stressed that "our allies in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan know about this, they confirm that they have the same information, and they are taking measures." Why Kabulov referred to the insurgents as ISIS fighters is not clear. A few Tajik ISIS jihadists have lately proclaimed their intention to "fight infidels" in Tajikistan but they haven't gotten permission yet:

IS Militants Asked Baghdadi For Permission To Fight 'Infidels' In Tajikistan Militants from the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq have published a video saying that they have asked permission from the group's senior leadership to wage jihad in Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik service has reported. Abu Umariyon says that he and his fellow Tajik militants asked Baghadi and Islamic State leaders for permission to go back to Tajikistan and fight with the extremist group Jamaat Ansarullah. 

However, Baghdadi did not give his permission. "The emirs [militant leaders] who passed on their message to Baghdadi told them that right now they have to wait," the Tajik militant explains.

This video caused a stir in Tajikistan and the Islamic Center of Tajikistan slammed the jihadists, asking how it is possible "to wage jihad in a state whose population is 99 percent Muslim." But even without the return of Tajik ISIS fighters, the Tajik authorities have every reason to be concerned about the situation in northern Afghanistan. Kidnappings on the Tajik-Afghan border highlighted only recently how serious the threat is. This week, Tajik officials made public the identities of four Tajik border guards, who were abducted last month, and rejected earlier reports saying that the Taliban had made demands for their release. Due to the deteriorating security situation, Tajikistan's special services have reportedly taken "a number of measures to strengthen the most vulnerable stretches" of the Tajik-Afghan border and they are now keeping a very close eye on the activities of the insurgents in northern Afghanistan. On top of that, Tajikistan is also setting up a new military base close to the border:

Eyeing Taliban, Tajikistan Sets Up New Military Base On Afghan Border Tajikistan's armed forces are setting up a new base near the Afghanistan border in response to the apparent massing of fighters on the Afghan side of the border. The base, to be called "Khomiyon," will be in the Kulyab region. "Tanks, armored vehicles and other weaponry" will be deployed to the base, which "units of all security structures of the country will be able to use for conducting maneuvers," reported RFE/RL, citing a source in Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense. While there is no "immediate threat" from the Taliban fighters apparently massing near the Tajikistan border, Dushanbe still chose to take "preventative measures," the official said. An unnamed source in Tajikistan's State Committee on National Security (GKNB) told the Russian news agency TASS that "groups not controlled by Kabul" have massed on the Afghanistan side of the border.

Taliban Reject Government Posts As Ghani Urges U.S. to Stay Forever

On the same day, an unnamed official from Uzbekistan's National Security Service used similar language to warn of the "increased concentration of armed formations not controlled by the government of Afghanistan." Uzbekistan is also taking some measures to address the problem but the Uzbek authorities stop short of building new military bases because they are better prepared to deal with the threat than neighboring Tajikistan or Turkmenistan. After the Taliban became Turkmenistan's immediate neighbor about one month ago by taking over Khamyab District in Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province, the Afghan government is now trying to calm Ashgabat's nerves. Jowzjan's police chief General Fakir Mokhammed Dzhauzdzhani announced last week that Afghanistan's armed forces are preparing large-scale operations in Jowzjan and Faryab Province, where insurgents have repeatedly caused trouble in recent months. Although the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has ended the Afghanistan war in name only, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lost no time in mourning after the coalition troops:

Afghan president says U.S. might want to 're-examine' pullout deadline Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States might want to "re-examine" the timetable for removing the remaining U.S.-led coalition troops in the country by the end of 2016. "Deadlines concentrate the mind. But deadlines should not be dogmas," Ghani told the CBS program "60 Minutes" when asked about the issue. Asked if he had told that to U.S. President Barack Obama, Ghani said: "President Obama knows me. We don't need to - to tell each other."

Given that Ghani is very much Washington's guy, his words come as no real surprise and this interview will probably earn him even more tributes in the American press. But while U.S. officials and media lose no opportunity to praise Afghanistan's new leader, the Afghan people are less impressed with Ghani's performance so far. According to the latest poll by Afghan news channel TOLOnews and the ART research institute, Ghani has lost popularity among the Afghan people by almost 50 percent since taking office in late September of last year. One of the reasons is most likely Ghani's failure to form a cabinet with the chief executive of his unity government, Abdullah Abdullah. Although the two men reached a power-sharing deal in September, there has been a deadlock over senior cabinet positions. Ghani had also hoped to draw three Taliban leaders into his government but the group rejected the offer:

Taliban 'reject offer of Afghan government posts' The Taliban have been offered posts in the new Afghan government but have turned them down, the BBC understands. The offer came from new President Ashraf Ghani in a bid to end the insurgency that threatens the recovery of the country. The three men whom President Ghani had hoped to draw into his government were Mullah Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who has lived relatively openly in Kabul for some years, Wakil Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, and Ghairat Baheer, a close relative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces are allied to the Taliban.

