Situation Report

Kerry to the Pentagon today; Did Syrian rebels use sarin?; Why bags of cash represent a failure in U.S. policy in Afg; Why Mabus loves the USS Makin Island; and a little bit more.

By Gordon Lubold Did Syrian rebels use sarin? Unclear, but a U.N. official says she has strong suspicions that Syrian rebel forces used the deadly nerve gas, potentially validating President Barack Obama’s considered approach. Carla Del Ponte, the commissioner of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, told an Italian-Swiss TV station that ...

By Gordon Lubold

Did Syrian rebels use sarin? Unclear, but a U.N. official says she has strong suspicions that Syrian rebel forces used the deadly nerve gas, potentially validating President Barack Obama’s considered approach. Carla Del Ponte, the commissioner of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, told an Italian-Swiss TV station that Syrian rebel forces have used the nerve agent, even as a Free Syrian Army spokesman said rebels don’t have any unconventional weapons and don’t want any. FSA’s Louay Almokdad, quoted by CNN: "More importantly, we do not aspire to have (chemical weapons) because we view our battle with the regime as a battle for the establishment of a free democratic state….We want to build a free democratic state that recognizes and abides by all international accords and agreements — and chemical and biological warfare is something forbidden legally and internationally."

NYT’s Bill Keller on why Syria is not Iraq: "Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk. But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy." Read his piece here.

Kerry to the Pentagon today. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is headed to Russia, will first lunch at the Pentagon for the first time since he became secretary. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been wanting to host Kerry at the building since Hagel arrived in February, we’re told. Easy prediction: Syria is a top agenda item.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings, and military stories of success or excess.

Deteriorating relations: new fighting along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another round of fighting erupted today in a border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, sharpening the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries, Reuters reports. The clash today erupted after Pakistani troops tried to repair a gate on the border in the Afghan district of Goshta — the same area where an Afghan border police officer was killed in an exchange of gunfire last week. Bad fences, bad neighbors. Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai hinted that the Taliban should turn their weapons toward Pakistan and said that no Afghan government would recognize the Durand Line, the boundary between the two countries drawn by the British. The WSJ over the weekend: "Mr. Karzai’s comments — his strongest remarks yet since the border clashes — may complicate U.S.-led efforts to mediate a peace settlement and to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Pakistan as most international troops prepare to leave the country by the end of 2014. ‘Without cooperation with Pakistan, we will never be able to reach stability in Afghanistan,’ cautioned Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst. ‘We need their assistance for negotiations with the Taliban but we also depend on them for our economy.’" 

Revelation that the CIA has been handing Karzai bags of cash as an object lesson in self-defeating U.S. Afghanistan policy. The tale of the CIA’s payments to Afghan President Hamid Karzai lead Sarah Chayes, writing on FP, to raise a number of issues. Read her piece on FP here and you’ll know why she concludes with a laundry list of questions about the CIA, corruption in Afghanistan, the arrest of Muhammad Zia Salehi, later to be identified as the CIA’s bag man, and why Karzai at the time ordered his release: "So whom did Salehi call from his jail cell the afternoon of his arrest? Was it Karzai, as many presumed at the time? Or was it the CIA station chief? What began as a test case on Afghan corruption, in other words, turned into a test case in U.S. foreign-policy dysfunction, raising a number of further questions of deeper import to the United States. Just how connected are CIA activities to core U.S. goals abroad? Or to a concerted plan for achieving them? To what extent do CIA officials set their own agenda? Is that agenda always in the U.S. national interest? How often is it at cross-purposes with the goals of the president, the department of state, even the military? What is the appropriate degree of transparency and accountability to prevent the inadvertent sabotage of other U.S. efforts and investments? Who must call these shots?" Chayes, in conclusion: "Only if senior U.S. leaders have the courage to address these questions directly, to arbitrate them clearly, and enforce their decisions, can U.S. foreign policy hope in the future to avoid the tragic waste of lives and effort that has characterized the past decade."

