*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.
Every few days, Afghanistan is making headlines due to the deteriorating security situation in the country, the most recent example being the Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament on Monday. As Afghan lawmakers were trying to confirm a defense minister, a large explosion rocked the parliament building in Kabul. The attack by a suicide bomber was the signal for fellow Taliban fighters, who had taken positions in a nearby building, to open fire. After an intense firefight, security forces managed to kill all six gunmen but the latest Taliban attack, which left two civilians dead and 40 injured, raises again questions over the government's ability to maintain security. Statements by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid suggest that the purpose of the attack was to embarrass the "puppet administration" in Kabul "at a time which they were casting confidence vote for the minister of defense." It is safe to say that the Taliban achieved their goal. The Kabul government is looking increasingly shaky:
Taliban and Afghan Government Dispute Status of Kunduz After Taliban insurgents said Sunday that they were on the verge of taking their first city, Kunduz in the far north of Afghanistan, officials there expressed alarm as residents began to flee the area. But the central government in Kabul said there was no cause for concern. The Afghan government also announced Sunday that it had retaken the administrative center of Yamgan District, in northern Badakhshan Province, from the Taliban. But that only deepened the government’s credibility problem because just a week earlier officials in Kabul had claimed that they had already retaken Yamgan.
For months now, several districts in both Kunduz and Badakhshan Provinces in the north have gone back and forth between government and Taliban control, as the insurgents have intensified their fighting in parts of northern Afghanistan where they traditionally had been weak.
Taliban Gain Ground in Afghanistan, Call For Jihad Under One Flag
While the central government tried to downplay the situation in Kunduz province, local officials confirmed that Taliban and Central Asian fighters are advancing on the provincial capital after capturing Char Dara District. A few hours later, Kabul's statement looked even more absurd when it became clear that the insurgents had seized another district bordering the city of Kunduz. Afghanistan's fifth largest city is on the verge of falling to the Taliban and Mohammad Omar Safi, the governor of Kunduz, doesn't want to take any chances. Kunduz province is already facing a humanitarian crisis and if the Taliban conquer the capital, it won't get any better. The Afghan government is now under increasing pressure to act. One of the few good news coming from northern Afghanistan in recent weeks was Kabul's recapture of Badakhshan's Yamgan District but if the government forces don't manage to repeat this success in Kunduz, Tajikistan's fears of an Afghan spillover might come true:
About 1,500 militants mass in Afghan areas near the border with Tajikistan Commander of Tajik Border Troops Rajabali Rahmonali has warned of about 1,500 militants, including members of the Islamic State (IS) group, concentrating in the Dahsti Archi and Imam Sahib districts of Afghan Kunduz province along the Tajik border. In a statement released at the 73rd meeting of the Council of Border Troops Commanders of the CIS member nations in Dushanbe, Rahmonali noted on June 18 that that there members of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Ansarullah among the militants concentrating along the Tajik border in northern Afghanistan. “They are fighting against the Afghan government forces in the immediate vicinity of the border with Tajikistan,” Rahmonali noted. He expressed concern about a tense situation in the Afghan provinces of Takhar, Kunduz and Badakhshan, which directly border Tajikistan.
The possibility of a spillover of violence from Afghanistan was high on the agenda during the CIS meeting in Dushanbe. Sherali Khairulloyev, national security advisor to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, complained that many CIS members states had not lived up to their promise to support Tajikistan in strengthening its border defense and he called on the other border services "to actively cooperate with Tajik border troops in strengthening the CIS southern border." Khairulloyev emphasized that one of the main tasks of the Commonwealth of Independent States is to prevent the region from becoming a center of geopolitical confrontation between the major world powers, pointing out that "if the countries and secret services that have keen interest in the Islamic Caliphate project try and implement it through Afghanistan, the zone of political instability will then protrude to the CIS and China." While the U.S. doesn't seem to be worried about ISIS's expansion into Afghanistan, countries in the region and the Taliban would prefer al-Baghdadi & Co. to stay out of Afghanistan:
Taliban Warns IS Leader To Stay Out Of Afghanistan The Taliban has warned the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group against waging a parallel insurgency in Afghanistan, following several defections and reported clashes with militants loyal to IS. In a June 16 letter addressed to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Taliban insisted that "jihad (holy war) against the Americans and their allies must be conducted under one flag and one leadership." "The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims," said the letter signed by the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor.