If Ghani fails to reach some kind of deal with the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan is only going to get worse and the Afghan President will have a hard time staying in power. In this light, Ghani's appeal to the United States "to re-examine" the pullout deadline makes perfect sense. However, as previously discussed, Ghani's concerns about NATO's so-called withdrawal are completely unfounded. The U.S. military responded to the "60 minutes" interview by saying that the U.S. "plan remains in effect and there have been no changes to the drawdown timeline" but even if the U.S. goes forward with its plan to draw down to a "normal" U.S. embassy presence in Kabul at the end of 2016, that means keeping thousands of contractors in the war-torn country. However, at the moment it doesn't look as if the U.S. is really serious about its drawdown plan:

Lejeune Marines prepare for deployment to Afghanistan Just months after marking the end of the Corps' combat operations in Afghanistan, officials revealed that Marines are headed back into the war-torn country, but details of the deployment remain scarce. The disclosure came in a Marine Corps news release outlining preparations being made by 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The company tested its Supporting Arms Liaison Team Alpha's readiness for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan by tackling various "real-life" scenarios between Dec. 8 and 11, according to the release. Outside of the news release, Marine Corps officials declined to discuss 2nd ANGLICO's upcoming deployment. Citing operational security, a spokesman for II Marine Expeditionary Force declined to specify when — and for how long — the unit will be deployed, where within Afghanistan it will operate and whether other Marine units will accompany it.

Washington's Regime Change Tools Struggle in the South Caucasus

In addition to the American troops, Operation Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to ISAF, will also rely on a number of troops from other NATO countries and close NATO allies, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan. A group of Azerbaijani soldiers just left for Afghanistan to support the NATO-led mission despite the current tensions between the regime of Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev and the West. In recent months, Azerbaijan has repeatedly made headlines with crackdowns on NGOs, human rights activists and journalists, most of whom are supported by the United States and the EU. After the Azerbaijani authorities had already arrested Khadija Ismailova, a leading investigative journalist working for the Azerbaijani service of CIA mouthpiece Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), at the beginning of last month, relations between Baku and Washington went from bad to worse when the Aliyev regime cracked down on RFE/RL's Baku bureau a few weeks later:

U.S. 'Alarmed' As Azerbaijan Targets RFE/RL's Baku Office The U.S. State Department says its concerns about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan are deepening after authorities there raided and closed RFE/RL's Baku bureau and interrogated its employees and contractors. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told a December 29 news briefing in Washington: “These actions, along with the denial of access to legal counsel during these interrogations, is further cause for concern." The offices of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known as Radio Azadliq, were raided on December 26 by investigators from the state prosecutor's office who confiscated documents, files, and equipment before sealing off the premises.

Predictably, the ongoing war of words between the U.S. and Azerbaijan escalated after the crackdown on RFE/RL. Former RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin condemned Aliyev's campaign against "one of the few independent news outlets left in Azerbaijan" in the strongest possible terms and he warned the Obama administration that Washington's vision of a Europe "whole and free" is at risk. "Europe whole and free" is a code often used but rarely explained because it basically means the consolidation of a unified Europe controlled by Brussels on behalf of the United States. Azerbaijan supports Washington's vision but when push comes to shove, the Aliyev regime is more interested in its own survival than in a "Europe whole and free." Although tensions are running high at the moment, it remains to be seen whether or not Azerbaijan will really "snub the West," as some suggest:

Azerbaijan Snubs the West These events have been reported abroad largely as marking a further constriction in Azerbaijan’s already tiny space for alternative points of view. And they are that. But they also suggest a dramatic change in the geopolitics of the volatile Caspian Sea region: the Azerbaijani government’s growing hostility toward Washington.

The attack on RFE/RL followed months of extreme anti-Western rhetoric. Top Azerbaijani government officials have accused the United States ambassador to Baku of “gross interference” and former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden of being an American spy. In early December, the president's chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, published a 13,000-word article claiming that the C.I.A. was contriving regime changes in the post-Soviet space (the so-called color revolutions). It also called Azerbaijan’s human rights activists a “fifth column” of the United States.

It is worth pointing out that the Israeli press has also been sounding the alarm regarding Azerbaijan's supposed foreign policy change but Israel's Ambassador to Azerbaijan Rafael Harpaz addressed these reports a few days ago, allaying any fears and stressing that nothing had changed in Azerbaijani-Israeli relations. Therefore, the alarmist reports in Western media warning of Baku's geopolitical shift away from the West should be taken with a grain of salt. The U.S. won't accept losing Azerbaijan considering that neighboring Armenia has now officially become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), cementing its ties with Moscow. After all attempts to impede Armenia's accession to Russia-led trade bloc have failed, Washington is apparently no longer interested in "advancing democratic values, practices and institutions" in Armenia and decided to shut down the local office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) citing "financial problems," which is obviously a lame excuse:

NDI suspends its activities in Armenia The Armenian office of US' National Democratic Institute (NDI), operating in Armenia since 1995, suspends its operations due to financial problems, Gegam Sargsyan, the head of the office, said on January 7. The NDI has ceased to receive funding from its main sponsor – the USAID (United States Agency for International Development), therefore, starting March 2015 the office will freeze its activities "for an indefinite time, until funds become available," said Sargsyan. "The USAID stopped funding NDI a year ago; then, we received funds from the American National Endowment for Democracy," said Gegam Sargsyan, adding that today the USAID prefers supporting local organizations rather than international ones; while "the NDI is not their current priority."

