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NightWatch 20100823

NightWatch

For the Night of 23 August 2010

Australia: Update. Saturday's parliamentary elections produced no majority for any party for the first time in 70 years. Readers will understand that this means that the major parties must attempt to form a coalition with each other or by appealing to independents or the Greens.

The preliminary count is Labor won 72 seats; the conservative Coalition won 69; Greens captured one seats; independents 3 and one seat is still undecided.

One Australia commentator evaluated the outcome as a widespread repudiation of liberal policies. He cited the fact that ousted Labor Prime Minister Rudd came to office with 70% favorable polls. On the other hand, the distribution of seats in parliament indicates a polarized electorate favoring no clear policy preferences, except for less government.

North Korea-China: Update. Chinese envoy Wu Dawei said he wants to visit South Korea on 27 and 28 August to hold multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear program, diplomatic sources in Beijing said 23 August. The announcement came during a meeting with Beijing-based South Korean diplomats in which Wu discussed his recent trip to North Korea.

The diplomats disclosed no other details of Wu's trip report. The Chinese are engaged again and are carrying water for the North Koreans, but nuclear talks are not imminent.

Afghanistan: The London Sunday Times carried a detailed story from a single Taliban source about the only American soldier in Taliban captivity. The US soldier supposedly is now a convert to Islam and is training the Taliban in bombing making and in setting up ambushes. The Taliban suspect he is cooperating to keep from being beheaded.

The US Army private has been missing since June 2009. He has been reported to be in captivity in Paktika Province, which borders west central Pakistan. The Times story tends to corroborate the earlier reports about his location.

Comment: The Times article played down the most important fact, namely that the soldier is alive. If his collaboration is keeping him alive but results in the death of fellow soldiers, he might have outsmarted himself, assuming the story is accurate. One reason to doubt its authenticity is that the Taliban are quick to produce propaganda videotapes. Certainly the conversion of a captured US soldier would be a propaganda coup, if it occurred.

Iran-US: A US spokesperson said today that the United States is troubled by Iran's nuclear intentions, not its development of new weapons systems. Iranian intentions are a greater concern as any new weapon system is not likely to tip the regional balance. The spokesman also added that the United States is ready to engage Iran and hopes to have talks in September.

Comment: One important point to keep in mind about Iran's "new" weapons is that their technology is up to 50 years old. Even its most advanced and accurate missiles are knock-offs of Soviet missiles designed in the late 1950s-70s. They can do significant damage, to be sure, wherever they land, but the threat they pose is technologically familiar and more defensible than more modern weapons systems.

A second point is they are deterrent because they are first strike or retaliatory weapons. As first strike weapons, they invite a counterstrike by the intended target, for example Israel. As retaliatory weapons, their attack would begin after portions of Iran were already destroyed. In other words, the Iranian population and cities are essentially defenseless.

Iran has no defense against an Israeli or US first strike. The leaders want to camouflage that fact by showing off weapons, without admitting that they have little value in protecting Iranians. The US spokesperson appropriately characterized the new weapons as not upsetting "the regional balance."

Nuclear warheads for the new missiles, however, would upset the regional balance. They would not do much to improve the survival probabilities of Iranians should deterrence fail, but they might improve the chances that deterrence will work because nuclear armed missiles can hold potential enemy cities hostage to casualties and effects on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As first strike weapons, their use would be essentially an act of national suicide because Iran would experience nuclear retaliation. The leaders' interpretation of Shiite theology tends to embrace martyrdom, but their actions and decisions - not their words -- have been utilitarian, bordering on secular, when faced with risks to the national patrimony and the safety of the population.

For example, Iran will soon begin generating electric power from the nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The leaders seem to enjoy brinksmanship, but they are not suicidal so much as moderately successful in their defiance of the US. At least for now.

Somalia: Hundreds of additional African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops from Uganda and Burundi deployed to Mogadishu on 21 August in support of the Somali Transitional Federal Government, Radio Voice of Mudug reported 23 August. AU forces reportedly barred the port in Mogadishu to facilitate the troops' arrival. The new contingent, said to be heavily armed, will be stationed at the African Union Mission in Somalia base at Halane.

Comment: This is the first increment of several thousand AU forces promised after the bombing in Kampala, Uganda, during the World Cup. Soldiers from Uganda and Burundi constitute the 6,100 troops in the AU mission, known as AMISOM. Guinea and Djibouti also have promised troops, but none have arrived.

One of the direct consequences of the Kampala bombing is Uganda's pledge to send an additional 2,000 soldiers to Mogadishu's defense. If the intent of the bombing was to help the Islamists in al Shabaab and the clans that support them, it backfired.

End of NightWatch for 23 August.

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