*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 performing a pilgrimage to Mecca and holding talks with King Abdullah and other high-level Saudi officials on his first foreign trip since taking office in September, Afghanistan's newly selected president Ashraf Ghani travelled to China for an important four-day visit aimed at strengthening ties between the two neighboring countries. As the NATO-led forces are reducing their presence in Afghanistan, Kabul is looking east for foreign investment while Beijing is trying to ensure stability in the region. On the first day of his visit, Ghani met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who called for "a new era of cooperation in China-Afghanistan relations." The two leaders agreed on a new long-term partnership and given that Beijing is alarmed at the prospect of a failed state or a civil war right on China's doorstep, Ghani didn't have a hard time in securing some desperately needed investments:
China Pledges $327 Million in Aid to Afghanistan
China has pledged two billion yuan ($327 million) in aid to Afghanistan, which is seeking new sources of foreign help amid a drawdown of U.S. troops and increasing worries about regional instability.
The offer of aid through 2017 came after China’s President Xi Jinping and newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met in Beijing on Tuesday, according to a joint declaration published Wednesday by China’s foreign ministry. Beijing and Kabul also agreed to step up intelligence sharing to fight drug trafficking and address other cross-border issues
China, Afghanistan Herald Start of New Era of Cooperation
It is important to note that the grants of $327 million, which will be paid out over a period of three years, are more than all the economic assistance from China since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Moreover, the Chinese authorities pledged to encourage new investment in Afghanistan by Chinese enterprises and to provide professional training and scholarships for 3,500 Afghans over the next five years. During Ghani's visit, China hosted for the first time the annual conference of the so-called "Heart of Asia - Istanbul Process," further demonstrating Beijing's interest in playing a bigger role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Knowing that economic assistance alone won't suffice, the Chinese government has also offered to help Afghanistan build its antiterrorism capabilities. As mentioned last week, the Afghan authorities have already evinced interest in working with the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in this regard and Ashraf Ghani told the Chinese exactly what they wanted to hear:
China says Afghan president vows to help China fight extremists
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani has pledged to help China fight Islamist extremists, a senior Chinese official said on Tuesday, after Ghani met President Xi Jinping in Beijing on his first visit abroad since his September inauguration.
China, which is connected to Afghanistan by the narrow, almost impassable Wakhan Corridor, says militants seeking to set up a separate state called East Turkistan in its western Xinjiang region are holed up along the ungoverned Afghan-Pakistani border.
"In the area of security, President Ghani expressed the readiness and staunch support from the Afghan side in China's fight against East Turkistan Islamic Movement terrorist forces," Kong Xuanyou, Director General of the Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department, told journalists after Ghani and Xi met.
China's willingness to help its neighbor can be traced back to concerns that unrest in Afghanistan could spill over the border into Xinjiang, where the local authorities are already stuggling to contain the increasing violence. Considering that Afghan security forces are currently engaged in heavy fighting with Taliban in Badakhshan Province, which borders Xinjiang, these concerns are not completely unfounded. Afghan leader Ghani used the Istanbul Process meeting in Beijing to reiterate his call for the Taliban to join a national peace dialogue but the group has made it clear that it does not "want to waste time talking to an administration [in Kabul] with no authority," which is just serving American interests. The Chinese government knows of course full well that the Americans are still pulling the strings behind the new Afghan government and that the remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan will continue tracking China, Russia and Iran from this geo-strategic location. This begs the question of whether Beijing plans to join forces with Tehran in order to kick the Americans out:
Could Iran and China Cut the US Out of Afghanistan?
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met in Beijing on Friday, Xinhua reports. On one level, the meeting was simply the latest example of growing China-Iran ties. The timing of the meeting, however, suggests a more specific aim for bilateral relations – greater cooperation between Beijing and Tehran to achieve their joint goals in Afghanistan.
While China has been relatively accepting of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a means of achieving this end goal, Iran wants the U.S. gone as soon as possible. Unlike other major regional powers, Tehran opposed the recently-signed Bilateral Security Agreement that will allow a limited number of U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan post-2014. Currently, Beijing is willing to accept the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan as a necessary evil. However, if Iran and China can cooperate to achieve their goals vis-à-vis Afghanistan while reducing or eliminating the need for U.S. involvement, it would suit both countries’ goals.
