NightWatch

For the Night of 4 May 2009 

 

South Korea-North Korea:  A Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) destroyer (ROKS Munmu the Great (DDH-976))  on the anti-piracy patrol rescued a North Korean freighter by driving away a pirate ship chasing it off Somalia. The destroyer sent a Lynx helicopter with snipers on board to assist the North Korean freighter after receiving a distress call earlier on 4 May that it was being chased by a pirate ship, according to the Times Online and an official government statement. The statement said the pirate ship gave up chasing the North Korean ship after warning shots were fired by the snipers.

 

Today’s action was the Republic of Korea Navy’s second successful operation to prevent a pirate seizure since the ROKN destroyer went on patrol in mid-April. On 18 April Monmu the Great rescued a Danish freighter under attack.

 

For old hands, the ability of the ROK Navy to operate off Africa, even with allied support, is an astonishing tribute to the success of allied defense policy over 50 years.  North Korea has no naval surface ships with remotely comparable capabilities, not even to reach the coast of east Africa, much less execute operations. Some day South Korea will build its own aircraft carrier.

 

 

severe punishment at home for losing a cargo for any reason.

 
North Korea is not likely to express its gratitude in public, but it might convey thanks by toning down propaganda or acting a bit less bellicose.  The ROK Navy action might have saved the lives of the North Korean sailors, who face.

ROKS Munmu the Great

 
 

 


Thailand:  For the record.  Fourteen Thai who arrived this weekend from Mexico all tested negative for H1N1 virus.

 

The Thai government today guaranteed safety for leaders attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit tentatively rescheduled for 13-14 June in Phuket, Thailand, The Nation reported 4 May. The Royal Thai Army promised to ensure security. Many ASEAN country leaders have not yet confirmed the new dates of the meeting.

 

Pakistan:   According to Asia Times Online, following a number of warning messages from senior US officials about the need for a united civilian-military front against extremism, unidentified sources reported that in the next few days Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz leader former Prime Minister  Nawaz Sharif will accept a power-sharing formula to join the government led by President Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to fight against the Taliban.

 

(NW comment: Prime Minister Gilani officially heads the government in the sense of the cabinet; President Zardari has declined to complete the transition back to a parliamentary system, as yet.)

 

Comment:  Nawaz is not a member of the National Assembly and holds no other elective government office. The Supreme Court upheld his disqualification for public office because of a past criminal conviction under the Musharraf era, but that ruling was suspended to avoid civil rioting during the lawyer’s march. Nawaz is thus not yet qualified to join the government except as an appointed official or through some other contrived exception to parliamentary procedure. 

 

For Readers, rumors and unconfirmed reports during the past month have related that some US officials now consider Nawaz Sharif the man who can stabilize the government in Islamabad. If Nawaz joins the government in some capacity, that will be the sign of US actions behind the scenes to try to forge a unified official stance against militarism. Meddling in Pakistani politics carries a high risk of double cross and exposure that risks deepened anti-US sentiment, unless handled with skill not previously demonstrated. A national unity government is not necessarily a solution in Pakistan.

 

Nawaz Sharif has never supported US policy objectives except when they supported his own political advancement. Once in a position of authority or high office, Nawaz is certain to disavow US support because identification with the US in the present political climate is tantamount to political, and possibly actual, suicide for a Pakistani politician. One difference between Zardari and Nawaz, however, is Nawaz will mean what he says when he denounces US “meddling.”

 

The Saudis like Nawaz because they consider him an acceptably “moderate” Islamist who can span the gap between the secular and almost sinful PPP and the Pakistani Taliban. That explains Secretary Gates comment today encouraging Saudi support for a stable Pakistan. However, none of these groups – the Saudis, Nawaz or the Pak Taliban – share any of the strategic interests the US has in South Asia. They also seem to be acutely aware of the discontinuity. The Saudi idea of an acceptable Pakistani leader, for example, is a much more devout fellow than the US has in mind, and probably one who would share Pakistani nuclear weapons technology with the Kingdom, for the right price.

 

The US apparently favors some kind of national unity government, which seems to be a ritual mantra from people who have no experience of a parliamentary system. Generally national unity governments are, at best, temporary power sharing solutions in response to conditions of national emergency from which one or other group will attempt a breakout, irrespective of all other pressing business.

 

 If Nawaz returns to office as Prime Minister at some point, that would not be good news for the US, although the Saudis would be pleased. Nawaz is likely to negotiate with the Islamists with easy terms. The biggest weakness in the national unity strategy is that Pakistani officials do not seem to share the US assessment that Pakistani is facing an existential crisis, but they will go along with the US for any benefits that might accrue.

