US guided missile cruiser visits Estonian port

[US Ticonderoga-Class missile cruiser USS Hue parks in the port of Tallinn, just 23 miles northeast of Ämari Air Base, the site of recent NATO base expansion, home to many NATO aircraft.  Russian officials have termed this expansion a “threat.”]

US guided missile cruiser visits Estonian port (VIDEO)


US guided missile cruiser visits Estonian port (VIDEO)
American guided-missile cruiser USS Hué City has entered the Estonian port city of Tallinn, the US Navy said, adding that the visit promotes “safety and stability” in the Baltic region and aims to strengthen US relationship with Estonia.

“Guided-missile cruiser USS Hué City (CG 66) arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, for a scheduled port visit to enhance US-Estonia relations as the two nations work together for a stable, secure, and prosperous Baltic region and Europe,” the US Navy said in a statement.

According to the release, the visit “demonstrates the shared commitment to promote safety and stability within the region, while seeking opportunities to enhance the enduring relationship with allies like Estonia.”

READ MORE: US tanks, infantry fighting vehicles arrive in Estonia amid NATO buildup on Russian borders 

“Hue City looks forward to spending time in Estonia supporting our NATO ally,” said Captain Dan Gillen, the ship’s commanding officer. “It is essential that we continue to strengthen our working relationships with our allies. This visit also provides a chance for the crew to get out in Tallinn and experience Estonia.”

After the visit, the cruiser will continue to conduct “maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts” in the Baltic Sea, the Navy statement added.

USS Hué City is a Ticonderoga-class cruiser serving in the US Navy since 1991. It is over 170 meters long and has a crew of 400, Estonian Navy spokesperson Karl Baumeister told ERR online portal.

The ship’s visit comes amid the arrival of US tanks and military equipment in Eastern Europe for NATO military drills, dubbed Operation Atlantic Resolve. NATO says the buildup along Russia’s borders is a defensive measure to counter the “Russian threat” amid the Ukrainian crisis.

Earlier in February, US military hardware – including M1A2 Abrams battle tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles – arrived in the northern Estonian town of Tapa as part of continued US efforts to counter the alleged Russian threat.

The deployment marks a new phase of the Operation Atlantic Resolve, which started in April 2014, following the Crimean referendum to split from coup-stricken Ukraine and rejoin Russia. Atlantic Resolve is perceived by Washington as a demonstration of continued US commitment to the collective security of Europe in the view of alleged Russian aggression.

Moscow has criticized the expansive NATO military buildup on its borders, saying it increases the risk of incidents and poses a threat to Russian national security.

“This deployment is, of course, a threat for us,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksey Meshkov said in February, adding that “it is obvious that the steps by NATO gravely increase the risk of incidents.”

Russian Negotiators “support the Afghan government and they support our red lines”

Moscow Six-Party Talks on Afghanistan Commit to ‘Red lines’ on Taliban Engagement



At the six-party talks on Afghanistan, Moscow made its opposition to Taliban clear and reaffirmed their support to the NUG peace efforts.

A view of the the six-party talks on Afghanistan hosted by Russia in Moscow. Credit: M Ashraf Haidari/Twitter.

New Delhi: Afghanistan and five regional players agreed at their first consultations in Moscow on Wednesday that adherence to ‘red lines’ was necessary for Taliban’s participation in talks with Afghanistan. While Afghanistan and India talked of the need for ending safe havens, New Delhi asserted that only Kabul had the right to decide its opposite number in direct talks.

The six-party talks, hosted by Russia, was attended by senior officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China and India. The Russian initiative is significant due to the return of Moscow to the region as an active player, but had led to apprehensions in Kabul and New Delhi that it was trying hard to bring in Taliban into the mainstream so as to combat its perceived real threat of the so-called ISIS.

Afghanistan had been rather peeved when Moscow held talks with Pakistan and China in December 2016, but failed to invite any officials from Kabul. Russia’s decision to hold wider regional consultations were partly to address the Afghan fears. The next edition will expand the participation to central Asian countries. However, no US or western countries, who still have troops stationed in Afghanistan, are part of this new process.

At the Moscow meeting, the Russians said all the right words. “The Russian federation made the position very clear that they opposed the Taliban and that they supported the government of Afghanistan. That they consider the government of Afghanistan as the legitimate representative of the Afghan people, not the Taliban,” M. Ashraf Haidari, who led the Afghan delegation to the six-party talks, told The Wire.