# # # #

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: January 5, 2015

Putin's Chechen "Volunteers" Ready to Defend Russia, Georgia Spares No Effort to Put "Enemy" Saakashvili Behind Bars & 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 13 years of death and destruction, the United States and NATO "formally" ended their war in Afghanistan last weekend with a symbolic ceremony in Kabul. U.S. President Barack Obama used the opportunity to blow his own trumpet and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has carried out its mandate "at great cost but with great success." ISAF's mandate was indeed carried out at great cost but the U.S. and its allies failed to achieve any of their claimed long term objectives and the Taliban lost no time in reminding Obama, Stoltenberg & Co. of their defeat in the longest war in American history. Contrary to what Western politicians and media have been saying in recent days, the war will go on with no significant changes on the ground. As previously discussed, about 13,000 troops and thousands of contractors will stay in Afghanistan and the troops will have a direct combat role because the Afghan security forces are not up to the task despite years of "successful" training by NATO. At the beginning of this week, ISAF spokesperson Chris Belcher stressed that the Afghan forces are prepared to take the lead in providing security but it did not take long before his words were proven wrong:

Afghans take over full security charge, mortars kill 20 civilians

Afghanistan assumed full responsibility for security from departing foreign combat troops on Thursday, a day after Afghan army mortar shells killed at least 20 civilians attending a wedding party in volatile southern Helmand province.

General Mahmoud, the deputy Commander of the Afghan 215 corps in the province, said artillery was fired from three directions at a village in Sangin district where the wedding was held on Wednesday.

"What we know so far is that our soldiers fired mortar rounds from three outposts but we do not know whether it was intentional," Mahmoud told Reuters.

Afghans, China, Russia Not Impressed with ISAF's "Great Success"

At least 27 civilians were killed and more than 50 wounded. According to the deputy governor of Helmand, Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar, Afghan troops "fired mortar rounds on a wedding ceremony after militants in the same area attacked an army checkpoint." Four soldiers accused of firing the mortar rounds have been arrested and taken to Lashkar Gah, where they will have to account for their actions before a military court. Given the fact that U.S. and NATO forces have also targeted Afghan wedding parties in recent years, the training of Afghan soldiers was perhaps "successful" after all. Neither the Afghan population nor Russia and China are impressed with ISAF's "great success." As the NATO-led forces reduce their presence in the war-torn country, the Chinese government has been trying to restart stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Reuters reported last November on Beijing's proposal for a "peace and reconciliation forum" but up until this week it was not clear whether or not the Taliban have actually responded to the proposal:

Taliban delegation hold talks with Chinese officials on Afghanistan

According to reports, a delegation of of Taliban officials have recently visited China to meet with the Chinese officials and discuss issues related to Afghanistan. Sources privy of the development have told the Afghan Islamic Press that the delegation was led by Qari Din Mohammad who is a member of the Taliban political office in Doha.

The delegation reportedly visited China late in November last year when Beijing had put forward a proposal for a “peace and reconciliation forum” in a bid to help revive peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban militants group.

Details regarding the outcome of the visit were not reported but the government in Kabul announced last month that there has been progress on the peace talks. Restarting the dialogue makes definitely more sense than escalating the conflict, as suggested by infamous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is now serving as Afghanistan's Vice President. China wants to see a stable Afghanistan and does not mind working with the Taliban to this end. Therefore, the Chinese government is simultaneously developing relations with the new Afghan government and the Taliban. Beijing is primarily interested in tapping into Afghanistan's mineral wealth and in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base for Uyghur insurgents. Although China and Afghanistan share only a small border, the Chinese authorities have always been concerned that violence could spill across the border into Xinjiang and the inceasing violence along Afghanistan's borders with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan indicates that this is not completely impossible. Russia and the Central Asian regimes were long ridiculed for warning of an Afghan spillover but lately these warnings have been taken more seriously:

Russian Ambassador Warns Of Afghan Problems Spilling Across Border

Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has warned of "Islamists" in Afghanistan concentrating along the Tajik and Turkmen borders.

In an interview with Russia's Interfax news agency, Kabulov claimed there are currently 4,000 to 5,000 militants massed in areas of northern Afghanistan near the border with Tajikistan and some 2,500 near the border with Turkmenistan.

Afghan and foreign media have been reporting increasing unrest in northern Afghan provinces throughout this year including the presence of militants from Central Asia.