Eight more questions – from Tom Ricks’s inbox – for the Navy’s pro-carrier admirals. Last week, we ran excerpts of an FP piece written by three Navy admirals — David Buss, William Moran, and Thomas Moore — celebrating carriers and why the U.S. needs them in its maritime arsenal. It concluded: "Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings enable the United States to act as a key guarantor of peace and stability around the world. Having the ability to operate without a ‘permission slip’ for basing and over-flight access, while generating the range of effects necessary to deter potential adversaries, is more than just a symbol of power. It is the essence of power."

A friend of FP’s Ricks, "appalled at what he regarded as the ostrich-like views of the high-ranking authors," wrote him to pose eight questions, from "To what degree will China be able to impede our ability to freely use carriers in the Pacific in the future?" to "When does the POTUS realize that for years we have built platforms that we cannot afford to lose, either in monetary cost or the cost of lives?" The anonymous friend concludes: "The Navy has already accepted that the fleet is going to shrink to 270 ships, and I am here to tell you that it will go smaller than that, probably 230 before this is all done. This is largely because all of those ships that were built by Reagan are all retiring at the same time and we are not building replacements at the same rate right now. That will be the price of maintaining 10-11 supercarriers at $12-13 billion with an annual shipbuilding budget of $15 billion. The price will decrease overall naval presence, and raise questions as to the U.S. commitment to local security concerns." Read Ricks’s friend’s e-mail in its entirety,

Mabus talked Navy fuel costs on the Hill on Friday. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus did his people-platforms-power-and-partnerships stump speech — essentially laying out the Navy’s priorities — at the Truman Project’s annual conference. That includes green power and the need for making smart energy choices, he has said, often repeating the metric that "every time the cost of a barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs [the Navy] an additional $30 million in fuel costs." He pointed to the USS Makin Island, the newest amphibious assault ship, as an example of the way new ships are greener and more energy efficient than before. "Last summer the ship returned from its maiden deployment. Between the conservation training of the crew and the high efficiency systems the ship only spent about $18 million of the $33 million fuel budget for the seven-month deployment," he said — a $15 million savings. "Plans for our next two big-deck amphibious ships, USS America and USS Tripoli, include hybrid electric systems like the Makin Island and we are working on a similar system to back-fit onto our destroyers."

Mabus also pointed to the Marine Corps’s Experimental Forward Operating Base program, or ExFOB, in which the Corps is developing alternative energy systems that don’t rely on traditional energy sources — like fuel and batteries — that put logistical pressure on the Navy and, according to Mabus, unnecessarily put Marines in harm’s way. The 2010 deployment of an ExFOB in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2010, using forms of energy like solar blankets, LED lights, and solar generators, was a proof of concept: It allowed a foot patrol in Afghanistan to operate for three weeks without battery resupply, "reducing the backpack load on Marines and increasing self-sufficiency at operation centers." Now, Mabus said, the equipment is a "standard part of the Marine Corps kit."


  • Inside Defense: Draft reprogramming would shift $9 billion, cut $4 billion from modernization. 
  • Quartz: The worst case cybersecurity breaches could be worse than you imagined.
  • The Atlantic: Have you ever tried to force feed a captured human? 
  • Defense News: DOD halts shifting war money into base budget.
  • Stripes: Air Force names airmen killed in Krygyzstan crash.  


  • Daily Beast: Israel’s red line crossed, U.S. tacitly backs ally’s strikes in Syria.
  • Weekly Standard: Syrian general says he was given order to use CW against rebels.
  • The Guardian: Syria accuses Israel of declaring war after further airstrikes.
  • NPR: Kerry’s visit to Russia a chance to talk Syria, mend fences.

The Stans

  • Stripes: Seven Americans, one German killed in spate of Afghan attacks.
  • LAT: Crashed U.S. cars get second chance in Afghanistan. 
  • TVNZ: Fighting erupts between Afghanistan, Pakistan. 


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