Haidari, who is the Afghan foreign ministry’s director general for policy and strategy, said that the Russians added that they maintained contacts with the Taliban only due to their concerns and with intention to support Afghan government in potential peace talks.

“They [Russia] assured the Afghan government that they would do nothing in terms of bypassing us and side-lining us and talk to the Taliban knowing that it is not going to serve their own long term interests in the region,” he added.

In an interview with state-run news agency TASS, Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s point person on Afghanistan, said that the “Afghan government seeks to resume talks”.

According to sources privy to the Moscow discussions, Russia has made it clear at the meeting that “violence was not acceptable”, even as it noted that talks with Taliban could help lead to a stabilisation of the security situation in Afghanistan.

India has been worriedly observing Russia-led efforts for talks with Taliban, with officials apprehensive about the normalisation of the terror groups which continues to have strings attached to Pakistan military establishment. The argument that Taliban was fighting with ISIS in pockets of Afghanistan did not find many takers in New Delhi, as Indian officials believe that most of the IS fighters are mainly repurposed TTP members.

The Afghan side had raised its peace deal with the Hizb-e-Islami, which gave immunity to its chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from previous criminal offences, as a model for talks with the Taliban.

Afghan officials again pointed that whenever the government had tried to initiate talks with Taliban, the designated militant interlocutor was either killed or disappeared. The finger was obviously pointed at Pakistan.

India had pointedly pronounced during the discussions that Afghanistan should have the right to choose with whom to hold talks and that the choice should not be dictated by other countries. “We underlined that it is up to the government of Afghanistan to decide whom to engage in direct talks. These efforts can only be facilitated by friends and well wishers of Afghanistan,” MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup told reporters.

In conclusion, and much to the relief of Afghanistan and India, all six countries agreed that the ‘red lines’ for engagement with the Taliban – which include giving up violence, abiding by Afghan constitution and cutting ties with al Qaida – have to be met.

“They support the Afghan government and they support our red lines,” Haidari told The Wire.

This commitment to the red lines was also implicitly reflected in the press release issued by the Russian foreign ministry at the end of the talks.  “The participants agreed to step up efforts to promote the intra-Afghan peace process while maintaining the leading role of Kabul and observing the previously agreed upon principles of integrating the armed opposition into peaceful coexistence.”

Haidari described the meeting as a “new beginning”, which could assure cooperation “from the state actors who have direct influence over Taliban”.

In his statement read out at the meeting, he said that a key reason for the failure of the quadrilateral contact group was that members did not implement their commitments.

“Indeed, the success of the QCG process squarely hinged on a set of clearly defined and agreed-upon benchmarks, which were not met. This increasingly showed that the key challenge to the process remained a policy selectivity by some to distinguish between good and bad terrorists, even though terrorism is a common threat that confronts the whole region where if one of us doesn’t stand firm against it, others’ counter-terrorism efforts will not bear the results we all seek,” he said.

Both Afghanistan and India highlighted the need to combat “safe havens” across the border.

Haidari noted that the “availability of safe sanctuaries and institutional support for violent extremism in our immediate neighborhood helps sustain a deadly and destructive war in Afghanistan.”

India on its part noted that “it was essential to end all forms of terrorism and extremism that beset Afghanistan and our region and to ensure denial of territory or any other support, safe havens or sanctuaries to any terrorist group or individual in countries of our region.”

A continuing tense relations between Kabul and Islamabad may mean that the timing was not too auspicious to get Pakistan government’s cooperation on removing terror launch pads from its soil.

On the day of the talks, Afghan deputy chief of mission was summoned by Pakistan foreign office to lodge protest over “terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil by the terrorist outfit, Jumaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) from its sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.”

JuA, an offshoot of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb attack at Lahore’s Mall road which left 13 dead.

On Thursday night, a suicide blast hit Sindh’s popular Shahbaz Qaladar shrine, the responsibility for which was claimed by ISIS, according to news agencies. Within a few hours, Pakistan military spokesperson pointed finger at Afghanistan.

Are the Taliban the “Hand of Russia in Afghanistan”?

