Situation Report

Suicide bomber attacks Kandahar air base hours after Panetta leaves

Suicide bomber attacks Kandahar air base hours after Panetta leaves

Bloomberg News is reporting that Obama is expected to nominate Chuck Hagel for defense secretary. "Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has emerged as the leading candidate to become Obama’s next Secretary of Defense and may be nominated as soon as this month, according to two people familiar with the matter," writes White House correspondent Hans Nichols, who is known at Bloomberg for getting personnel tips right.

"Hagel, who served as an enlisted Army infantryman in Vietnam, has passed the vetting process at the White House Counsel’s office, said one of the people. The former Nebraska senator has told associates that he is awaiting final word from the president, said the other person. Both requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters."

A vehicle-borne IED exploded near Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan hours after Panetta visited troops. The attack killed one American service member and injured three more. Defense officials said that a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device was detonated "in the vicinity" of Kandahar airfield, just hours after Panetta left the base with his traveling entourage. It is as yet unclear if the attack was connected to Panetta’s visit or if it was coincidence, defense officials told Situation Report in Kabul.

Military officials at the base had just provided a reasonably optimistic view of Regional Command-South, the area in which the airfield is located. Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of RC-South and the 3rd Infantry Division, had just a few hours earlier said that insurgent threats at the airfield itself had been interdicted in part because of growing Afghan intelligence capabilities.

"I think the security conditions are getting better every single day, and they’ll continue to get better as we move towards the next phase of our mission here," Abrams told reporters during an impromptu briefing on the press bus just hours before the attack. "But they have dramatically improved over time."

ISAF officials at the airfield were on the scene "collecting facts and assessing the situation," according to George Little, Pentagon press secretary.

Reporters traveling with Panetta heard about the report after one member of the press corps retweeted a post from the Kandahar Media and Information Center, which reported that the attack had injured 10 Afghans and three ISAF personnel and occurred around 5pm local time.

Panetta had met with officials in the south and then spoke to troops during an outdoor "troop event" in which he thanked them for their service, updated them on budget talks at home, and acknowledged the work they had done to secure the area. RC-South is considered reasonably secure compared to even a few years ago and compared to other regions in Afghanistan — particularly the eastern sector known as Regional Command-East. But there are still at least three "contested" areas in RC-South, according to a separate operational update reporters received that afternoon. There are approximately 14,000 Americans still serving in RC-South, which includes Kandahar, considered the spiritual home of the Taliban.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report and greetings from Kabul, where we are on our fourth day of travel with Panetta, and here in Afghanistan the "wintry mix" today almost foiled the secretary’s plans to fly to Kandahar. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. And sign up for Situation Report here: http://bit.ly/NCN9uN or just send me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list. And if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

Jim Amos begins an around-the-Corps talk with senior officers next week. As Secretary Panetta considers how to re-emphasize ethics across his senior officer corps, members of the Joint Chiefs are moving out on their own to connect with senior officers to make sure they got the proverbial memo. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos begins an effort next week to reinforce personally his expectations with each of his 87 general officers. "Marines take this issue very seriously and watch it closely," Amos said through a spokesman.

"Senior leaders have to be held to a higher standard," Amos said in a statement to Situation Report through a spokesman. "After a decade at war, it is wise to remind all Marine general officers of who we are, and who we are not." Last spring, Amos, along with Sgt. Major Michael Barrett, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, undertook a four-month effort to talk ethics to Marine officers and staff noncommissioned officers. They called the talk the Heritage Brief. Amos will now brief each general officer with what amounts to a "Version 2.0" of that same talk, Situation Report is told. It will serve as a refresher course for general officers and their spouses "on the specifics of rules and regulations relating to senior leaders."

Meanwhile, Karzai will visit Washington the week of Jan. 7 to discuss the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship post-2014. At a late-night presser at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai and Secretary Panetta announced that Karzai would travel to Washington to discuss the U.S.-Afghan security agreement with President Barack Obama. The meeting will not seal a deal but will hammer out the two countries’ "shared vision." At the presser, Karzai was asked what assurances he needed to cut a deal on immunity from prosecution for American military personnel — a point he acknowledged was key to the overall agreement. But he wants a few things first: resolution on the detainee issue, confidence the U.S. will help Afghanistan to build a good Army and Air Force, and other things. While he didn’t necessarily say anything new, Karzai sounded like a man ready to negotiate.

"I can go to the Afghan people and speak on the subject of immunity for U.S. troops with ease and with reason. But before I do that, I need to be given those assurances by the United States," he said.

Meanwhile, reporters traveling with Panetta have received generally positive assessments of the war in Afghanistan from ISAF commanders: violence is limited to a handful of areas and is generally down, and the Afghan National Security Forces are taking major steps toward independence. At the same time, conventional wisdom suggests that Gen. John Allen, the ISAF commander, will recommend having as large a fighting force through 2013 as possible. But if security has increased as the military says, some will ask why the U.S. needs to maintain a large fighting force there through next year and if it will be harder for the military to justify a large force if the White House wants it to shrink faster.

Panetta was asked that very question at tonight’s presser by Situation Report. He didn’t exactly answer it, saying that 2013 will be a "critical year" and that it is the talks about the size of the force after 2014 — which could number between 6,000 and 10,000 — that will drive the pace of withdrawal. There are approximately 66,000 U.S. service members currently serving in Afghanistan.

Part of his answer: "With regard to the specific recommendations as to how much of a force we need, once there is a decision about the enduring presence, and General Allen will make recommendations as to how he should proceed with regards to the drawdown through the end of 2014."

Random fact: number of reporters currently embedded in RC-South: "Just 2," we were told.

"Head" isn’t really a Marine term as much as it is a naval one, we’re told after our brief post yesterday about "head" versus "latrine." A Situation Report reader writes: "The use of the term ‘head’ to refer to a ship’s toilet dates to at least as early as 1708, when Woodes Rogers (English privateer and Governor of the Bahamas) used the word in his book, ‘A Cruising Voyage Around the World.’ Another early usage is in Tobias Smollett’s novel of travel and adventure, ‘Roderick Random,’ published in 1748. ‘Head,’ in a nautical sense referring to the bow or fore part of a ship dates to 1485. The ship’s toilet was typically placed at the head of the ship near the base of the bowsprit, where splashing water served to naturally clean the toilet area."

Mike Barbero testified today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lt. Gen. Mike Barbero, who heads the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, testified before the SFRC today on two issues critical to defeating IEDs: Pakistan and homemade explosives, or HME. Last week Situation Report looked at the issue of homemade explosives and the fertilizer that comes across the border from Pakistan to help make them.

Situation Report on Barbero, Pakistan and HME - http://atfp.co/YOoBJ4

SIGAR is investigating the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ settlement with DynCorp International. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction announced today that it was reviewing the settlement between the USACE and DynCorp after the Corps of Engineers released the defense contractor "of all contractual obligations" and then, in a letter, said it lacked sufficient evidence to support whether the settlement was "fair and reasonable." The initial investigation surrounded the Corps of Engineers’ contract with DynCorp for work at the Afghan National Army garrison in Kunduz in which "poor performance and structural failures" were pervasive.

SIGAR investigation: http://atfp.co/YOoBJ4

DynCorp letter to SIGAR: http://bit.ly/W0PicX

And thanks to the dog owner in El Dorado, Arkansas, who took pity on us when the handler in Kuwait wouldn’t let Situation Report pet the doggy. We’d love to see your six dogs and we hope to take you up on it someday.