Mansoor argues that the Taliban movement is the only rightful representative of jihadist activities in Afghanistan, noting that the group has been endorsed by great jihadist leaders such as Osama bin Laden. Moreover, he criticizes the Islamic State's actions in other countries and warns ISIS against dividing jihadists in other Muslim nations into two camps. Considering that al-Baghdadi doesn't respect Taliban leader Mullah Omar and doesn't care much for other terrorist groups, Mansoor's words will probably fall on deaf ears. The Taliban are now waiting for al-Baghdadi's response before they will "chalk out a strategy on how to deal with those who are using the name of the Islamic State to create disunity among the Mujahideen." This spells more trouble. Clashes between the Taliban and ISIS have been escalating in recent weeks, with the eastern province of Nangarhar turning into the epicenter of the conflict. Hundreds of families have already been displaced due to the fighting and recent developments suggest that the two groups won't settle their differences anytime soon:
Islamic State’s Khorasan province beheads former shura member who defected back to the Taliban The Islamic State’s Khorasan province is said to have brutally executed one of its former shura members, purportedly for defecting back to the Taliban last month. The execution, as well as the assassination of the Taliban’s shadow governor for Nangarhar province, likely by the Islamic State, preceded a warning by the Taliban’s deputy emir to the leader of the Islamic State to end discord between the jihadist groups in Afghanistan. The Islamic State released a video purpoting to showing the execution of Sa’ad Emarati, a senior commander as well as a member of the “Khorasan Shura,” the province’s executive council. Emarati’s head was placed on his back after it was removed.
Latest ISIS Defection Spells the End for Caucasus Emirate
Former Taliban fighters will now think twice before defecting back to the Taliban. Al-Baghdadi & Co. have shown time and again that they know how to deal with traitors and nasty rivals. The Taliban will have to be on their guard if they don't want to suffer the same fate as other prominent terrorist groups which have been sidelined by ISIS. One of the latest victims is the Caucasus Emirate (IK), formerly the most powerful terrorist organization in Russia. Ever since Russian security forces eliminated Emirate leader Doku Umarov and then a few months later his successor Aliaskhab Kebekov, the continued existence of the Imarat Kavkaz has been in question. Many Chechen and Daghestani commanders had already retracted their oath of obedience to IK leader Kebekov and defected to ISIS. This trend continued after Kebekov's killing and the latest defection may very well spell the end for the Caucasus Emirate:
ISIS opens a new front on Europe's doorstep: Chechan jihadi group with 'up to 15,000' fighters pledge allegiance to terror horde ISIS has spread its tentacles further around Europe after a major terrorist group which commands 'as many as 15,000' in the Caucuses region of southern Russia pledged its allegiance to it. The leader of the Caucuses Emirate, which has carried out over 900 terrorist attacks on Russian soil since its formation in 2007, personally declared his loyalty to ISIS commander-in-chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. 'We need to hurry up and unite so we can cut off the heads of the infidels,' Aslan Byutukayev says in a new propaganda video allegedly filmed inside the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya.
Although the Caucasus Emirate doesn't command 15,000 fighters and is not headed by Aslan Byutukayev, the Daily Mail was right to highlight Byutukayev's bay'ah to wannabe Caliph al-Baghdadi. Byutukayev is the leader of the Caucasus Emirate's Chechen wing and one of the most powerful insurgent commanders in the North Caucasus. As Chechen analyst Mairbek Vatchagaev noted, his defection to ISIS "buried the Caucasus Emirate once and for all." ISIS has accepted the bay'ah and lost no time in claiming a "Wilayat Qawqaz," which includes Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and "Kabika." Russian officials have been hyping the ISIS threat at home and abroad for quite some time, most recently at a meeting of the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center. Now they have finally a good reason to do so, which means that Russia's imams can look forward to more lessons on fighting ISIS recruiters:
Moscow's Muslim Leaders Get Lessons on Fighting ISIL Recruiters More than 300 imams from across Russia are taking part in an educational program to counter the influence of recruiters to militant Islamic organizations such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Russian imams are taking courses to help them counter the influence of recruiters to radical Islam, with classes covering topics such as methods to communicate with young people, aspects of Islamic history, Islamic theology and secular subjects like politics and geography.
"In the course of the program we touch on difficult topics, which cause people to be attracted to radical movements," deputy head of the Moscow Islamic Institute, Rais Izmailov, told the Izvestiya newspaper.