[It may be, that we are finally seeing the true “Hand of Russia in Afghanistan”, just as we have really seen the overt and covert reach of Russia in Syria.  Many of us have waited, searching in anticipation of learning Russia’s true intentions in Afghanistan and the Middle east.  We do not yet know the true nature of the post Soviet break-up mission of the former KGB.  Whatever Perestroika meant to the West, it did not mean the same thing to the KGB, high-ranking intelligence officials like Mr. Putin could be counted on to follow the real mission, instead of the circus being run by Gorbachev.

It is not so strange that the Taliban and Russia would suddenly be revealed to be friends.  With the professionalism of the KGB, one would expect geopolitical intrigues to take decades to play-out, before they would be finally exposed (SEE: The (Russian) Roots of Islamic Terrorism).]

Taliban’s strange new friends

From a terror group, the Taliban has become a potential ally for Moscow

With Russia, China and Iran joining Pakistan in supporting Taliban, India’s Afghanistan policy has received a setback

India has an important stake in the future of Afghanistan, its natural ally and close friend for long. India, under successive governments, has been a major aid donor to Afghanistan. As the US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, recently told his country’s Senate Armed Services Committee, “With over $2 billion development aid executed since 2002, and another $1 billion pledged in 2016, India’s significant investments in Afghan infrastructure, engineering, training, and humanitarian issues will help develop Afghan human capital and long-term stability.” Recent developments, however, do not augur well for Indian or Afghan interests. Despite being ravaged by successive wars for the past 36 years, Afghanistan remains a playground for the foreign powers that have fomented or engaged in hostilities there. The latest developments suggest that the Afghanistan-related geopolitics is only getting murkier. In the process, the Taliban is acquiring strange new friends.

Russia and Iran, the traditional patrons of the Northern Alliance, are now openly mollycoddling the Taliban and giving it political succour. In this effort, they have the cooperation of China and Pakistan, thus creating a regional axis. This development represents a shot in the arm for the Taliban’s fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and the government in Kabul. Pakistan, of course, fathered the Taliban and remains its principal benefactor, providing safe havens on its territory to the militia. China, for its part, was just one of three countries along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that recognised the Taliban regime in Kabul until it was overthrown in 2001 following the U.S. invasion. In fact, China and the Taliban announced a memorandum of understanding for economic and technical cooperation on the day two planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center. Beijing is now again courting the Taliban. It has hosted at least one Taliban delegation and offered to mediate between Kabul and the rebels.

It is Russia’s U-turn on the Taliban, however, that stands out because it is strategically the most significant development. From a terrorist foe, the Taliban has become a potential ally for Moscow. Russia’s apparent aim is to turn up the heat and raise the costs for the U.S. military’s continuing role in Afghanistan. It has even sought to obstruct the Afghan government’s U.S.-backed peace deal with a faded warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. While China has frustrated India’s moves to place the Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar on the UN sanctions list, Moscow recently blocked Hekmatyar’s removal from the same list. What makes the emerging regional axis more surprising is that Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, continues to bankroll the Taliban. Another paradox is that two of America’s allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are still aiding and abetting the U.S. military’s main battlefield enemy, the Taliban, which has killed hundreds of American soldiers.

As for Moscow, it has sought to underpin its policy shift by warming up to Pakistan. In order to cultivate ties with the Taliban, whose top leadership remains holed up in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Russia is befriending Islamabad. Russia has held its first ever military exercise with Pakistan and is selling attack helicopters to it. Moscow is also negotiating a $2 billion natural gas pipeline contract with Islamabad. The new developments in the Af-Pak belt carry major implications for Indian security. Although India and the Afghan government were invited to a round of discussions in Moscow this month, Russia is shaping its new Afghanistan policy not in cooperation with New Delhi and Kabul. Indeed, at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December, Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, made some critical comments about New Delhi and Kabul. Subsequently, after discussions with Pakistan in Moscow, Russia and China called for “flexible approaches” toward the Taliban and the removal of some its leaders from the UN sanctions list. The Russian cooperation with the Taliban, while putting a damper on American efforts to reach a peace deal with that militia, is likely to exacerbate the security dynamics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which already boasts, as Gen. Nicholson pointed out, “the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world.” Put simply, Moscow’s new stance represents a setback for counterterrorism and for India’s Afghanistan policy.

The author is a strategic thinker and commentator.