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NightWatch 20100218


For the Night of 18 February 2010

North Korea: North Korea vowed Friday never to give up its atomic arsenal in return for economic aid. The Korean Central News Agency restated that the North's demand for an end to what it called US hostility and called for a formal peace treaty.

The North also notified South Korea on 19 February that it will conduct coastal artillery training off the coast and has designated six regions as naval firing zones for three days next week, as it did earlier this month.

The communist state's official news agency instead demanded an end to what it called US hostility -- apparently restating a call for a formal peace treaty on the Korean peninsula.

Finally, a spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told the press that the North has moved some multiple round rocket launchers to sites along the west coast, increasing the density of coastal defense weapons.

Comment: Earlier this week, NightWatch advised of inconsistency in North Korean behavior. Conciliatory measures are alternating with military posturing and warnings. In most countries this behavior signifies policy disarray or factional disputes. An alternative is that the North's leaders feel constrained to follow every benign gesture with a threat so that the South and the US do not interpret cooperative moves as signifying weakness. That is a perennial North Korean concern in dealing with the US and its Allies.

However, in times of firm and effective leadership, the North has strained to maintain greater consistency in either hard or soft line action so as to clarify which is the dominant policy line. Concern about clarity of communication is less important in recent statements and actions than concern to not appear weak.

Afghanistan: Xinhua reported today Afghan troops have detained three suspected Taliban militants and killed their commander, named Mullah Zabihullah. Forces raided a hideout in Char Dara District, Konduz Province, during night of 17 February, and found the men. There was no comment from the Taliban.

Note: Konduz is in northern Afghanistan. The Oxus River separates it from Tajikistan. Its strategic significance is that a major supply line from the north runs through Konduz, down to Baghlan Province and ultimately to Kabul, via the bridge at Sher Khan Bandar in Konduz.

Also related Afghan official said two Taliban shadow governors from northern Afghanistan were arrested by Pakistani authorities, Associated Press reported 18 February. Mohammad Omar, the official governor of Konduz province, said two of the insurgency's shadow governors - Mullah Abdul Salam from Konduz and Mullah Mohammad of Baghlan - were arrested 10 to 12 days ago in Pakistan.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials said Salam was arrested in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad. One of the officials said Salam's arrest was the result of information gleaned from Mullah Abdul Ghani Berader, second in command to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Comment: The emergence of Taliban fighting groups in Konduz since 2007 has been cited as indicating an expansion of Taliban reach outside the Pashtun heartland in the south. The first brief skirmishes occurred in Char Dara District, which is in fact 55% Pashtun, and spread to three other of the seven districts in Konduz. Taliban or Pashtun-initiated attacks reached about 18 per month in January 2010, but local militias have fought back and driven most Taliban from at least one of the four districts that had been under stress, based on news service reports.

A close examination of the emergence of Taliban fighting cells in Konduz shows it was less an expansion than a reactivation of Pashtun fighters who had served the Taliban regime when it ruled in Kabul before 2001. Konduz was the frontline in the Taliban offensives against the Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north. The fighting in Konduz does not signify a breakout from the Pashtun character of the Taliban movement.

The significance of today's reports about Konduz is that the counter attack against the Pashtun is continuing to enjoy success. The BBC interpretation of the recent Pakistani arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan is that it signifies a strategic decision by the Pakistani leadership to experiment with a new approach that nonetheless showcases Pakistan's critical role in Afghan affairs.

A somewhat different hypothesis is that Pakistan is using security and intelligence operations to round up troublesome Afghan leaders as a substitute for follow-on Army and paramilitary offensive operations in North Waziristan. Afghans are easy targets for Pakistani intelligence and security and the bait and switch dimension of the approach seems to work, especially because some of the leaders now in detention are connected to the regions the Coalition forces are sweeping.

US pressure on Pakistan to resume operations in North Waziristan has been replaced this week with accolades for taking real action against the Afghan Taliban luminaries who operate from Pakistan. That reversal of emphasis is not an accident. Long overdue action to arrest Taliban leaders in Pakistan is tonight's good news.

Niger: Elements of the Nigerien Army overthrew the government in Niamey, arrested President Tandja, suspended the constitution and dissolved state institutions in the name of ending corruption and establishing democracy. The soldiers firing guns interrupted a meeting of government ministers and departed with the President. President Mamadou Tandja is believed to be in captivity at a military barracks.

In a television broadcast, the spokesman for the military junta called on the people of Niger to "remain calm and stay united around the ideals postulated by the CSRD", to "make Niger an example of democracy and good governance".

In place of the government, the military junta identified itself as the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD).

Communiqué 003 of the CSRD proclaimed that, "Following the dissolution of the government, the CSRD wishes to inform the Niger people that public daily businesses will be taken care of by the permanent secretaries of the various ministries as well as those of the regional governorates.

Signed: Major Saliou Jibo, chairman of the CSRD.

Tandja had been in power since 1999, when his election ended a period of coups and rebellions in the Sahelian African country. He was re-elected in 2004 to a second five-year term that was to end in December. Like several other term-limited elected heads of state in Africa and Latin American, Tandja tried to organize a referendum that would enable him to remain in office beyond the constitutional limit. This action incited protests and spurred formation of an opposition movement. Tandja invoked extraordinary powers to rule by decree after dissolving parliament and the constitutional court, which opposed his plan for a referendum removing term limits.

France has told its nationals to stay indoors in Niamey, Niger, amid reports of a coup attempt against Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja, France 24 reported.

Comment: Mauritania, Guinea and now Niger have experienced military coups in the past two years. The group taking action in Guinea and Niger consisted of field grade officers. Mauritania's 2008 coup was led by a general who was the chief of the presidential guard whom the overthrown president had just dismissed.

Beneath the veneer of invariably lofty causes, their complaints usually are pay, promotions and perks, as in the case of Mauritania and Guinea. The underlying reasons for this group to overthrow the Nigerien government have not yet been reported.

The plotters have access to guns and working vehicles in proximity to the capital. The main difference among them is their sense of timing. In Guinea, the Dadis Camara coup occurred after the death of President Conte. In Mauritania and Niger, the plotters have been uncommonly bold in that they moved against the government while the President was still in the country.

In Mauritania, General Aziz resigned from the Army, ran for office as President last year and not surprisingly won. In Guinea, Captain Dadis Camara, leader of the December 2008 coup, was wounded seriously in an assassination attempt last year and was coerced or cajoled into handing power to a military-backed civilian caretaker government which is to oversee the return to elected civilian government in six months.

Uranium ore deposits are Niger's single strategic natural resource. No government wants to interfere with that cash cow.

All three of the latest coups have been essentially bloodless, in contrast to most in the 1960's. Moreover, the duration of military governments installed by coup is increasingly short, mostly because of international pressure, including by African states, to force the military back to barracks. These trends represent progress in political maturation. The era of military coups in Africa should have long passed, but each new cohort of soldiers seems determined to learn this the hard way.

End of NightWatch for 18 February.

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