Kidnappings along the Tajik-Afghan border highlighted the security woes in recent weeks. Dushanbe and Kabul are currently conducting negotiations on the release of four Tajik border guards who were abducted after they entered Afghanistan to cut some trees. According to Afghan news agency Kharma Press, the Taliban want to exchange the border guards for Taliban supporters who are sitting in jail in Tajikistan. In the run-up to NATO's "withdrawal" from Afghanistan, the Tajik-Afghan border was often named as a potential trouble spot and the Collective Security Treaty Organitation (CSTO) agreed in September 2013 to support Tajikistan in strengthening the border. While some 'stans are not really threatened by the insurgents massing in northern Afghanistan, fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other jihadists "could represent a tipping force in either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan." Speaking at a CSTO Collective Security Council meeting at the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized that the Russia-led organization will have to keep a wary eye on the Tajik-Afghan border and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu assured his Tajik counterpart and the chief of Kyrgyzstan’s General Staff that Russia will help out:

Russia to help Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan when coalition force leaves Afghanistan - Russian Defense Minister

Russia will be implementing programs for upgrading and rearming the armed forces of Kyrgyzstan as the international coalition force will leave neighboring Afghanistan, Russian Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergey Shoigu said at a meeting with the chief of Kyrgyzstan’s General Staff, Major-General Asanbek Alymkozhoyev on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Shoigu met with his Tajik counterpart, Lieutenant-General Sherali Mirzo. Against the backdrop of the international coalition’s force withdrawal from Afghanistan the Russian and Tajik armed forces should brace for any march of events, including the most negative one, Shoigu said.

“With this in mind, we believe it is essential to pay priority attention to enhancing the combat potential of the Tajik Armed Forces and the 201st Russian military base. We are determined to furnish support for Tajikistan in maintaining its security further on,” Shoigu promised, reports TASS.

Putin's Chechen "Volunteers" Ready to Defend Russia

Russia has ample reason to prepare for the worst in Central Asia. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia's Security Council and former FSB head, hit the nail on the head when he explained that the U.S. and its allies are trying to bring down Russia by slashing Russia's income from foreign trade and at the same time increasing its expenditure on resolving externally-provoked problems, just as they did during the Cold War. When Ukrainian MPs call for a second and third front against Russia in Chechnya and Central Asia, this is primarily wishful thinking but when Brookings President Strobe Talbott "predicts" the outbreak of the third Chechen war, the Kremlin should be alarmed. The U.S. deep state is clearly entertaining the idea of a second front against Russia. However, Talbott & Co. seem to have missed that Chechnya is no longer Russia's Achilles' heel, quite the contrary. Thousands of Chechen "volunteers" are ready to defend Russia's interests, stability and borders, wherever President Putin deems it necessary:

Kadyrov Says Chechens Ready to Perform Special Tasks for Putin that Other Security Agencies Can’t

Speaking to a meeting of 20,000 Chechen volunteers in Grozny yesterday, republic head Ramzan Kadyrov said that he and they are ready to perform tasks for Vladimir Putin “which can be solved only by volunteers” and not by “the regular army, air force, navy or nuclear forces.”

“Putin has helped [the Chechens] for 15 years,” Kadyrov continued. “tens of thousands [of Chechens] who have passed through special preparation ask the national leader of Russia to consider us a volunteer special detachment of the Supreme Commander that is ready to defend Russia, its stability and borders and to fulfill a military task of any complexity.”

And he added that “America and Europe have declared economic war on Russia and are trying to sow chaos, panic, and mass disorders in the country.” But, “the Russian people have united around their leader Vladimir Putin … [and] the Chechen people in this unity occupies one of the central places.”

If Washington tries to open a second front in the Caucasus or Central Asia, these Chechen volunteers will give the U.S./NATO-backed insurgents a hard time. The meeting at Grozny's Sultan Belimkhanov Stadium was certainly also meant to warn Russia's enemies that destabilizing Chechnya won't be as easy as it used to be. After clashes rocked the Chechen capital one month ago, it did not take long before life returned to normal. The Press House building and school No. 20, which were damaged during the fighting, have already been completely restored and two insurgents, who were reportedly involved in organizing the December 4 attack, have been eliminated. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov vowed to continue his no-holds-barred campaign against the insurgency, stressing that terrorists "cannot be cured, they can only be destroyed." And the Chechen leader started the new year by promoting a new tactic for Chechnya's uncompromising war on terror:

Chechen Authorities Announce New Tactic to 'Clear' Republic of Islamic Militants

Chechen authorities have announced a new method for combatting the region's underground insurgency, a system that will essentially turn commanders in the republic's security services into bounty hunters responsible for tracking down specific militants.

"Each commander will be entrusted personally with tracking down one or another militant who is on a wanted list," said an online statement published by the regional government on Thursday.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov praised the new tactic, saying in the statement that it would "bring good results" and "fully clear Chechnya of militants."

In light of this, the Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency will have a hard time staging a comeback. To make matters worse, the jihadists in Russia's North Caucasus are currently quarreling with each other because they are unable to agree on whether they will continue operating under the banner of the Caucasus Emirate (IK) or go with the flow and pledge allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). Over the past six weeks, at least three Chechen and three Dagestani commanders have switched sides from the Caucasus Emirate to ISIS, much to the dismay of IK leader Aliasaskhab Kebekov, better known as Ali Abu Mukhammad, who condemned the "treachery" in the strongest possible terms. Thanks to its new members, ISIS can now walk the talk and "liberate" Chechnya and the Caucasus. Russia's Supreme Court reacted a few days ago by designating ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist organizations and banning them in the country. The Russian authorities take the issue very seriously but up until now, Syria is still the preferred destination of ISIS fighters:

Chechnya Sentences Georgian 'IS Recruiter' To Six Years

A court in the Chechen capital, Grozny, has sentenced a Georgian man to six years in prison for attempting to recruit two Chechen men to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria.