Lately, China and Iran have been growing closer together. Last week, Iran’s naval chief, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, visited Beijing for talks with the PLA Navy commander and Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who used the opportunity to stress that China wants to have closer military ties with Iran. Depending on whether Tehran manages to reach a nuclear deal with the West by November 24, Iran will also join the SCO in the near future. For the moment, only Pakistan and India are set to become full members at the next SCO summit. As previously discussed, China counts on the soon-to-be SCO members in dealing with the mess in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan's track record in supporting various terrorist groups in the region puts a questions mark over China's plans and both Afghanistan and India never grow tired of pointing this out. Afghan and Indian officials present at the recent Istanbul Process meeting are positive that Beijing finally got the message:
Delhi, Kabul warn China: Pak maybe your ally but it exports terror
Asked by India Today if China was prepared to take steps to address Afghan and Indian concerns on terrorism emanating from Pakistan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "I am happy to tell you that among the confidence building measures we agreed today, the first is on counterterrorism".
"We believe that the international community should not accept any forms of terrorism," he said. "During the conference we have had an extensive exchange of views on the topic."
An Indian official present at Friday's meet said that it was striking that the terror issue took centre stage. "At one point this was as sensitive for China as [raising] the South China Sea" considering Beijing's "all-weather" ties with Pakistan, the official said.
Russia's "Conspiracy Theorists" Accuse West of Sponsoring Terrorism
The chaos in Afghanistan and the increasing violence in Xinjiang might have led to a change of thinking in Beijing but it remains to be seen if the Chinese authorities actually walk the talk. Up until now, China has always refused to publicly criticize close ally Pakistan for its support of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, knowing that Pakistan's alliance with radical Islam is closely linked to the Kashmir conflict. But to some extent, Pakistan's use of jihadist gangs is also accounted for by Islamabad's willingness to participate in Washington's terror operations in the region, the best known being Operation Cyclone. Chinese President Xi Jinping should perhaps take a cue from his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who didn't mince his words, when he addressed this issue last week at the annual meeting of the influential Valdai Club:
Putin Accuses West Of Sponsoring "Terrorist Invasions" Of Russia, Central Asia
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of sponsoring terrorism in Russia and Central Asia.
The entire speech is fascinating, and certainly will be studied as much as the Munich speech or his post-Crimean annexation speech by those trying to figure out Russia's foreign policy. But one section of this speech is of particular interest to Bug Pit readers:
They [the U.S.] once sponsored Islamic extremist movements to fight the Soviet Union. Those groups got their battle experience in Afghanistan and later gave birth to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The West if not supported, at least closed its eyes, and, I would say, gave information, political and financial support to international terrorists’ invasion of Russia (we have not forgotten this) and the Central Asian region’s countries. Only after horrific terrorist attacks were committed on US soil itself did the United States wake up to the common threat of terrorism. Let me remind you that we were the first country to support the American people back then, the first to react as friends and partners to the terrible tragedy of September 11.
This is not exactly news but Western media is still desperately trying to convince the public that all the reports about U.S./NATO operations using jihadist mercenaries in Russia's North Caucasus and Central Asia are just "conspiracy theories." Therefore, the editorial board of the Washington Postlost no time in portraying the Russian President as a lying conspiracy theorist. And if one were to believe Western media, the same is true of Putin's most important ally in the North Caucasus, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who recently urged ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "to take off his mask" and admit that he is a CIA agent. Kadyrov announced last week that his men are searching for al-Baghdadi but that they cannot find him because he is working for the CIA. The comments were the latest in a war of words between Kadyrov and ISIS, which has prompted influential ISIS leader Omar al-Shishani aka Tarkhan Batirashvili to put a $5 million bounty on Kadyrov's head. Interestingly enough, Batirashvili's curious background raises the question of whether he is working for an intelligence agency as well and as more details emerge, it becomes clear that Batirashvili is not your average jihadist:
The Secret Life of an ISIS Warlord
Like so many of the world’s most brutal dictators, military leaders, tyrants, and jihadists, it appears Tarkhan was trained by the very best: the United States government. According to his father and former colleagues, Tarkhan worked for an elite “Spetsnaz” Georgian military-intelligence unit—at least until he caught tuberculosis, lost his job in the intelligence unit, was then framed by that same intelligence unit, and went to jail in 2010 for weapons possession.
Tarkhan’s father claims that his son worked, specifically, for the ministry of interior’s KUD or “Kudi,” basically the domestic-intelligence and special-operations service in Georgia, officially called the Constitutional Security Department. The agency was notoriously brutal. When asked if it was true that his son Tarkhan was trained by the United States, Temur says, “Of course they did. They trained all of the Georgian army back then… My boy was just 19 when he went to the army… This KUDI, where he was working, it was an intelligence and reconnaissance unit.”
