Night Watch

South Korea-Russia: For the record. South Korea and Russia are scheduled to hold defense strategic talks this week in Moscow. The South Korean Defense Ministry said Lim Kwan Bin, the South's deputy defense minister for policy, would travel to Russia on 15 March for the talks.

Comment: Russia and South Korea have a complicated relationship that involves South Korean exports and investments since at least the 1990s and Russian debt payments partially in ex-Soviet armor and other weapons. They have exchanged visits by Presidents and Prime Ministers. Since November 1992 they also have had regular exchanges of defense officials.

Neither Russia nor South Korea provided details of the agenda or what they consider strategic defense issues. North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles are a good bet.

Pakistan: Prime Minister Gilani appointed Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam as Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, according to a 9 March statement from the prime minister's office. Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha retires on 18 March, having completed a year extension in office.

General Islam previously served as Deputy Director General of ISI and, most recently, commanded V Corps at Karachi.

Comment: This appointment was approved by Chief of Army Staff General Kayani and appears to signal business as usual in the Pakistan Army. Islam is professional soldier from a family of professional soldiers, a number of whom reached flag rank.

Gilani seems to have unwilling or unable to take advantage of an opportunity to rein in or reform ISI by appointing one of his own people or even placing it under civilian management.

Afghanistan: The Taliban vowed Monday to avenge the killing of at least 16 Afghan civilians in Panjwai District, Kandahar Province, by a US Army sergeant.

Afghanistan's parliament said people 'have run out of patience' with foreign forces. In protesting the killings, some Afghan lawmakers demanded that the US soldier in custody be tried in an Afghan court. The US already has rejected that demand.

Comment: The degree of mistrust between supposedly allied soldiers has become irreconcilable and is making the US military presence increasingly untenable. The investigation of the incident is likely to lead to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Seattle. Four news services have raised questions about Fort Lewis, one calling it the most troubled base in the military. Medical staff at Fort Lewis supposedly cleared this sergeant for a fourth combat tour, after having received a head injury in Iraq.

Another casualty of the incident is the surge. Panjwai District was one of those cleared during the surge. There have been anti-US demonstrations there since the killings.

Finally, the Taliban's new spring offensive is likely to be driven by a desire for vengeance. That could make it more intense and vicious than last year's offensive, which was short-lived and unimpressive, except in the early weeks.

Ethiopia-Somalia: An Ethiopian army spokesman confirmed al Shabaab reports of a significant firefight near the Ethiopian border. Al Shabaab claimed it killed 73 Ethiopian soldiers in an ambush. The Somali government in Mogadishu counter-claimed 48 insurgents died in the fighting.

Comment: Although the Ethiopians did not acknowledge their losses, this appears to have been one of the most deadly attacks launched by al Shabaab and its Somali clan supporters.

The combination of Ethiopian, Kenyan, Somali government and African Union soldiers has made progress countering al Shabaab and taking back villages in the past year. But al Shabaab is not yet defanged and is capable of exploiting security lapses.

Egypt: On 11 March the People's Assembly called for a vote on rejecting US aid. The departure of six American defendants on 1 March provided the impetus for the motion for a vote.

Egyptian press reports that many Egyptians have accused the ruling generals of "bowing to US pressure" and intervening in the work of the judiciary. In the first session of the week, lawmakers complained the US is disregarding Egypt's sovereignty. They also called for a vote on a no-confidence motion against the government.

Comment: The piling on of complaints is a reliable indicator that larger issues are at work. The Brotherhood-backed People's Assembly wants to move Egypt away from its strong alliance with the US and to weaken the military's role in politics. These actions and calls all serve those purposes.

Spain: For the record. Tens of thousands of Spaniards protested 11 March against a new labor law that hands more power to employers by making it cheaper to fire workers and easier to restrict wage increases. The demonstrations were the first since unions called a general strike for 29 March.

Comment: An important feature of Spanish austerity measures is labor reform, which is shorthand for cuts in pay and benefits plus easier firing and hiring conditions. As in Italy, these are Sunday protests and pose no threat to the government or to national security.

Thus far, a reassuring feature of the Greek settlement on 12 March is that it has not generated widespread labor protests this weekend.

End of NightWatch for 12 March.

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