The defendant, 25-year-old Beslan Cincalashvili, allegedly resided legally in Chechnya from July through August 2014. During this time, prosecutors alleged that he met with two Chechen nationals in Grozny and attempted to persuade them to travel to Syria to join militant groups.

Investigators also said that Cincalashvili promised the men assistance with passports and in traveling to Syria via Georgia.

Georgia Spares No Effort to Put "Enemy" Saakashvili Behind Bars

Given that Georgia has been supporting both the "Chechen rebels" and the "Syrian rebels" for quite some time, it is safe to say that the Georgian authorities wouldn't have thwarted Cincalashvili's plans. Dozens of Georgian citizens, many of whom come from the Pankisi Gorge, have joined ISIS following the lead of Georgian soldier turned ISIS commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, who is now known by the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani. Batirashvili has quickly won the favor of Western media as well as the top spot on the hit list of Chechen Republic head Kadyrov. Although Georgian media frequently reportsthat yet another one of Batirashvili's associates has been killed in Syria while fighting for ISIS, the Georgian government doesn't seem to care about the terrorist activities of its citizens. But Syria is not the only country which has attracted Georgian "mercenaries" and after the recent death of a Georgian soldier in Ukraine, all hell broke loose in Tbilisi:

Controversy Erupts Over Death Of Georgian Soldier In Ukraine

The killing of a Georgian soldier in eastern Ukraine has become the source of a political dispute in Tbilisi after the Ministry of Defense issued a statement blaming the former government for the death.

The Georgian, Aleksandre Grigolashvili, died in combat in Lugansk, Ukraine, on December 19. He had joined the Georgian armed forces in 2007 and fought in Afghanistan and South Ossetia, family members said, but left service in 2008. He went to Ukraine two months ago to fight on the side of the pro-Kiev forces.

The issue of Georgians fighting in Ukraine has been a controversial one. Earlier this month former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who has emerged as one of the top supporters of the government in Kiev, said that Georgian soldiers were leaving the Georgian army to go fight in Ukraine. The assertion was strongly disputed by the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili was outraged about Saakashvili's calls for Georgian soldiers to resign from the Georgian army and acquire Ukrainian citizenship to fight for the regime in Kiev. He called the former president an enemy of Georgia and accused him of seeking "to lead Georgia into armed confrontation with Russia." Saakashvili's presence in Ukraine is a thorn in Tbilisi's side and Kiev's decision to appoint former Georgian officials to government posts has strained relations between Georgia and Ukraine further. The Georgian authorities are still pulling out all the stops to put Saakashvili behind bars. His presidential passport was revoked last month and Georgia's chief prosecutor Giorgi Badashvili reiterated this week that the Prosecutor's Office "will spare no effort" to convince Interpol of issuing a Red Notice for Saakashvili. Despite all that, the wanted criminal is confident of his return:

Former Georgian President promised to return to country soon

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave New Year's celebration for children in a presidential library in Tbilisi. Santa Claus gave them gifts and sweets.

Mikheil Saakashvili addressed the children on Skype and wish them a Happy New Year and Merry Christmas.

Children asked the former president when he arrives to Georgia.

"Very soon", Saakashvili said.

Another darling of Washington is also planning his comeback. Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is eagerly awaiting the next parliamentary elections and he lost no time in denouncing his successor Mindia Janelidze when the dispute about the killing of a Georgian soldier in Ukraine erupted. Alasania even demanded that the people who are responsible for the controversial Defense Ministry statement "must stand trial." Although Janelidze has picked up where Alasania left off and the Georgian government has continued its pro-Western course, some people would like to see a more aggressive policy vis-à-vis Russia. Garibahsvili on the other hand prefers are more pragmatic approach and he has even signaled his willingness to hold talks with the Russian leadership. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili is also willing to meet his Russian counterpart Putin but only on the condition that the talks will be held on the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Put another way, the prospect of talks between Margvelashvili and Putin is still poor:

Russia, South Ossetia to sign new integration treaty in February

Russia and South Ossetia are due to sign a new treaty on deepening integration in early February 2015, the president of the republic, Leonid Tibilov, told journalists on Friday.

Russia and South Ossetia are preparing several versions of the treaty, and the final document is not expected to be “an exact copy” of Moscow’s agreement with neighboring Abkhazia, but their concept is likely to be the same, a Kremlin source told TASS.

Some integration processes with South Ossetia could be much deeper than those envisaged by the treaty with Abkhazia, the source said, adding that in some directions the republic would be strengthening ties with Russia at the same rate.

