Breaking News: Attacks in Afghanistan
Mr Obama's World Today: Uncertain
Evening Update (8:45 p.m.): The US Government will send a delegation next week to the six-party talks in Moscow on North Korean disarmament.
4:40 p.m. Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy notes the story that almost all media have missed today: the visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Saudi Arabia
4:25 p.m. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry has said that President Obama and Pakistani President Asif Zardari have spoken by phone, ageeing to start addressing problems in the region with a "holistic strategy".
Afternoon Update (3:30 p.m.): A spike in violence from bombings and attacks today. In addition to the deaths in Afghanistan, a provincial minister has been killed by a roadside bomb in northwest Pakistan. Bombs in Iraq have killed at least eight people, while gunmen have slain several others, including a senior engineer and a prominent local football player.
US envoy Richard Holbrooke has visited northwest Pakistan to view a Pakistani military installation. As with his talks with political leaders on Tuesday, Holbrooke would say no more than that he was on a "listening" tour.
11:35 a.m. The Russians really are playing this hand well on Afghanistan. Offering co-operation but also ensuring control and thus oversight of Moscow's interest, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, amidst meetings with a senior US diplomat, that Russian military aircraft could assist with the supply effort.
11:25 a.m. During a trip to Iraq on Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, ""We look positively on the slogan that Obama raised in the elections. The world has really changed. If the American administration wants to keep up with the changes, this will be happy news." (cross-posted from US Engagement with Iran thread)
9:30 a.m. A revealing bit of information that did not make it into the morning papers: "A senior American diplomat will hold talks with Russian officials on Tuesday about opening new supply routes across Russian territory to NATO forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. embassy said."
The news indicates how serious the supply situation for Afghanistan has become, with the closure of the Pakistan routes and the threatened shutdown of the US airbase in Kyrgyzstan. And it shows how dependent Washington has become on Moscow's goodwill for a solution, which in turn has shaped the encouragement of President Obama and Vice President Biden for closer co-operation with the Russians.
8:45 a.m. Meanwhile in Pakistan.... In another sign that the Obama Administration is reviewing its options carefully before making any strategic decisions, envoy Richard Holbrooke limited his comments after meetings with Pakistani officials to, "[I was here] to listen and learn the ground realities of this critically important country".
In contrast, the priority of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani was clear: Give Us Money. Their recogition of "the importance of enhanced cooperation in defense and intelligence sharing" was followed by a request to Washington to "expedite" billions of dollars in aid.
7:55 a.m. The New York Times also has a shrewd reading of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's criticism of Vice President Joe Biden, which we noted yesterday. Al-Maliki's response to Biden's complaints about the lack of Iraqi political and economic reform were offered during a visit to Baghdad by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The French, as all 2003 critics of "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" will recall, have had extensive economic interests in Iraq. Al-Maliki's comments, however, are not just a reach-out for investment for Paris; they signal Iraq's wish to move away from perceived political dependence on, even subservience to, Washington.
7:35 a.m. On the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Asia, an interesting insight into Administration strategy on China in The New York Times.
"Senior Administration officials", probably from the State Department, tell the Times, "The Obama administration plans to realign the United States’ relationship with China by putting more emphasis on climate change, energy and human rights, widening the focus beyond the economic concerns of the Bush years." By going for environmental issues rather than risking economic confrontation, the US can then seek leverage on political concerns: "A broader relationship with the Chinese could create opportunities for collaboration — not only on a response to the global economic crisis, but also on the environment and on security issues like the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs."
You may have noticed, however, the troublesome phrase in the spin. "Human rights"? Is Washington really going to press issues such as Chinese control of Tibet and jailing of dissidents?
The balancing act was demonstrated on Tuesday when State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told CNN, ""We are disturbed that prominent Chinese human rights activist Huang Qi remains in detention. We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Huang as soon as possible."
7 a.m. Repeating the latest in the battle within the Obama Administration over Afghanistan strategy. Countering President Obama's attempt to take more time through an inter-agency review, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has declared, ""I think that there is a realization that some decisions have to be made ... before the strategic review is completed. [Obama] has several options in front of him."
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, joined in the pressure on Obama. US military commanders "had this request out for many months and those working through the request recognize that the sooner the better with respect to this. I'm hopeful that we can get them there as soon as absolutely possible, but, again, that's a decision for the president of the United States, not for me."
Meanwhile, the US and Canada kept up the pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Mullen said in Ottawa on Tuesday, "As we look at the challenges that we have in 2009-2010 ... I think the lack of governance tied to the corruption that exists (in Afghanistan), is going to be the number one challenge that we have."
Morning Update (6:45 a.m. GMT; 1:45 a.m. Washington): Another day focused on the economy. President Obama's economic stimulus package moves from the Senate, where it passed yesterday, to the House of Representatives.
"A senior US official" has told CNN that American satellite photography shows possible preparations for a North Korean missile launch. Telemetry equipment is being assembled at the launch site, although there is no sign yet of a missile being moved. The last launch from the location, in 2006, was of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which flew for 40 seconds before crashing.
The US Government's reaction has been measured, focusing on diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Tuesday:
Well, since the first time that they launched the missile, it flew for a few minutes before crashing, the range of the Taepodong-2 remains to be seen. So far, it's very short. I'm not going to get into intelligence reports, but it would be nice if North Korea would focus on getting positive messages across to the -- to its negotiating partners about verification and moving forward with the denuclearization.