After the recent scandal surrounding a 19-year-old Russian student who tried to join ISIS, Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the government's Investigative Committee, downplayed the issue of ISIS recruitment in Russia, saying that there have been only few cases. Many experts share this assessment and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolkoltsev emphasized that the law enforcement agencies are in control of the situation. In the end, the rise of ISIS in the North Caucasus comes down to a few defections from the Caucasus Emirate and doesn't pose a real threat but the Russian authorities will nevertheless use this opportunity to clamp down on terrorist recruitment and introduce harsher anti-terrorism measures. One wonders what Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov will say when he hears of ISIS's new "Wilayat Qawqaz." Kadyrov is usually quick to comment on these things but lately he has been busy trying to steer the Nemtsov murder investigation "in the right direction":
Kadyrov: One should look for Nemtsov murder trail in Ukraine and U.S. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov believes that Ukrainian special services could stand behind the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. "In my opinion, one ought to look for the trail of this crime not in Chechnya, but in Ukraine, SBU (Ukrainian Security Service) and subsequently in the U.S.," Kadyrov told Interfax on June 18. When asked whether or not he knows the whereabouts of Ruslan Geremeyev, whom the media call a possible organizer of Nemtsov's murder, Kadyrov said: "I know Ruslan Geremeyev very well. We fought against terrorists together. I know him as a patriot of Russia, and, in my opinion, it is a mistake to accuse him of these actions."
Not Everyone Escapes Georgia's Lax Criminal Prosecution
Kadyrov pretended that he had nothing to do with Geremeyev's escape via Chechnya and tried to pin the Nemtsov assassination on Chechen terrorist Adam Osmayev, who became famous for trying to kill Russian President Putin and is now fighting for the Kiev regime in eastern Ukraine. But in contrast to Kadyrov's close associate Geremeyev, Osmayev is not a prime suspect in the Nemtsov murder. Aside from the fact that he is hardly capable of organizing any assassinaton, Osmayev hailed Nemtsov as a "true hero" for condemning Russia's second war in Chechnya and "Russian aggression" in Ukraine. The new leader of the Dudayev battalion should be prosecuted for a number of crimes but the killing of Boris Nemtsov isn't one of them. If it were not for the coup d'état in Kiev, Osmayev would still be sitting in jail. Fortunately, the "new Ukraine" offers endless opportunities for every criminal who hates Russia:
New head of Odessa Police escapes prosecution in Georgia Georgia does not continue criminal proceedings against Giya Lortkipanidze, who on June 16 was appointed the head of the Odessa Police. This was stated by experts interviewed by the "Caucasian Knot". The Georgian Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) have no claims against Giya Lortkipanidze, the "United National Movement" (UNM) Party reports.
As previously discussed, former Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Gia Lortkipanidze has joined his old boss Mikheil Saakashvili in Odessa. While Saakashvili is clearly in his element, Lortkipanidze seems to be less convinced of his new job but at least he won't have to worry about prosecution anymore. The two former Georgian officials can now pick up where they left off in Georgia: provoking conflict with Russia. During Saakashvili's rule in Georgia, Lortkipanidze was responsible for coordinating the recruitment and training of Chechen jihadists. The current government claims to have ended these terror operations but the increasing number of Georgian jihadists traveling to Syria has put pressure on Tbilisi. Critics were not impressed with the government's attempt to solve the problem by making a few adjustments to the anti-terrorism legislation and the recent special operation in Georgia's notorious Pankisi Gorge was not much better either:
Cousin of ISIS leader released from detention in Georgia The Georgian police have released four of the five Kistis (Georgian Chechens) who were earlier detained in the Pankisi Gorge (Kakhetia region, Eastern Georgia). According to Georgian media reports, among the released people is Merab Tsatiashvili, a cousin of Tarkhan Batirashvili, one of the leaders of the terrorist organization Islamic State (ISIS). The only person the police did not release is Ayuf Borchashvilia, imam of the village of Jokolo.
Borchashvili denied any involvement in terrorist recruitment in Pankisi. The special operation led to some tensions in the valley region. Borchashvili's family and friends staged a protest against his arrest but some Pankisi residents welcomed the operation, saying that the raid "was long overdue." Moreover, Georgian police also arrested three young men at Tbilisi airport as they tried to leave the country for Syria. The prosecution claims that the three were heading to Syria to join ISIS after they had been recruited by Borchashvili. This all begs the question of why it took the Georgian authorities so long to take some action against terrorist recruitment in the country. Perhaps they didn't want to ruin Georgia's chances of hosting a training camp for "moderate Syrian rebels" or they were just too busy buying weapons from NATO allies in order to demonstrate their commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration:
Georgia Finalizes Controversial Air Defense Deal With France Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery. Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
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