# # # #
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: December 22, 2014

U.S. Deep State Dreams of Third Chechen War, China Pushes SCO Security Cover for New Silk Road & 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 end of last year, the Volgograd bombings highlighted that Russia is still struggling with the foreign-backed insurgency in the North Caucasus and 2014 ends on a similar note due to this month's clashes in the Chechen capital Grozny. Although the overall security situation in the North Caucasus has improved significantly over the years, the attacks in Volgograd last year as well as the attacks in Grozny in October and December of this year serve as a stark reminder that terrorists can strike at any time, anywhere in the region. Violence in Russia's volatile south has long been associated with Chechnya but the neighboring Republic of Dagestan has become Russia's hot spot of insurgent activity in recent years. The leaders of the Dagestani insurgency just pledged loyalty to ISIS, defying the leader of the Caucasus Emirate and perhaps spelling more trouble for Russia's security services. One of the frequent special operations in Dagestan resulted last week in the killing of the leader of a terrorist group linked to the 2013 Volgograd bombings and a number of other attacks in Dagestan. While the Dagestani authorities have their work cut out, the Chechen authorities are free to support the resistance in eastern Ukraine and, unperturbed by the attacks in Grozny, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov announced this week that he wants to focus more on Ukraine:

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov wants to quit his high post to go to help militias in Donbas

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said on Tuesday that he wanted to quit his high state post and leave for Ukraine’s Donbas region to help the local militias, the NTV channel reported on its website.

Commenting on initiation of criminal proceedings against him in Ukraine and Kiev’s threats to put him on the international wanted list, Kadyrov told NTV’s “Bez Kupyur” (Without Banknotes) program that they could keep wagging their tongues for as long as they liked.


“They can keep saying whatever they like. But I am going to ask the (Russian) president for permission to quit my post in order to go to Donbass to protect the interests of those citizens who are fighting there now,” Kadyrov said.

U.S. Deep State Dreams of Third Chechen War

Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated shortly thereafter that the Chechen leader had made no request to resign and it is highly unlikely that Kadyrov will quit his post anytime soon, much to the dismay of local activists and international human rights organizations. A few days ago, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on the Russian authorities to "end a campaign of intimidation and harassment against human rights defenders in Chechnya." The Committee to Prevent Torture (KPP) and its Chechen branch, the Joint Mobile Group, came recently under attack in Russia after Kadyrov had implicated KPP's head Igor Kalyapin, along with Akhmat Umarov and Western intelligence agencies, in organizing the armed attack in Grozny on December 4. This week, Kadyrov continued his campaign against the so-called human rights defenders alleging that Kalyapin is part of a new U.S. State Department project "to destroy Russia by using Chechnya." As always, Kadyrov's words have to be taken with a grain of salt but given the fact that Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and influential deep state actor, predicts the outbreak of the third Chechen war for the coming year, Kadyrov is perhaps right about the new U.S. State Department project:

In 2015, Vladimir Putin may witness his empire’s death knell

The year ahead could see the outbreak of the third Chechen war, which, in turn, could be the death knell of the Russian Federation in its current borders.

For the past five years, the situation has been more or less quiescent, though neighboring republics have been rocked by violence. The lull in Chechnya, however, ended in early December with a series of bloody incidents in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The group behind the resurgence of unrest is advocating a “Caucasus Caliphate,” with ties to al Qaeda and, more recently, Islamic State. There is at least an indirect tie between outside support for Islamic radicalism in the Caucasus and Putin’s sponsorship of Russian secessionism in eastern Ukraine.

There is no reason whatsoever to assume that a third Chechen war could break out in the foreseeable future. Most Chechens see through NATO's manipulation of Muslims and support the local authorities in their fight against the foreign-backed insurgency. But as "The Saker" points out, it would be a mistake to dismiss Talbott's prediction altogether: "A person like Talbott is very much "plugging in" the US deep state and if he says that next year there will be an insurgency in Chechnia, we can be darn sure that the US will try to create one." Talbott was instrumental in starting the expansion of NATO during the Clinton administration and he is now again a driving force behind Washington's reckless policy vis-à-vis Russia. Considering that the U.S. deep state has been pulling the strings behind the "Chechen rebels" all along, it comes as no real surprise that the Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency, which had been relatively quiet in the last few years, is now trying to stage a comeback, just as Strobe Talbott predicts more violence in Chechnya:

North Caucasus Insurgency Threatens New Attack On Grozny

The Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency that claimed
responsibility for the attack on Grozny on December 4 is planning a follow-up attack on the city to mark the New Year, according to Akhmed Umarov, elder brother of the late Caucasus Emirate founder and head Doku Umarov.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov
identified Akhmad Umarov as having organized the December 4 attack, and vowed to seek his extradition from Turkey, where according to Kadyrov he currently lives.

In a
15-minute video clip posted late on December 13 on Checheninfo.com, the website of the Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency, Akhmed Umarov warned Kadyrov in the name of the Chechen militants that they will launch a new attack on Grozny unless Kadyrov desists from his efforts to block their food supplies. (Two men were apprehended in Chechnya’s Sunzha district in September on suspicion of providing food supplies to the insurgents. Umarov quoted the fighters as admitting that they are experiencing problems in obtaining supplies, and "we are fed up with this."

