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NightWatch 20110406

NightWatch

For the Night of 6 April 2011

South Korea-North Korea: Update. South Korea proposed holding a second round of talks with North Korea on a joint research project into the volcanic activities of Mount Paektu. South Korea will prepare for a meeting to allow in-depth discussions in the border town of Kaesong on 12 April, a Unification Ministry spokeswoman said.

Comment: The South appears to be alternating applications of carrot and stick to the North by warning of retaliation for provocations, while keeping open opportunities for low-level engagement.

A guarded approach, such as this, is prudent because the leadership situation in the North remains uncertain. Recently, no news services have provided information on the state of Kim Chong-il's health or military acceptance of his third son, Kim Jung-un, as successor. The uncertainty may be manifest in inconsistent or even contradictory actions towards the US and South Korea. Thus, the South keeps up its guard while probing the North's willingness to talk and its conditions for talks.

If UN warnings of an imminent famine in North Korea prove accurate, the North will have almost no choice but to seek help from its enemies, again. The North's conditions for talks will provide insight as to how desperate the food situation is. Lax conditions, on outside monitoring of food distribution for example, would mean a serious crisis.

Afghanistan: Citing US officials, the Wall Street Journal published a report on 6 April that al Qaida has returned to valleys and areas in Afghanistan after the departure of US soldiers, during the six to eight months. According to the report, al Qaida has built training camps, hideouts and operations bases in Konar, Nuristan and remote regions of Nangarhar Provinces, which border or are near the tribal areas of Pakistan., citing an unidentified senior US military officer and other officials. Al Qaida found a safe haven in Afghanistan to establish a base and train operatives and suicide attackers, the US officer said.

Comment: This news report contradicts the semi-annual report to Congress on Afghanistan released on 5 April. The document reported progress in narrowing al Qaida's safe haven in Pakistan, but criticized Pakistan for not doing more to control the Taliban, without distinguishing between the Afghan and the Pakistan Taliban.

It is not clear from open source materials whether al Qaida or Pashtun Taliban are doing the fighting in these regions, but fighting has increased significantly since last October. In January 2011, Konar Province experienced more security incidents than in any previous month in the NightWatch six-year, open source data base. It was the fourth most violent province that month, after Helmand, Kandahar and Khost, in that order. Security incidents in Nangarhar also have increased significantly. It was fifth most violent province in January.

As for Nuristan Province, there were only four incidents in January 2011 and three in November 2010. However, it is not clear whether the low level of violence is the result of improved security or a return of al Qaida without opposition.

The report of al Qaida's return will give the Pakistan leadership powerful grounds for countering US allegations of deficiencies in Pakistan's counterinsurgency performance.

Al Qaida's return to Afghanistan  -- after the publicity about new tactics, new leadership and a surge in US forces  -- would represent a setback at every level. Tactically, those who thought a US withdrawal would remove a cause of local hostility and eliminate an incentive to support the Taliban and thus result in greater local security would have been proven wrong.

Also, it would signify that tribal elders were unwilling or unable to prevent the return of the al Qaida cadres. Alternatively, they might have just lied to the Afghan government or coalition representatives in order to rid their valleys of foreign soldiers.

Operationally, it would mean that those who advocated that Afghan security forces and tribal militias could replace US forces in these regions as mainstays of provincial security also were wrong.

Finally, it would be a strategic setback. Those who argued that the Pech and other remote valleys had no strategic significance would be proven short-sighted.

The latest report to Congress showcases quotations from President Obama that the Afghanistan campaign is about al Qaida. One of two primary mission objectives is to deny it a safe haven in Afghanistan. If the Wall Street Journal is accurate - and it tends to corroborate and expand on an earlier report in Asia Times on Line - the operation would appear to be failing in one of the President's primary mission objectives.

Note: This comment makes or implies no policy recommendations. It is about understanding how al Qaida and the Taliban operate against modern, well equipped soldiers. In 2001, both insisted they would wait out the foreigners. They are doing precisely what they said they would do.

Turkey- Yemen: The Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement on 6 April that welcomed and supported a proposal by the Gulf Cooperation Council for mediation between the Yemeni administration and the opposition, according to the Turkish news agency Anatolia. The statement said the foreign ministry expected the Yemeni administration to take the necessary measures to end attacks on civilians, and that Turkey wants stability and peace to be restored in Yemen. Yemen's future should be determined through comprehensive national dialogue with participants from all parts of society, the statement said.

Comment: This is the second recent instability problem for which Turkey has volunteered to mediate. The other is Libya. Neither the leaders of Libya nor Yemen has accepted the Turkish offer of good offices.

Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) could contest up to 49 percent of the seats in the September parliament elections, an MB leader said on 6 April, according to local press reporting. The MB will announce its candidates within a week, an MB spokesman said. An MB Guidance Bureau member said the group's Shura Council would decide how many candidates it will field, likely within a few days. MB leaders said the party hopes to secure 35 to 40 percent of the seats.

Comment: Five months ago the Brotherhood was outlawed. A 40% bloc in parliament would be enough of a plurality to form and lead a coalition government. The military government's reaction to the Brotherhood's campaign plan will be a useful indicator and measure of its ideas of democratic government.

Egypt-Saudi Arabia-Bahrain: Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said in a statement on 6 April that Egypt considers any infringement on the stability and Arab identity of Arab Gulf states unacceptable. The statement was released after Egypt accused Iran of attempting to destabilize Bahrain and praised the Saudi forces that helped put down pro-democracy demonstrations there.

Comment: This statement is unusual in that it seems to reverse Egypt's overtures to Iran last week, plus it praises a monarchical and military suppression of pro-democracy forces, arguably similar to those that brought Elaraby to office. The NightWatch hypothesis is that the Saudis set the Egyptians straight as to where their loyalties must lie.

Libya: Production has stopped at rebel-held oil fields in eastern Libya after they were bombarded by artillery forces loyal to Libyan leader Qadhafi, a rebel spokesman said 6 April. The fields in Misla and the Waha oasis area, which pump oil to Tobruk, were attacked April 5-6, the spokesman said. They also pumped oil to Ras Lanuf, which is now held by Qadhafi forces.

Comment: Only Reuters reported this event which is significant for several reasons. Workers at the two fields, south of Benghazi, early on, sided with the rebels. Since 1 April the fields have changed hands several times, according to various press accounts. The report suggests the rebels are unable to defend the fields and are in danger of being outflanked by Qadhafi forces.

Little by little, Qadhafi's forces are moving deeper into Cyrenaica.

Libya-France: French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe to a parliamentary commission on 5 April that Qadhafi's forces would be attacked by coalition air strikes if Qadhafi moved toward Benghazi. He said the Libyan ground situation is "confused and undecided," and that the coalition intervention did not allow for a balancing of forces. Reinforcing the National Transitional Council and working toward a political solution will be discussed during the EU foreign ministers' meeting the week of 10 April, Juppe stated.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said France has promised to open a sea corridor to allow Libyan rebels from Benghazi to supply the coastal town of Misrata. He said previously, the embargo had meant no boats could supply any towns, but as of 6 April marine traffic at Tobruk and Benghazi has reopened to supply Misrata and the NATO-led coalition will prevent any interruption of this traffic by Qadhafi forces.

Comment: The mission is creeping and the French are out in front of the coalition.

End of NightWatch for 6 April.

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