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NightWatch 20140928

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NightWatch

For the night of 28 September 2014

North Korea: Update: North Korean media reported on 26 September that Kim Jong Un had a health problem that made him feel "uncomfortable" and so missed the session of the Supreme People's Assembly last week. The report did not elaborate on Kim's health, as is customary.

Comment: The best open source information is that Kim has gout and has gained a lot of weight.

Afghanistan: On Saturday, the deputy governor of Ghazni Province in eastern Afghanistan claimed victory against a Taliban attack in his province. Deputy governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi said, "Afghan soldiers, police and commandos have launched clean-up operations against the militants in Ajristan….The Taliban militants were holed up, using civilian houses as shelters. They were driven out and are being beaten back," Ahmadi said.

Comment: The deputy governor failed to mention that NATO air support was essential to the rescue operation.

Last week a force of 700 Taliban overran Ajristan District, Ghazni Province. Provincial authorities reported they lost contact with the administration and police building in the district. The Taliban killed 100 people and decapitated at least 12 civilian captives before the rescue operation. Yesterday, angry villagers captured and hung four Taliban fighters in retaliation for the beheadings.

Comment: Ghazni Province has strategic importance because the main highway from Kabul to Kandahar runs through Ghazni City, the provincial capital. Ajristan has no strategic importance based on geography or economy. It is the western-most district (comparable to a US county) of Ghazni. It is sparsely populated and mountainous.

The attack is significant for several reasons. Ajristan is the fifth district that the Taliban tried to overrun and occupy since early summer. That means their offensive goals continue to include seizing and holding territory. In each instance, the Taliban have shown they can assemble and support for at least a week a battalion-size fighting force. Had the rescue operation failed, then Ajristan would assume great significance as a measure of the limits of government control.

Nevertheless, all five operations ended in failure. Local forces could not prevent being overrun, but the Taliban attackers could not hold ground. For one thing, after 13 years of fighting, the Taliban still have no air defense equipment they are willing to use. Secondly, the villagers in some areas are tired of fighting.

The most ominous feature of the Ajristan attack is that the Taliban leaders adopted the practice of beheading. That is an export from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It also suggests that Taliban leaders might feel pressure to stay competitive with ISIL in demonstrations of extreme Islamic practices.

Some Taliban fighting groups reportedly have declared their allegiance to ISIL. If that impulse spreads, it could threaten to transform the Afghanistan fighting from a Pashtun war against the central government into an extension of a Pan-Sunni Islam movement that ignores Mullah Omar and his Quetta Shura (council). What does the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) do if Omar loses control and the Taliban fighters switch loyalty to ISIL?

Russia-US: Today at the UN, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said, "The current US administration is today wrecking much of the co-operation structures that it created itself along with us. Most likely, something more will come up - a reset No 2 or a reset 2.0."

In a television interview, Lavrov said, "It is absolutely in our interests to normalize relations, but we didn't wreck them."

Comment: Lavrov's statement suggest the Russians judge they have achieved their minimal goals in Ukraine; that the Ukraine crisis should no longer be an obstacle in relations and that sanctions should be lifted. The lack of threats means that the Russians judge that relations still might be improved and further confrontation avoided for a time. Nevertheless, any reset probably would be temporary because the Russian leadership's long term strategic objectives of undermining NATO and reversing its eastward drift are incompatible with those of the West.

Turkey-Egypt: In his speech at the UN, Turkish President Erdogan criticized the military takeover of government in Egypt and the UN's inaction after the ouster and arrest of Mursi.

"The United Nations as well as the democratic countries have done nothing but watch the events such as overthrowing the elected president in Egypt and the killings of thousands of innocent people who want to defend their choice. And the person who carried out this coup is being legitimized."

"If we defend democracy, then let's respect the ballot box. If we will defend those who come to power not with democracy but with a coup then I wonder why this U.N. exists," Erdogan said.

Egypt's reply. In a statement, Egypt's foreign ministry dismissed Erdogan's comments. "There is no doubt that the fabrication of such lies and fabrications are not something strange that comes from the Turkish President, who is keen to provoke chaos to sow divisions in the Middle East region through its support for groups and terrorist organizations," the foreign ministry said.

The statement implied that Erdogan is trying to restore the Ottoman empire and works to harm the interests of the peoples of the region to achieve that end.

Comment: Erdogan's continuing campaign to neuter the Turkish General Staff so that it is not tempted to overthrow him drives his persistent criticism of the government in Egypt. As a side effect, the two largest Sunni armies have taken themselves out of the fighting against ISIL.

Turkey-Syria: President Erdogan said that Turkey would support two initiatives. First is the creation of a buffer zone along the Syrian border. The second is the creation of a "no-fly zone" for the Syrian air force.

Comment: Erdogan wants to internationalize the refugee problem by keeping it in Syria and relieve Turkey of the burden of caring for large numbers of refugees and particularly Syrian and other Kurds. Erdogan's interest in the buffer zone only began when ISIL started driving Kurds into Turkey from Kobani.

The no-fly zone is Erdogan's initiative to steer the Coalition air campaign back towards overthrowing the Asad government.

.Syria: Update. Coalition combat aircraft attacked ISIL targets near Kobani, but they were so few and ineffective that they reportedly spurred ISIL to call up more resources and renew its attack. News service accounts from eyewitnesses said most of the town is now in ISIL control, but also is empty.

End of NightWatch for 28 September.

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