As previously mentioned, the suicide bombing in Grozny on October 5 and the attack on December 4 were meant to send a message to the Russian authorities. After Strobe Talbott and Akhmat Umarov reiterated this message a few days ago, everyone should know what the United States and its allies are up to. If they will succeed in destabilizing Chechnya, is a completely different question. The chances are slim. But Chechnya is apparently not the only Russian republic, which Chechen terrorists and their handlers want to put in the crosshairs. The Russians announced this week that Khasan Zakayev, an accomplice of Shamil Basayev and suspected co-organizer of the 2002 seizure of Moscow's Dubrovka Theater, was arrested last month as he was trying to enter Russia’s Crimea from Ukraine using a fake passport. It is safe to say that Zakayev was not planning to take a vacation. Ukrainian "nationalists" have long been working hand in glove with Chechen jihadists and Russia is now investigating this link in connection with the Grozny clashes. In light of all this, the following announcement by FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov makes a lot of sense: 

Improving counter-terrorism system in Crimea priority task in 2015 — FSB chief

Russia’s Federal Security Service director Alexander Bortnikov said on Tuesday one of the priorities in 2015 would be to improve the system for combating terrorism in Crimea.

“The priority task of the NAK (National Anti-Terrorist Committee) and the Federal Operative Headquarters in 2015 will be to improve the regional segment of the nationwide counter-terrorism system in Crimea, including its preventive components,” Bortnikov said at the National Anti-Terrorist Committee session.

China Pushes SCO Security Cover for New Silk Road

Russia faces many challenges in the coming year, from ensuring stability in Crimea and the North Caucasus to coping with the economic war. But as Russia struggles, China is prepared to step in and support its close ally. In the wake of the attack in Grozny, Beijing offered Moscow to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation in order to "safeguard each other's national peace" and during this week's gathering of prime ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced that China is ready to provide financial aid to fellow SCO countries "to help counteract an economic slowdown." Although any member of the organization can make use of this offer, it is primarily directed at Russia. As usual, the situation in Afghanistan and the fight against the 'three evils' were also high on the agenda in Astana. With China's New Silk Road making good progress, the Chinese government is now trying to establish a security cover for the economic belt:

New Silk Road needs SCO security cover, says China

China is pushing for a collective security arrangement, with Russia and Central Asian countries as partners, which would focus on countering mega-terror strikes along the New Silk Road.

On Monday, visiting Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, proposed in Astana, the capital of neghbouring Kazakhstan, that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)—a six nation grouping led by Beijing and Moscow---should become the guardian of Eurasia.

During his address to the 13th meeting of Prime Ministers of SCO in the Kazhak capital, Mr. Li called for a new center which would foresee future security challenges to Eurasia. He also called upon partners to hone mechanisms that would to curb terrorism, and target drug trafficking, along with cyber-crimes.

Li emphasized that especially Afghanistan will need outside assistance to maintain its "domestic stability." Russia has already been investing heavily in Afghanistan for the past two years and China is now doing its part to support the neighboring country as well. As the NATO-led coalition forces are reducing their presence in Afghanistan, foreign aid has dried up, forcing the Afghan government to ask donors again for a bailout. American taxpayers have spent $104 billion over the years to "rebuild" the war-torn country, with negligible success, and to make matters worse, even the money which did not disappear immediately could be wasted because the Afghan authorities cannot sustain the investment. Therefore, Chinese Premier Li was right to point out that the SCO members will have to support Afghanistan if they want stability in the region. To this end, China has been trying to restart stalled peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Whether or not China's efforts were the decisive factor is not entirely clear but the Afghan government is hopeful of resuming the peace talks very soon:

Afghanistan may resume peace talks with Taliban in Qatar
 

According to reports, the government of Afghanistan is expecting to resume peace talks with the Taliban group in Qatar in the near future.

An official in Afghan High Peace Council (AHPC) has confirmed that the talks are likely to resume with the Taliban group within the next one week.

The official further added members from the Afghan High Peace Council, Taliban group and Pakistan are expected to join the talks.

With civilian deaths in Afghanistan reaching a new high in 2014, it is about time that the peace talks resume. The United Nations shared its latest casualty reports with Taliban officials in Doha and urged the group to reduce civilian casualties, to no avail. According to Afghanistan's spy chief Rahmatullah Nabil, the rise in attacks is just a "natural consequence" of NATO's withdrawal from the country. Nabil lamented this week that Afghanistan had "fallen off a technological cliff" due to the troop pullout and that the insurgents are exploiting the situation. Recently, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan's Khamyab District in Jowzjan Province meaning that the group "is now Turkmenistan’s immediate neighbor." As previously discussed, Turkmen border guards and security forces "invaded" Afghanistan a few months ago to drive the insurgents back. They have been building fences, digging trenches and setting up new posts in the region ever since, much to the dismay of Afghan villagers in Jowzjan Province:

Afghan Villagers Threaten To Attack Turkmenistan

Villagers in Afghanistan's northern Jowzjan Province claim Turkmenistan is stealing their agricultural land and are threatening to attack Turkmen border guards.

Muhammad Sahi Yhsan, the chief of the Qarqeen District told RFE/RL on December 17, villagers came to him to complain about Turkmen border guards setting up posts that according to the villagers, are some 30 to 35 kilometers deep into Afghan territory.

Yhsan said the villagers threatened to attack Turkmen border guards unless Afghan authorities can resolve their problem.