 

Supporting the Asia Times report that Nawaz and his party are being rehabilitated is the 5 May report from The News that Prime Minister Gilani is to hold a crucial meeting on 5 May with PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif (Nawaz’ brother) to work out a power-sharing formula in the Punjab. Shahbaz was province Chief Minister prior to the aforementioned Supreme Court ruling, now suspended.

Initially, the meeting was scheduled for Sunday in Lahore, but was postponed and re-scheduled for Tuesday (6 May). Their previous meeting in Lahore last Saturday remained inconclusive as far as power-sharing was concerned, though it was agreed that the PPP would remain part of the Punjab government.

 

In Saudi Arabia, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday said he wanted Saudi Arabia to help forge a political consensus in Pakistan to deal with the threat from the Taliban, according to the VOA. “The Saudis, in particular, have considerable influence in Pakistan.” The problem is the Saudis do not share the same vision for Pakistan that the US has and have not been frank about the differences.

 

Swat District:  Despite a government curfew, armed Taliban militants were patrolling Mingora, the main town in Swat district, witnesses told Agence France-Presse on 4 May. One resident said Taliban fighters also were taking positions on top of buildings in the town. Tensions were on the rise in the area after the government of North West Frontier Province established an Islamic appeals court for the Malakand district and the Taliban rejected it, saying it had been set up without adequate consultation with the movement.

 

Buner District: The government announced that the Frontier Corps had established a presence in Daggar, the main town. That means little because the Frontier Corps is not reliable. Some kind of deal almost certainly was negotiated.

 

Malakand Division, North West Frontier Province:  Arshad Abdullah, law minister of North-West Frontier Province, said on 4 May that Pakistani Taliban religious leader Sufi Muhammad is not authorized to appoint Islamic court judges, or Qazis, in the Malakand Division, GEO News reported. Arshad said only the provincial government could appoint Qazis, and that an Islamic court office would soon be set up in Malakand.

 

The point of including this statement is it is the first indication that the federal Pakistan government is using judicial appointments as a device for taking back some of the authority it ceded by law to the militants. This action represents an admission of error.

 

The regulation authorizing Islamic law in Swat, however, did not extend to Malakand which covers a major part of the North West Frontier Province. It is not clear by what authority Islamic courts are being set up in Malakand, based on the information in the public domain. It remains a mystery why the Pakistani national government would empower a local religious leader to exercise any problem-solving powers of government in a republic governed by rule of law. That might be a western bias, however.

 

Sufi Muhammad told the press today that his militant group Tehrik-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) is not interested in taking control of Indian-held Kashmir, but is determined to ensure the place of Islam within society, ANI News reported 4 May, citing an interview given by Sufi Muhammad. He also said the Pakistani Taliban is not attempting to set up a parallel government to the Pakistani state, but to ensure that Shariah is the supreme law in the country.

 

Readers should understand this as Sufi Mohammad explicitly stating that his goal is to convert Pakistan into an Islamist state of strict observance. The basic model is Afghanistan under the Afghan Taliban. That is hardly reassuring. Any one who thinks a zealot’s goals are negotiable is deluded by his own expediency.

 

Afghanistan-Pakistan:  Asia Times Online provided the best explanation why security operations seem to make little progress in eastern Afghanistan. This is the first press recent account of a practice that has been common in Afghanistan since before the British colonial era. Nothing is wasted on the frontier.

 

According to the ATOL correspondent, the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan National Army (ANA) have an arrangement that applies to all the southeastern and southern provinces, especially in Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Helmand and Ghazni provinces.

Under this arrangement, ANA troops sent on patrol in Taliban regions pay the Taliban to not kill them. The price is usually trade goods:  arms, ammunition or rockets, which are reported as having been lost during an encounter with the Taliban.  (Note: This practice also was common in Vietnam.)

“When ANA arrests Taliban fighters, the commander demands cash money for their release. If the fighters are Pakistani or non-Afghan, ANA takes a little longer to negotiate a price, but if the fighters are Afghans, ANA personnel will not take unnecessary risks. Either they strike a deal then and there and release the Taliban fighters, or within a few days they hand them over to NATO. The reason is to avoid direct confrontation with the Afghan Taliban and their tribal constituencies, which could cause problems in any prolonged negotiations.“

Under the arrangement, ANA attempted to deal with seven Pakistanis captured in Helmand Province recently, ultimately whose revelations galvanized new US pressure on the Pakistan government.  The ATOL report picks up the story as follows. 

