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NightWatch 20110613


For the Night of 13 June 2011

North Korea-South Korea: South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin told a parliamentary defense committee that North Korea probably has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear device. Kim offered no evidence to back his claim, but said Pyongyang has had enough time to develop such a weapon. Kim said Pyongyang was increasingly likely to launch a surprise attack against South Korea after the North issued several verbal threats, Yonhap reported. Kim said Pyongyang continues its activities to maintain its capability to conduct nuclear tests and launch missiles.

Comment: Minister Kim, significantly, did not say that North Korea possesses more fissile material; only that it might be making more efficient use of the limited quantity it already has. That suggests the North might have sufficient fissile material for more than the ten or 12 weapons it is assessed as possessing, but with smaller yields. As with most of its weapons systems, the North continues to tinker.

A few more weapons with smaller yields do not change the fundamental certainty of national destruction by the Allies should the North ever seriously threaten to use them. Still, Minister Kim's testimony to the committee is a necessary and useful counterpoint to the recent publicity about the North and China experimenting with market economics in the joint development zone in the Yalu River estuary.

The threat of a sudden violent attack, such as the one the North delivered against the South's offshore island last year, is a constant feature of the security situation. However, it does not deter South Koreans from engaging in their own provocative behavior, such as anti-regime radio broadcasts and launching balloons that drop anti-regime leaflets into the North or using photos of the North's leaders for target practice. In North Korea, any defacing of a Kim photo is a capital crime.

South China Sea Islands

Vietnam staged live-fire naval drills in the South China Sea about 25 miles off Quang Nam Province, a province in central Vietnam, on 13 June, a naval officer from Danang told the press. The officer said there were two periods of naval gunfire that targeted an unoccupied island.

Taiwan is planning to deploy missiles boats in the South China Sea and tanks on the islands its forces occupy - Spratly and Pratas Islands -- a Taiwan Defense Ministry spokesman said on 12 June. According to the spokesman, military personnel on the islands are only armed with light weapons and may not be sufficiently equipped to defend against a potential conflict.

Comment: The significance of the two items is they demonstrate that the Southeast Asian claimants to the islands and the surrounding seabeds are not backing down in contesting China's claim to all of the South China Sea. As indicated last week, the countries slowly are continuing to move towards a test of military strength, at some point in the future.

Pakistan: According to a report in The Express Tribune, the government plans to urge local tribal elders and tribesmen in North Waziristan to form lashkars (tribal militias) to target al Qaida militants as well as the Tajik, Uzbek and Chechen militants hiding in the tribal agency. An unnamed Pakistani military official said US CIA Director Panetta and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Kayani discussed the idea of facilitating the formation of pro-government tribal laskhars.

The anti-US and anti-Afghanistan insurgent syndicate led by the Haqqanis, however, will not be targeted. Islamabad's priority is to remove anti-Pakistan government militants from the area first. Another source said once Pakistan enlists the aid of the tribes, it will be easier for the army to drive the militants out of North Waziristan.

Comment: There is less here than the report suggests. The constitutional provisions governing the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of which North Waziristan is one, restrict the Army from operating freely in the tribal agencies, except by invitation, in the event of an insurrection and to defend the national borders. The tribal leaders already have the authority, working through the federal government's political agents, to invite the Army to operate or to form tribal militias. The major drawbacks are concerns about local autonomy and lack of organization, financing, weapons and training.

Musharraf used lashkars to help suppress anti-Pakistan groups in the agencies, but they usually tipped off the targets of federal operations. They all live together in the neighborhood under Pashtun hospitality customs.

The announcement of the plan is mostly for public relations purposes, but the exemption of the Haqqanis as targets proves the point that Pakistan has no quarrel with anti-Afghanistan groups who operate from Pakistan but otherwise cause no trouble for Pakistan. These groups include Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Moreover, a crackdown on the large Afghan Pashtun population in Pakistan risks causing even more unmanageable internal instability.

Yemen: State controlled media reported on 13 June that initial investigations into the 3 June attack that injured President Saleh have found that the parties responsible for the attack include the opposition Joint Meeting Parties and a half brother to the President, Ali Saleh. An official in Saleh's administration said Ali Saleh was arrested inside the palace immediately after it took place. A mosque preacher, Ahmed al-Ghadir, who flew to Germany on the day of the attack, also is a suspect, a Saleh aide said.

Comment: The first reports after the attack against Saleh and other government officials at prayers on the 3d blamed the al Ahmar tribe for the attack. This report is a clumsy attempt to undermine the credibility of the opposition's political organization as a trustworthy negotiating partner.

International news services provided details of a potential breakthrough between the opposition Joint Meeting Parties and Vice President Hadi. At the end of the day, Hadi did not sign or otherwise signal his agreement to the deal. Especially after the government reported President Saleh is convalescing well and plans to make an announcement to the nation this week. The actual state of security affairs in Yemen is even more complex than normal.

Lebanon: For the record. After five months of deadlock, the pro-Syrian factions have formed a cabinet. Hezbollah has the largest bloc in parliament but has only three cabinet posts because of the constitutional provisions apportioning ministries among the Lebanese factions based on parliamentary representation. Nevertheless, a coalition of pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian parties now governs for the first time in six years.

Comment: Lebanese political coalitions are fragile and quickly changeable without warning, but political orientations have more durability. The prospect that this cabinet might not last long will not change the electoral outcome in the parliament which enhanced pro-Syrian influences in Lebanon. The interests of the Lebanese factions and of outside parties, such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Israel, are often contradictory or competitive. Nevertheless, the regional strategic climate has turned more anti-Israel and anti-American than in six years.

US reaction: Secretary Clinton warned the new Lebanese cabinet that it would be judged by its actions, not its composition. (Note: Still, the composition and orientation of the cabinet are bases for strategic warning and for increased vigilance.)

Syria: For the record. Syrian armed forces stormed Jisr al-Shughour, in northwestern Syria, on 12 June and clashed with armed groups that had taken over the city. Soldiers captured militants who were located inside the hospital. Clashes took place both inside and around the city.

Comment: This is the payback for the massacre of 120 security personnel last week. The BBC reported that the government forces have spread beyond Jisr al-Shughour in pursuit of the armed elements and are burning crops and houses in a scorched earth program.

The al Asad government, using the resources it has committed to date is unable to suppress the opposition, which has now begun to erode the loyalty of some military units, but does not yet appear to be in danger. News services have poor fidelity on military defections, partly because the opposition has better public relations than the Syrian government. Nevertheless, the government still has a near monopoly of firepower.

In addition, as a general rule in monitoring internal instability, as long as the government is fighting the activists on the periphery, it is not in danger, provided the troops remain loyal. Alternatively, until the activism reaches and sustains itself in Damascus, the regime will not fall. The military defections reported thus far have raised hope among some observers that the forces are fracturing, but, in fact, the defections have made no measurable impact on the security situation.

Jordan: In response to popular demand, Jordanian King Abdullah II said his country's future Cabinets will be formed according to an elected parliamentary majority. In a speech marking his 12th year as Jordan's ruler, Abdullah also promised a number of unspecified constitutional reforms.

Comment: The King is trying to respond appropriately to the demands of the opposition. That means he is moving in a political direction unlike most Arab leaders. The danger is that concessions have tended to fuel higher expectations among the activists. As yet their reaction has not been reported.

End of NightWatch for 13 June.

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