North Korea: Update. The UN confirmed on 20 March that North Korea has invited UN nuclear inspectors to North Korea.
Afghanistan: Comment: The US commander in Afghanistan gave detailed Congressional testimony about progress in Afghanistan, including his metrics for measuring success. The testimony was valuable and insightful.
What was not mentioned is how many of Afghanistan's 400 districts are under stress still. The geographic influence of the Taliban and other anti-government groups is one of the better metrics for judging progress. Last summer, the Taliban operated in more than half the districts, which pretty much measures Pashtun settlement patterns. Facts showing the Taliban had been suppressed and the government had taken back districts would have been more convincing than data of fighting in late winter. It is always down.
US-Iran: The Obama administration on Tuesday exempted 10 European Union countries and Japan from US economic sanctions because they have significantly reduced their purchases of petroleum from Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton granted waivers to Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Japan, meaning that banks and other financial institutions based there will not be hit with penalties under US law for a renewable period of 180 days.
Comment: The exemptions signify that the sanctions against Iran are somehow not aimed at key countries in economic duress and that depend on Iranian oil. This is a curious exemption because the termination of most international banking relations will make it difficult for the Europeans and the Japanese to pay for their oil.
Syria: Syrian government soldiers backed by tanks seized the eastern city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria from rebels on 20 March. Opposition activist Osama Mansour said government troops and armored cars entered the city which is located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Iraqi border from four sides, sparking short gun battles with fighters from the Free Syrian Army
Comment: Deir el-Zour was the only center of opposition activity in the east. In the past week, four opposition so-called strongholds have been taken back by government forces. That means that the neighborhoods that protected and support opposition fighting cells have been swept. The brief surge in Damascus seems to have been contained.
Syria-Russia: Update. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced that Russia would back former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan's plan for a Syrian settlement, provided it was not presented as an ultimatum. The Russians emphasize the feature that all parties should stop the fighting.
Comment: Some news accounts describe today's announcement as a breakthrough in diplomacy. A closer examination suggests the Russians are providing diplomatic cover for the Syrians. Lavrov even mentioned the Russian leadership judged that the Asad regime had made serious mistakes in handling the opposition. The irony in the statement is that Asad has used tactics that are less brutal than those the Russians used against the Chechens.
End of NightWatch for 20 March.
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