Kidnappings along Tajik-Afghan Border Highlight Security Woes

Given that the Afghan Turkmen in Qarqeen have paramilitary forces, the Afghan authorities would be well-advised to resolve the problem before the situation escalates. Meanwhile, the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border, which was considered to be Central Asia's most threatened border, is not much better either, as highlighted by several incidents in recent weeks. In early November, Tajik border guards opened fire on a group of six Afghans who were sailing on the Amu Darya. One Afghan was killed while the others managed to return to Afghanistan. Locals claimed that the six were just fishermen but the Tajik border guards had probably mistaken them for smugglers or insurgents. Such incidents occur from time to time along the Tajik-Afghan border and guards on both sides of the border have every reason to be nervous, as another incident demonstrated two weeks later:

Taliban reportedly abducted Sher Khan Bandar checkpoint employees on border with Tajikistan, Afghan authorities say

Taliban militants, consisting mainly of the Tajik nationals, have abducted the employees of the Sher Khan Bandar customs post on the border with Tajikistan, the Afghan authorities said on Thursday.

Kunduz province police spokesperson Sayidsarvar Husaini said the majority of kidnappers were the citizens of Tajikistan.

“All the hostages are workers of the Sher Khan Bandar. They were kidnapped in nighttime while going home,” the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty cited the spokesperson as saying.

At least 16 employees of the Sher Khan Bandar Border Customs Office were reportedly kidnapped at the time. Sher Kahn Bandar is located in Kunduz Province, where the Taliban and the allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) maintain a strong presence. Four Tajik border police learned this the hard way a short while ago. When they crossed the border into Kunduz Province to cut some trees, it didn't take long before they were also kidnapped by insurgents. A rescue operation is underway but the track record of the Afghan security forces is poor to say least. The Tajik authorities have already identified the turmoil in Afghanistan as a significant security threat to Tajikistan and the kidnapping of four border police officers will certainly reinforce Dushanbe's concerns. Refugees from Afghanistan are probably going to be the ones to suffer if Tajikistan's security services get their way: 

People involved in terrorism arrive in Tajikistan under guise of refugees – law enforcement agencies

Certain terrorist organizations penetrate to Tajikistan under the guise of refugees, according to the State Committee for National Security of Tajikistan representative, Abdulmadzhid Soliyev, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported today.

"Foreigners come to our country from Afghanistan. All of us are familiar with the situation in the country. According to the sources of Tajik law enforcement agencies, some refugees are active members of terrorist and extremist groups," he said.

"In order to ensure national security, it was suggested to settle the refugees outside the cities of strategic importance. The same rule applies to the experience of developed countries," Soliyev added.

In addition to the chaos in Afghanistan, the conflict in Syria is also bothering the Tajik regime. Several hundred Tajik citizens are reportedly fighting for ISIS and other terrorist groups in the Middle East. While the Saudi Embassy in Dushanbe and Turkish Airlines were doing their best to funnel more Tajik fighters into Syria, the Tajik authorities have long turned a blind eye to the recruitment of new cannon fodder. But lately, there have been some efforts to stop this trend. At the beginning of this month, 46 young men were arrested on suspicion of planning to join terrorist groups in Syria and Tajik leader Emomalii Rahmon warned last week that ISIS "is the plague of the new century and represents a threat for global security." The Chinese will be pleased to hear that since they count on Tajikistan in the fight against the 'three evils':

Tajikistan, China agree to conduct joint exercises for their special police units

Tajik Interior Ministry Ramazon Rahimzoda yesterday met here with Mr. Ma Wei (phonetically spelled), Deputy Chief of Department at the Ministry of Public Security of China (MPS), according to the Interior Ministry press center.

In the course of the talks, the two reportedly discussed issues related to state and prospects of further expansion of bilateral cooperation in combating terrorism, extremism, separatism and drug trafficking.

Rahimzoda and Ma expressed confidence that the planned joint exercises for Tajik and Chinese special police units will help carry out joint operations in various climatic conditions, the press center said.

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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, 2013

Washington Arms Taliban, Banning Wahhabism & NGOs, Comeback of the Mujahideen & 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.

Afghanistan's northeastern province of Badakhshan and its role in Washington's plans for the region has been one of the major issues discussed in the weekly round-ups. In the last few days Badakhshan was again making the headlines with heavy clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces erupting in the remotely located province. Taliban fighters succeeded in taking control over Kuran wa Munjan District which sparked new concerns about of the security of the upcoming Afghan elections: [Read more...]

The New Great Game Round Up- September 29, 2013

Ukraine: Future EU, NATO Member?!, Armenia Sticks With Russia, CSTO Addresses Terror Threats & 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.

As anticipated last week, the CSTO leaders agreed on Monday during the Collective Security Council meeting in Sochi to provide Tajikistan with joint assistance in order to reinforce the Tajik-Afghan border. Tajikistan's President Emomalii Rahmon gave further details of the projects which will be supported by the Collective Security Treaty Organization [emphasis mine]:

CSTO to help Tajikistan strengthen control of its common border with Afghanistan [Read more...]