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NightWatch 20100321

NightWatch

For the Night of 21 March 2010

North Korea: For the record. The Korean Central New Agency published an official announcement that on 9 April the second session of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is scheduled to convene in Pyongyang.

Comment: This is an annual event in early April. The Supreme People's Assembly is the legislature and its member will vote on a variety of government programs and policies. The outcome of the vote is engineered in advance of the session in prior Workers' Party meetings. Those are the venue for genuine debate and disagreement. Disagreements are resolved before the issues are presented for approval by the Supreme People's Assembly, giving it the label of a rubber stamp.

Nevertheless, the members of the Supreme People's Assembly include all key party members who participated in the preparation of the agenda. The agenda always provides insight into national priorities for the coming year.

A key thing to look for is whether military priorities are lowered or altered in any fashion. The sequence of civilian economic priorities and any mention of succession issues are two other important items.

Thailand: Update. After a weekend of large, peaceful protests, Prime Minister Abhisit said 21 March he is ready to send representatives to meet with the country's opposition protesters, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), to discuss ways to resolve the political deadlock in the country, Xinhua reported.

Abhisit said he will not allow talks if the opposition demands that the lower house of parliament be dissolved. UDD leader Jatuporn Promphan said he would only hold talks with Abhisit personally and no other representatives from the government, because Abhisit has the power to dissolve the lower house.

The protests were sizable but not large enough to coerce the government.

Pakistan: Yesterday, hundreds of elders representing the 20 largest tribes in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas met in Peshawar to discuss how to end support for militants, according to the BBC and Pakistani news services.

A panel of 40 elders will be charged with mobilizing citizens against the militants and for more military operations. "It should be a genuine military operation like the Sri Lankans did against the Tamil Tigers," said Sayd Alam Mehsud, a powerful tribal leader, referring to the brutal military campaign that destroyed the separatist Tamil army in Sri Lanka. The elders described recent operations as military theater. They also called for more power for traditional councils.

Comment: The meeting is an important sign of a new round in a continuing power struggle over leadership in the tribal areas. The elders have been losers in this struggle in the past three decades to fundamentalist Islamic parties and groups, usually in political alliance with the Army. The formation of jihadist groups usually signifies that religious leaders have more local clout than do traditional tribal councils. The young men and some women are channeled to support causes that do not relate directly to local needs.

Tribes support Islamic causes through taxes and donations and can tolerate the absence of limited numbers of young men who engage in violent jihad. They cannot tolerate large numbers of non-productive armed people who burden local resources for sustainment. In the final weeks of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, thousands of Pakistani young men responded to the calls of the religious leaders to go to Afghanistan to fight for Omar's emirate. They were zealous, untrained and used as cannon fodder by the Taliban. Cohorts of high school age youth never returned to their villages in Pakistan.

Recruitment by Pakistani Taliban have been having the same effect, strengthening the dominance of the religious leaders at the expense of elders and other power holders, including landowners.

The Islamabad government has tried variously to enlist the aid of religious leaders, especially under Musharraf, and elders to stabilize security conditions in the tribal regions. Most of the attempts to gain support from religious leaders proved temporary and limited. It is not yet clear the elders have the clout to recover the authority that was taken away from them by earlier governments in Islamabad.

The meeting indicates they are in the power struggle on the government's side.

Afghanistan: The Sunday Times reported today statements by two Afghan Taliban "commanders" that Iran has trained hundreds of Afghan Taliban militants on how to plant roadside bombs and stage complex ambushes on NATO forces in Afghanistan. The commanders said in an interview that Iranian authorities paid them to attend three-month training courses during the winter.

Taliban militants were said to have been taken across the Iranian-Afghan border to Zahedan, Iran, where instructors taught them in the first month to attack convoys and escape before NATO forces had time to respond, in the second month how to stage multiple-stage improvised explosive device (IED) attacks aimed at killing rescue workers after the first blast detonates, and in the third month how to attack bases and checkpoints.

