Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: More U.S. personnel pulled from South Sudan

FP’s Situation Report: More U.S. personnel pulled from South Sudan

By Dan Lamothe

The U.S. just announced it is pulling more personnel from the U.S. embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as the security situation there continues to deteriorate. New this morning from the State Department: "Due to the deteriorating security situation in South Sudan, today the United States has further drawn down staffing at our Embassy in Juba. We are taking this step out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel… The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya will provide consular services for U.S. citizens in South Sudan until further notice. We continue to strongly recommend that U.S. citizens in South Sudan depart immediately."

Here’s how U.S. troops on the ground are handling it. A spokesman with U.S. Africa Command, Thomas Saunders, tells Situation Report this morning that two KC-130J aircraft assigned to the Marine Corps’ crisis-response force have responded from Entebbe, Uganda, where they were positioned in recent days to be close to the mess in South Sudan. U.S. soldiers from the East Africa Response Force, or EARF, "will continue to provide security reinforcement to the U.S. embassy in Juba."

Meet your new likely public affairs flack in the Pentagon: Brent Colburn. Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News broke the news on Twitter last night (@ACapaccio) that the current chief of staff at the Housing and Urban Development Department will become an assistant for public affairs to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Colburn worked on both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns and also was previously a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. Colburn himself is on Twitter at @cbrentcolburn. He will join Rear Adm. John Kirby, who is the newly-installed Pentagon press secretary. Colburn is expected to be in charge of the Department’s massive public affairs apparatus while Kirby will focus on press operations for the Department and for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Welcome to Friday’s snowy edition of Situation Report. I’m Dan Lamothe, and I’m filling again today for Gordon Lubold, your resident Situation Report ninja. If you’d like to sign up for the newsletter, send Gordon a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we’ll add you. And if you like what you see, tell a friend. Register free for Situation Report and other FP products here. As always, if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, you gotta say something — to Situation Report. One more thing: please follow me on Twitter at @DanLamothe, and Gordon at @glubold.

Two of the Iraqi cities America fought the hardest for are falling apart. That depressing news today comes from the New York Times, which reports that Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province are on the verge of being in the control of Al Qaeda. From Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, reporting from Baghdad: "Radical Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda threatened Thursday to seize control of Falluja and Ramadi, two of the most important cities in Iraq, setting fire to police stations, freeing prisoners from jail and occupying mosques, as the government rushed troop reinforcements to the areas. Dressed in black and waving the flag of Al Qaeda, the militants commandeered mosque loudspeakers to call for supporters to join their struggle in both cities in the western province of Anbar, which have increasingly become centers of Sunni extremism since American forces withdrew from the country at the end of 2011."

A little more salt in the wounds – and how this affects the Syrian civil war to the west. More from the New York Times: "The violence in Ramadi and Falluja had implications beyond Anbar’s borders, as the Sunni militants fought beneath the same banner as the most hard-line jihadists they have inspired in Syria – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. That fighting, and a deadly bombing in the Beirut area on Thursday, provided the latest evidence that the Syrian civil war was helping breed bloodshed and sectarian violence around the region, further destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq while fueling a resurgence of radical Islamist fighters." More here.

Things in Afghanistan, meanwhile, aren’t quite so bad. The Wall Street Journal has a surprisingly optimistic report out of Helmand province this morning about the security situation there. Michael M. Phillips, who has spent as much time embedded with Marines there as anyone, reports that "Afghan security forces have come out on top in a key province that for years cost the U.S. and its allies dearly." And his reporting comes from violent Sangin district, which a number of recent news reports had suggested was under heavy Taliban influence. From Phillips’ story: "Now, as U.S. and allied forces depart and leave the local army and police in charge of security, the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand-a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country’s future. It is too early to declare victory in Helmand, says Col. B.J. Fitzpatrick, chief of staff for U.S. Marine forces in the province. But ‘what I will tell you,’ he says, is that in 2013, ‘the Afghans took lead responsibility.’"

