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NightWatch 20111213

NightWatch

For the night of 13 December 2011

South Korea-China: Update. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that China will cooperate with South Korea to properly investigate the 11 December incident between Chinese fishermen and the South Korean coast guard. The spokesman said China regrets the "unfortunate incident," which led to the killing of a South Korean coast guard officer.

Comment: The Chinese government continues to use its diplomats to try to smooth the rough edges of a calculated and aggressive maritime policy.

Pakistan-US: The senior US military officer in Afghanistan made a phone call to Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Kayani to try to ease tension. This was the first contact between the generals since a US armed drone killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers on 26 November. The US general reported progress.

A US Congressional panel today frozen $700m in aid to Pakistan until it gives assurances it is tackling the spread of homemade bombs in the region. The move - the second such freeze this year - reflects US frustration over what it sees as Islamabad's reluctance to act against militant groups, according to the BBC.

Comment: In juxtaposition, the two stories show a significant disconnect in US policy. The action to freeze aid will aggravate the Pakistanis, who have come to depend on it.  It also will undermine the credibility of the senior US general in Afghanistan when he is trying to reduce tension.

Nevertheless, the Congressional move has identified a critical gap in US policy. Only Pakistan has the factories that make the critical ingredients for improvised explosive devices. Components for almost all road-side bombs originate in Pakistan and are not controlled, even at the Pak-Afghan border.

Imports of ammonium nitrate, the key explosive ingredient, officially are banned by Afghanistan, but the ban is not effective because Afghan border guards are easily corrupted and Pakistan does not enforce it. There are only two fertilizer plants in Pakistan that can and do supply the preponderance of the explosives used in IEDs in Afghanistan.

US diplomats and commanders also have done nothing effective in stopping the steady flow of IED components in the past than ten years. It is not clear in open sources that anyone has raised the issue of the fertilizer plants consistently, although most US casualties in Afghanistan are from improvised roadside bombs, most of which are made from Pakistani fertilizer.

Afghanistan:  For the record. The Afghan government has reached an agreement with the Taliban by which they will end attacks on state schools in return for a more conservative religious curriculum and the hiring of Taliban-approved mullahs as teachers, according to an unconfirmed report. The deal, which was agreed at the national level with the Afghan education ministry and at the village level by local communities, appears to have contributed to a fall in the level of violence across much of Afghanistan over the past year.

Comment: The agreement  is not confirmed, but would represent a significant concession to the Taliban and would end the education of girls beyond about 6th grade. NightWatch is investigating the fighting data on attacks against schools.

Afghanistan-Iran: The Iranian-Afghan Joint Military and Defense Cooperation Commission met for the first time in Tehran on 13 December, IRNA reported. The defense ministers discussed the need for expanding defense cooperation.

Afghan Deputy Defense Minister for Strategic Affairs Brigadier General Hamayun Fauzi praised the Iranian role in Afghan security and said Kabul needs Tehran in several fields, but particularly in defense. Iran is willing to help Afghanistan build up its army, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmed Vahini said.

Comment: The significance of this meeting is that it indicates Iran is maneuvering to take advantage of any openings that result from the withdrawal of US and NATO combat forces. This is one of the first events that show that Iran actively is preparing for the US end-game in Afghanistan and the end of the threat of an American two-front war against Iran.

Karzai's government reached out to Iran. After NATO combat forces depart, Afghanistan will still exist in a rough neighborhood. A non-Taliban government will require good ties with Iran and central Asian states because ties with Pakistan will not be friendly, unless the Taliban return to power.

Iran: For the record. A Jordanian news outlet reported today on 13 December that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the arrests of several prominent members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in connection with a suspected assassination plot against him. The detainees reportedly included his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, and some of his personal bodyguards.

Comment: Iranian authorities supposedly discovered the plot around 12 November when Khamenei was scheduled to visit a missile base in west of Tehran. If confirmed, such a plot would indicate significant fragmentation of the ruling elite.

Iran-Saudi Arabia: Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi met with Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Mogran bin Abdulaziz during his 12 December visit to Riyadh, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said at a 13 December news conference. The meeting explored security issues and misunderstandings between the two countries.

Comment: Iran requested the meetings, according to multiple news outlets. The agenda for such meetings is never disclosed but the Iranian initiative implies the Iranian wanted Saudi insights on recent regional developments. The most important of these was the explosion that destroyed parts of the missile complex south of Tehran, which killed the head of Iran's ballistic missile program.

The Iranians probably also wanted Saudi views on the outlook for Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They also might have tried to reassure the Saudis that Iran is not backing Shiite unrest in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

Cumulatively, the Iranians would seem to be justified in being concerned about security issues, especially internal security in Iran. Recent developments include setbacks to the nuclear program from a breach of computer security; the explosion at the ballistic missile complex; several assassinations of leading scientists and confirmation of an apparently aggressive US drone intelligence surveillance program.

Iran appears to be under attack by clandestine operatives. The drone captures implicates the US. The alternative explanation is that each setback was serendipitous. The problem with serendipity is that it tends to create random effects, not effects that move consistently in a single, in this case, negative -for-Iran direction for Iran's most advanced scientific programs.

Iran-Syria: The Iranian parliament passed a bill on 13 December that contains 23 articles and would allow free trade with Syria. The legislation is a clear message to Syrian enemies, and the bill is in line with the fight against Israel, Iranian lawmakers said.

Comment: The unidentified Iranian lawmakers knew that in passing the bill they were acting to support the al-Asad regime in Damascus. The effect of the bill will be to send a lifeline to Damascus to mitigate the effects of western sanctions. A lifeline to Iran links Syria to China, Iran's primary backer.

End of NightWatch for 13 December.

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