The Taliban commanders were persuaded to tell reporters of the training by local mediators, and one said militants are having a more difficult time traveling in Pakistan due to the military offensive there, and that more of his fighters will train in Iran in 2010.

Comment: The description of the types of attacks matches the types of targets the Taliban attack most often with IEDs. Other groups, namely the Haqqanis, seem to prefer sensational bombings of hotels in Kabul where foreigners reside.

In the past several years, Afghan news sources have reported discovering arms caches in western Afghanistan, near Iran, that contained ordnance with Iranian markings. Still most of the Iranian based training and support program appears focused on maintaining a buffer of anti-US and anti-government Taliban groups along Iran's border with Afghanistan.

In the interview, the commanders implied that Iran trained or is beginning to train bomb makers from Afghan Taliban groups from other parts of Afghanistan. If so, that would be one of the first credible indicators that the Pakistani roundup of Afghan Taliban leaders in Baluchistan and Karachi has had a direct impact on the insurgency.

The good news would be that the IED support infrastructure in Pakistan is disrupted if not displaced. The bad news is it or part of it might have moved to Iran. Even if that can be confirmed, Iran's support for the Afghan Taliban is limited by it's national interests. For example, its leaders show little to no interest in abetting the return of the Sunni Taliban to power in Kabul. However they do want Taliban groups strong enough to tie down US forces so as to weaken the potential military threat from the east and to hasten their departure from Afghanistan.

Iraq: For the record. For first time since the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq produced enough fuel to meet all its domestic needs, Azzaman.com reported 20 March, citing Iraq's Oil Ministry. The ministry's statement said Iraq has reached a state of self-sufficiency in fuel products and imported no fuel products in the last three months. Note: That is a claim that Iran cannot make.

The Vote Count. The election commission head Faraj al-Haydari said that the final results of the elections will be announced on Friday, 26 March. In the name of the commission he rejected all calls for a manual recount of the votes. Commission member Judge Qasim al-Abbudi said," We have announced 95% of the results and at 1900 (1600 GMT) on Friday, the final results will be announced at the Al-Rashid Hotel."

Earlier, President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister al-Maliki backed calls for a manual recount of votes. With just over 90% of the votes counted, the commission said on Saturday that Mr Allawi's Iraqiya political bloc was ahead by nearly 8,000 votes nationwide. With 95% of the votes counted, today the commission said al Maliki's bloc was ahead.

Note: Of interest is that when he was losing al Maliki threatened violence if a recount did not take place. A coalition government is unavoidable but legislative deadlock seems likely too. The Shiites proved to be fractious and dangerously close to losing the right to rule based on the population. The closeness of the balloting between al Maliki's pro-Iranian Shiite bloc and Allawi's secular bloc is a setback for Iran.

Israel-Palestinian Authority: Comment: Shootings of Palestinian youths by Israeli security forces, demonstrations, stalled talks and passage of time since the last Israeli invasion of Gaza appear to be creating a compression phenomenon that is likely to lead to much more serious violence. The fact that Palestinian leaders are denying that another intifada is likely at this times shows that another intifada is being discussed in leadership venues. The denials have the effect of reminding the Israelis that intifada remains a response to bad faith over new settlement construction and stalled talks.

One way or another, security in Palestine and invariably parts of Israel appears to be on the verge of deteriorating again.

Yemen: For the record. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has declared the war with al-Huthi tribal militants over, Reuters reported 19 March, citing an Al Arabiya interview. No dialogue will be held, he said, except with activists in the south, which he said had legitimate claims.

Comment: It has never been established firmly that Iran was backing the al Huthi with arms in addition to encouragement. Several ships were seized and weapons from Iran were confiscated but the key evidentiary links were never reported that would show official Iranian support. Still, Iran stood to benefit from an al Huthi uprising. It Iran was engaged in arms support, the al Huthi paid the price of losing and the effort appears to have miscarried, owing in large measure to US support to the Saleh government. That is good news, but Yemen remains unstable.

End of NightWatch for 21 March.

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