 

“Because the seven men were Pakistani, Afghan Taliban leader Mansoor, based in Pakistan, started negotiations with the ANA for the release of his men. ANA demanded US$200,000, Mansoor countered with an offer of 2 million rupees (US$25,000), which was refused. Mansoor then arranged for 10 million rupees to be paid, but since almost 10 days had passed, ANA handed the Pakistanis over to NATO. Under NATO interrogation the extent of the infiltration system and the fact of the arrangement were learned.

Mansoor mishandled the situation on two counts, according to ATOL.  First, he did not involve the Afghan Taliban command, meaning Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, and secondly, he took too long in reaching an agreeable figure. The revelations from the seven men exposed a “massive” network for supporting insurgency operations in Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan. That resulted, according to ATOL, in the surge in US pressure for a national unity government in Pakistan and serious counterinsurgency operations to attack the Pakistani roots of the network. ATOL commented that the fighters will simply change locations.

 

Status of the latest operations: no government gains reported in press channels appear permanent. The fighting in Buner, for example, has endured for nearly a week, but the killed and wounded do not indicate any serious gunfights beyond what are normal in the District, meaning when no government security operations are in progress. The government announced today (4 May) that the Buner District operations would end in a week! 

 

Another report said that “security forces” had begun operations in Shangla District to push militants back into Swat. Prior reporting suggested only a handful of militants entered Shangla. It is not clear when “security force operations” became necessary.

 

The Swat curfew implies the government is attempting to take back security responsibility from the militants and thus restrict their authority to the resolution of local disputes in local Islamic courts. The militants are supposed to surrender their weapons but remain defiant. Under extraordinary US pressure, the Islamabad government is acting to take back incrementally the authority it ceded by act of the national legislature. Thus far it does not seem to be having success.

 

The Chief Justice.  In a case concerning land ownership, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry proclaimed a doctrine of judicial activism that is likely to unsettle many.   In response to a comment that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction over a narrow aspect of the land dispute, the Chief Justice said “courts were completely empowered to review laws based on mala fide intention.” He said courts also had ‘absolute jurisdiction’ to interpret laws and the constitution.

“If needed, the Supreme Court can review Article 270-AA of the Constitution under which the 17th Amendment is protected,” observed Iftikhar. Article 270-AA protects Musharraf’s 12 October 1999 military coup. According to its language, the article cannot be called into question in any court or forum of the country on any ground whatsoever. Various political parties have been calling for the 17th Amendment to be withdrawn, and several have also framed drafts for this purpose.

 

Chaudhry is an activist with a grudge.  He has not yet assumed jurisdiction of the laws and constitutional amendments whose overturn could put Musharraf on trial for treason, but today he asserted his right to do so, as the Chief Justice. That is an ominous portent for Musharraf and his acolytes.

 

The NightWatch operating hypothesis is that Pakistan is heading for a military takeover of government of some kind. General Kayani is Musharraf’s handpicked successor who had to have been sworn to protect Musharraf and the Pakistan Army as a condition for a staff officer to become Chief of the Army Staff.

 

 Kayani will do as his mentor bade him, in the time honored tradition of the Pakistan Army general officer corps. That might keep Chief Justice Chaudhry in check for now, but if Nawaz Sharif should ever become Prime Minister, Musharraf should leave Pakistan and maybe Kayani too.

 

Syria:  President Bashar al Assad urged the United States to hold "direct or indirect" talks with Hamas and Hezbollah and said Syria was "ready to help," Agence France-Presse reported on 5 May, citing a television interview al Assad gave to the channel, France 3. Al Assad also said he welcomed U.S. President Obama's decision to send envoys to open talks with Syria.

 

The US-assisted rehabilitation of Bashar appears to be progressing in the sense that Bashar is expressing his gratitude in public, which might be all there is. The Lebanon elections on 7 June will be the next test of Syria’s cooperative attitude towards the US. More on this as the elections near.

 

Panama:  Ricardo Martinelli, a conservative businessman from the Alliance for Change, has won the presidential election with 61 percent of the votes, compared to only 37 percent for his nearest rival, Balbina Herrera, the government party candidate, The Associated Press reported on 4 May. Election officials declared Martinelli the “indisputable winner” with 87 percent of the votes counted. The third-place finisher was former President Guillermo Endara.

 

Martinelli, who owns Panama’s largest supermarket chain, will begin serving a five-year term on 1 July. The Organization of American States said in a preliminary report that turnout for the polls was heavy, but few problems were reported at voting stations. 

 

This is good news for the US, and tonight’s good news.

 

End of NightWatch for 4 May.