But there are still a lot of catches in Helmand. As we’ve reported previously, just because the Afghan military has control of the district centers there doesn’t mean the Taliban doesn’t cause problems. Phillips has that, too, along with an updating on ongoing logistically problems Afghan forces face. More from his story: "The Afghan military still struggles with some basic elements of warfare, including evacuation of casualties and resupply of vital materiel, U.S. and Afghan military officials say. In one incident, Afghan units desperate for truck batteries received steering wheels from Kabul instead, a U.S. military official says. Afghan Army Maj. Gen. Afzal Aman, the chief of operations at Afghanistan’s defense ministry, acknowledges the Afghan dependence on the 49-nation coalition for logistics and intelligence support." More here.

And Afghan insurgents are being put back out on the street. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham sounded the alarm Thursday that dozens of Afghan insurgents have apparently been released, despite histories in which they killed coalition service members. From The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff: "In March, the United States transferred control of the Parwan prison next to Bagram air base – with its roughly 3,000 detainees – to the Afghan government. Since then, Graham said, the Afghans have released 560 detainees without trial, and ‘some of those have gone back to the fight.’ The Afghan government is now considering releasing 88 detainees who are of particular concern to the United States. Collectively, Graham said, they killed 60 members of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)." More here.

NOM NOM NOM, chemical weapons. FP was on the scene yesterday in Portsmouth, Va., as the Pentagon sought to demonstrate its new, portable chemical weapons-eating capability on the MV Cape Ray. The ship is expected to leave soon to pick up chemical weapons coming out of Syria — a creative solution, considering the risks. From my story: "Long before forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad launched a massive chemical weapons strike that nearly dragged the U.S. into Syria’s civil war, the American government was trying to figure out a way to neutralize Assad’s stockpile of nerve gas and other illicit weapons. No country seemed inclined to allow the work to be done on its own soil, and breaking them down in Syria in the middle of an ongoing civil war seemed fraught with potential nightmares. The world is about to see a possible solution: In the next few weeks, the United States expects to deploy the 648-foot, 22,000-ton MV Cape Ray with technology aboard that can break down the chemical agents used to make sarin and mustard gases. The steel-gray ship’s personnel will pick up the chemicals in a port somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea – reportedly in Italy — and then process them in international waters, where there are far fewer diplomatic and political issues than doing the work on land." More here.

Why pain rays and stun grenades were barely used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a busy day for your humble Situation Report correspondent yesterday. FP also published a new piece about the U.S. military’s non-lethal weapons program. From my story: "Brian Long, the Active Denial System’s program manager, told Foreign Policy that in the last few years, officials with the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program have ‘found kind of dichotomy’ in the military. On one hand, commanders want to reduce civilian casualties, and want them quickly after they are requested. On the other hand, many units have been unwilling to spend the time training their troops to use them, even for situations where they hypothetically could help. ‘What we kind of realized was that despite the fielding, there was a sense that these things weren’t really useful,’ Long said in an interview at Quantico, Va., where the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is based. ‘There was a general unfamiliarity with these things.’" More here.

Bob Gates got hurt pretty badly after taking a spill. The former Pentagon chief’s office released this statement yesterday: "Dr. Gates accidentally fell at his home in Washington State Wednesday evening and fractured his first vertebrae. He was treated at hospitals in Mount Vernon and Seattle and is now back at home with his family resting comfortably. He is expected to make a full recovery and thanks the medical staffs of both hospitals for the excellent care they provided him. He looks forward to the release of his new memoir ‘Duty’ on January 14th, which he will be promoting wearing a neck brace." We wish him well.

More military catch-phrases? Why not. Geoffrey Ingersoll of Business Insider shares with us today "31 Phrases that Only People in the Military Will Understand." Among our favorites: "Mandofun" — short for "mandatory fun," and "Gear adrift, is a gift." More on that latter phrase from Ingersoll: "Conversely, someone who takes unattended gear has not stolen it, they’ve ‘tactically acquired’ it. Needless to say, if they get caught, it’s still larceny under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Tactical acquisition is taught in boot camp, where recruits from one platoon will prey on another possibly less-aware platoon in order to get supplies and bragging rights." Read the rest here.