Batirashvili has been described as the "tactical mastermind behind Islamic State’s swift military gains on the ground in Iraq’s Anbar province" and he is credited with many battlefield successes but according to the above-mentioned article in TheDaily Beast, Tarkhan Batirashvili "may well be a figurehead for his older brother" Tamaz who is supposed to be "the real mastermind behind the Chechen operatives running ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq." At any rate, the two brothers have long-standing ties with Georgian intelligence and the article even mentions that "Georgia’s Anti-Terrorism Center, or ATC, allegedly ran some jihadists out of Pankisi to fight against Moscow’s troops in Grozny." Georgia's role in these kind of operations has been exposed time and time again and Russia's mob-up operations abroad frequently shed some light on the other actors involed. Chechen exiles should watch their backs, regardless of whether they found shelter in France or in Turkey:
Turkish suspect confesses to Chechen leader’s murder
The Turkish man who is suspected of killing a Chechen leader in Turkey last year has been detained and confessed to the murder, claiming that “pro-Russian Chechens” had made him shoot the victim.
The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria’s honorary consul in Ankara, Medet Ünlü, 53, was killed by armed assailants at the honorary consulate in Ankara on May 22, 2013.
“They promised me a life in Ukraine that I can’t even imagine,” he reportedly told police, referring to pro-Russian Chechens in Turkey who commissioned him to target Ünlü, because Ünlü was sending Turkish donations to opposition members in Chechnya.
Georgia's Efforts to Win Back Abkhazia & South Ossetia Fail
Most people living in Chechnya have long seen through NATO's manipulation of Muslims. A recent survey by the pro-Western, Caucasus-based news outlet Caucasian Knotfound that most Chechens oppose the idea of fighting in Syria because they believe that ISIS and other so-called "Syrian rebels" are just fighting for Western interests. In the light of these survey findings, destabilizing Chechnya won't be easy, even if neighboring Georgia decides to host a training camp for "Syrian rebels." Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania recently threatened to adopt a "very aggressive" foreign policy in response to Russia's "attempt to annex occupied Abkhazia." And while Russia and Abkhazia are still working on the proposed treaty, Georgia made a last-ditch effort to win back its two breakaway regions:
Georgian PM offers autonomy to Abkhazians, Ossetians
The Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili offered autonomy and the European perspective to the Abkhaz and Ossetian peoples.
“I am sure that only with us, with Georgia, which has the European perspectives, our Abkhazian brothers will be able to preserve their language and culture,” Garibashvili said.
“I’d like to call on them to thoroughly realize the situation, to think about their children, the future generations, and how they imagine life without Georgia and their development.”
Predictably, Garibashvili's offer of broad autonomy and of sharing the prospective benefits of Georgia’s integration with the European Union was immediately rejected by the Abkhaz government, which responded by saying that this proposal proves once again the "ignorance of reality in the region" and Garibashvili's "inability to perceive this reality." South Ossetia also dismissed the offer as being out of touch and to make matters worse for Georgia, the South Ossetians have been inspired by the proposed treaty between Russia and Abkhazia:
South Ossetia to Russia: Go Ahead, Crimea Me!
While Russia is on a land-grabbing binge, South Ossetia hopes Moscow will not forget about its aspirations, too. The region’s separatist leadership is drawing up an agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation.
The agreement is influenced by a recent integration plan that Moscow offered to South Ossetia’s separatist twin, Abkhazia, but reportedly goes far beyond it. Both regions maintain de-facto independence from Georgia and almost existentially rely on backing from Russia. Abkhazia, however, insists on some ground rules in its relationship with Moscow, such as keeping space for sovereignty.
Given that the South Ossetians are even more keen on joining Russia than the people in Abkhazia, Georgia is now in real trouble. Georgian officials are infuriated by Russia's "attempt to annex" not just one but both breakaway regions and the government has been urged to come up with an "anti-annexation" strategy. This issue will most certainly be high on the agenda when a Georgian delegation led by PM Garibashvilis arrives in Brussels later this month to attend the first Georgia-EU Association Council session. Garibashvili will also use this opportunity to talk with the new Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, about the "substantive package," which Georgia has been promised by the U.S.-led military alliance. Stoltenberg was not exaggerating when he called Georgia a "very strong partner." Russia's southern neighbor is forging ever closer ties with NATO, as demonstrated by Defense Minister Alasania's recent trips to France and Germany:
Georgian, German Defense Ministers Meet in Berlin
Georgian Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, met his German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen in Berlin on October 30.
Bilateral cooperation, Georgia’s contribution to the Afghan mission, as well as situation in the Caucasus region and relations with Russia were discussed during the meeting, according to the German Ministry of Defense.
“Georgian-German military cooperation is being intensified,” Alasania said, adding that Georgia’s contribution to the Afghan mission, as well as Germany’s assistance in the field of military education and implementation of the NATO-Georgia cooperation package offered by the Alliance at the Wales summit.
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