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NightWatch 20110622


For the Night of 22 June 2011

China-US: On 22 June China urged the United States to let the claimants in the South China Sea dispute resolve the issue themselves, warning that US involvement might worsen the situation. Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said if the US wants to play a role in the matter, it should urge restraint to those countries that have been behaving provocatively.

Cui said China is doing its best to maintain stability; if Vietnam likewise tries to maintain stability, conflicts can be avoided. If the US takes the same attitude, conflicts are even more likely to be avoided.

Comment: Of all the recent statements by the Chinese Foreign Minister about the South China Sea disputes, today's by Vice Foreign Minister Cui ranks as the most supercilious. His remarks contain no reference to peaceful resolution of disputes. The Foreign Ministry finally has coordinated its message with the aggressive behavior of the Maritime Safety Ministry, which enforces China's claim to all of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea, in military slang, is "owned" by the US Navy and its allies and friends. None of the riparian countries accept or acknowledge Chinese hegemony. Vice Minister Cui made one accurate statement: US involvement might worsen the situation … for China, but not necessarily for US allies and friends.

Philippines-US: Philippine officials said that a Department of Foreign Affairs policy paper contained the statement that US forces are bound by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to defend Philippine troops, ships or aircraft if they are attacked in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The Department of Foreign Affairs policy paper cited US diplomatic messages that defined the Pacific region as including the South China Sea.

Comment: The Philippine government has taken a bold stance in opposition to Chinese claims to all islands in the South China Sea and needs cover.

As for the Mutual Defense Treaty, the Philippine government seems to have forgotten the lessons of 1975, when North Vietnamese naval ships and naval infantry attacked and overran two Philippine-garrisoned islands in the Spratlys, while the North Vietnamese Army raced down the coast to overrun Saigon. At that time, President Marcos  invoked the Treaty so as to obtain US military support in defending the Philippine islands., Several Philippine soldiers and sailors were killed by the North Vietnamese.

The US  reminded Marcos that the Treaty only requires the two allies to consult and take further steps consistent with each party's constitutional requirements. It contains no automatic defense response provision, as does the NATO Treaty.

Second, the US informed the Manila government that attacks in disputed regions of the South China Sea were not the targets that either party intended the Treaty to cover at the time it was signed. It was intended to safeguard against another Japanese-style attack on Luzon.

The US did consult and provided military arms assistance, but no naval or air support.

Nothing since 1975 indicates the US has changed its position. On the other hand, that does not imply that the US would hesitate to assert its longstanding right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Afghanistan: Special Comment. Longtime Readers know that NightWatch has had a continuing project to monitor the security situation in Afghanistan since mid-2006, using a consistent sample of unclassified reporting. In 2006, when the Taliban resurgence was just beginning, NightWatch began publishing monthly summaries of the security situation.

In the past three years, the number of incidents per month has increased so that compiling and analyzing monthly reports threatened to become a full time job.

NightWatch has continued to track data in detail for all 400 districts of Afghanistan every other month and spot checked fighting reports in between. Preliminary analysis of the data for May 2011 was completed today. The table below shows the data from three tracking measures since last November.


Provinces (34 total)

Districts (400 total)

Total incidents

November 2010




January 2011




March 2011




May 2011




What do these data  signify?

First the "media expert" thesis that the Taliban have a fighting season that ends in winter is a fantasy. During each of the past three winters Taliban and other anti-government fighters increased their level of activity, reducing their operations only briefing for weather, as in January 2009. Winter weather imposes no lasting impediment to anti-government operations in the core provinces of the insurgency.

The Taliban did begin an offensive in May 2011, as announced. The number of security incidents in May reached an all-time high despite a brief dip in activity in late May apparently because of rumors that Mullah Omar was missing or deceased.

The number of districts experiencing security incidents was at an all-time high, despite the increase in US forces. The mix of districts has changed, indicating the anti-government fighters moved, rather than confront overwhelming US force. This explains the multiple reports of successfully cleared districts that have returned to normality while the overall number of security incidents increased.

About 200 of the 400 Afghan districts have Pashtun majorities or significant Pashtun minority populations. Any monthly total number of districts experiencing security incidents that exceeds 200 means the Taliban have acquired support or tolerance from non-Pashtun populations.

The May 2011 number of districts experiencing security incidents represents two-thirds of all districts, and is the highest number since the Taliban resurgence began in 2006. Much of this increase  in reach is in districts north of Kabul.

The number of incidents is partly a function of increased US operations during the surge, but the Taliban are almost always present to shoot back. There also has been a noticeable spike in the use of improvised explosive devices, the most effective Taliban weapons.

The anti-government fighters waste lots of ammunition and explosives, but never seem to lack for supplies for long. Afghanistan makes no ammunition and no explosives. Almost all come from Pakistan or from leakage from US and Afghan supplies. The increase in security incidents always is matched by an increase in logistics for NATO and anti-government fighters.

The analysis continues, but the reports since November show no significant Afghan army involvement in combat operations. The May reports contained a single operation that clearly was Afghan army initiated. Afghan soldiers accompany NATO forces on operations, but seldom take casualties except from careless driving.

The Afghan police continue to sustain more casualties than any other armed entity. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates Afghanistan has more than 30,700 villages. NightWatch security incident data indicates up to two-thirds harbor or tolerate anti-government fighters in them. 

The data show the Afghan government cannot survive without NATO support, especially logistics and tactical air support. More on casualties, later.

Yemen: Update. Yemeni television broadcast the following statement:

"Saleh underwent another surgical operation to remove a chest tube. Al-Burkani, the head of the parliamentary bloc of the General People's Congress denied the news about Saleh's return on Friday."

Syria-Lebanon: Syrian President Bashar al-Asad met Lebanese Democratic Party leader Talal Arslan in Damascus on 22 June to discuss the ramifications of the newly formed Lebanese government, the Syrian news agency reported. Al-Asad and Arslan both stressed the importance of internal Lebanese cooperation to promote national unity. They also discussed the situation in Syria.

Comment: The fact of the meeting and the intent of the news report are to demonstrate normality. The Syrian unrest does not prevent the conduct of normal diplomacy or attention to Syrian interests in Lebanon.

Latvia-NATO-Russia: Latvia's Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said Latvia will need compensation from NATO if the French-built, Russian-bought Mistral-class assault landing ships and helicopter carriers are based or operate in the Baltic Sea. The deal could change the balance of security so that Latvia will need compensation to restore the balance, Pabriks said. If Mistrals appear in the Baltic Sea, Latvia will turn to NATO and France for political and military support, he said.

Comment: None of the Baltic members of NATO have the capability to defend against Russian Mistral carriers, when the first two finally arrive in 2014 and 2015. Russian also plans to build two more under license, for a total of four.

The French seem to trust Russian assurances that the assault ships will not be used against NATO members, but the Baltic leaders know the Russians much better and longer than the French. They cannot afford to have their future independence depend on Russian or NATO promises.

Venezuela: For the record. President Chavez continues to recover from surgery in Cuba. His ministers assured the press today that the President is doing well, despite his unusual silence on web-based social media.

End of NightWatch for 22 June.

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