Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Claims of a mass execution in Iraq; Sending in the Marines; Throwing money at the VA; Whistleblowers tried to alert VA: Security ain’t the problem in Afg; and a bit more.

FP’s Situation Report: Claims of a mass execution in Iraq; Sending in the Marines; Throwing money at the VA; Whistleblowers tried to alert VA: Security ain’t the problem in Afg; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel 

Militants claim that they’ve conducted a mass execution of Iraqi forces. The news out of Iraq didn’t get any better over the weekend, as the White House scrambles for a viable response to the unraveling security situation there, sending the carrier George H.W. Bush as well as just this morning, an "amphib" ship full of Marines into the Arabian Gulf to give the administration more options. Over the weekend, the White House announced that it had sent another unit of Marines, to the embassy, to protect a potent target. But there’s news that the Iraqi security forces’ Sunni members died at the hands of a brutal militant group intent on bringing the crisis to the next level. The NYT’s Rob Nordland and Alissa Rubin in Baghdad on Page One: "Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants claimed on Sunday that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killing to come. Even as anecdotal reports of extrajudicial killings around the country seemed to bear out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s intent to kill Shiites wherever it could, Iraqi officials and some human rights groups cautioned that the militants’ claim to have killed 1,700 soldiers in Tikrit could not be immediately verified.

"But with their claim, the Sunni militants were reveling in an atrocity that if confirmed would be the worst yet in the conflicts that roil the region, outstripping even the poison gas attack near Damascus last year.

In an atmosphere where there were already fears that the militants’ sudden advance near the capital would prompt Shiite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arab civilians, the claims by ISIS were potentially explosive. And that is exactly the group’s stated intent: to stoke a return to all-out sectarian warfare that would bolster its attempts to carve out a Sunni Islamist caliphate that crosses borders through the region."

Col. Suhail al-Samaraie, head of the Awakening Council in Samarra, a pro-government Sunni grouping: "They are targeting anyone working with the government side, any place, anywhere."  More here.

Hagel sends an amphib into the Gulf. The Pentagon announced just a few minutes ago that it had sent the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde into the Arabian Gulf. Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby: "It’s presence in the Gulf adds to that of other U.S. naval ships already there — including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush — and provides the commander-in-chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them. USS Mesa Verde is capable of conducting a variety of quick reaction and crisis response operations.  The ship carries a complement of MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft."

Meantime, the U.S. is considering talks with Iran amid the worsening security situation in Iraq. Reuters’ Ziad al-Sanjary and Lesley Wroughton this hour: "The United States is contemplating talks with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government in its battle with Sunni Islamist insurgents who routed Baghdad’s army and seized the north of the country in the past week. The stunning onslaught by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant threatens to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare across a crescent of the Middle East, with no regard for national borders that the fighters reject.

"Joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up the government of their mutual ally Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shi’ite prime minister, would be a major turn of events after hostility dating to Iran’s 1979 revolution, and demonstrates the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance. More here.

Security is boosted at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and some personnel are relocated. Send in the Marines – that was basically the call as security falls apart and the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad becomes a potential target. The WaPo’s Karen DeYoung: "The Defense Department has sent a contingent of about 50 Marines to provide security for the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and the State Department on Sunday ordered some embassy personnel to relocate to safer parts of Iraq or to leave the country.

"‘As a result of ongoing instability and violence in certain areas of Iraq,’ State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, ‘some’ of the more than 5,000 embassy personnel are being sent to consulates in Basra, in the far south, and Irbil, in the northern Kurdish region. Others are being relocated to the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Jordan. ‘Overall, a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place and the Embassy will be fully equipped to carry out its national security mission,’ Psaki said in a statement.

"The announcements came as Secretary of State John F. Kerry made calls to his counterparts in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to discuss the crises in Iraq and Syria. Both the State and Defense departments emphasized in statements that there has been no request for the military to help evacuate personnel and that the relocations are being done by commercial, charter and government aircraft. The State Department maintains its own aircraft in Iraq, in addition to ground vehicles, to travel between the embassy and consulates." More here.

The rags-to-riches story of the man behind the ISIS, Al-Baghdadi. The WSJ’s Matt Bradley: "As a master’s-degree student at a university in Baghdad in 1997, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri al-Samarrai was so poor he took cash handouts every month from a kindly professor, said a former classmate. Now flush with cash, armed to the teeth and backed by an army known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, he is within striking distance of attacking the city where spent his humble youth. The rise of the militant Islamist leader, who changed his name to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2010, is a rags-to-riches story that mirrors the rise of the ISIS militia he now leads. By emphasizing practical gains over ideology and placing a premium on battlefield victories rather than lofty principals, Mr. Baghdadi’s ISIS has become one of the most powerful militant Islamist groups, said experts on militant Islamism." Read the rest of this here.

Dexter Filkins in the forthcoming New Yorker on the Syria-Iraq connection: "…The border between Iraq and Syria may have effectively disappeared, but the dynamics driving the civil wars in those nations are not identical. In Syria, an oppressed majority is rising up; in Iraq, an oppressed minority. (The opposition fighters in both wars are mostly members of the Sunni sect.) Both countries just held elections: in Syria, the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, won in a display of empty theatre; in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is expected to form a government for a third term, the elections were for the most part free. In Iraq, the dynamics driving the strife are largely
Iraqi, and in Syria they are largely Syrian.

"Even so, the events unfolding in Iraq point toward a much wider war, reaching from the Iranian frontier to the Mediterranean coast. The long open border between Iraq and Syria, and the big stretches of ungoverned space, has allowed extremists on each side to grow and to support one another. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, two of the strongest groups fighting in Syria, were created by militant leaders from Iraq, many of whom had fought with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia against the United States. The vast swath of territory between the Euphrates and the Tigris-from Aleppo, in Syria, to Mosul, in Iraq-threatens to become a sanctuary for the most virulent Islamist pathologies, not unlike what flourished in Afghanistan in the years before 9/11.

"Among those fighting with ISIS and Al Nusra are hundreds of Westerners, from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. At some point, the survivors will want to go home; they will be well trained and battle-hardened." Read the rest, here.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of Situation Report. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we’ll just stick you on. Like what you see? Tell a friend.  And 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, we hope you’ll say something — to Situation Report. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

In defense of Obama: a former Pentagon official offers the real story behind the failure to sign a Status of Forces Agreement. Georgetown’s Colin Kahl, the senior Pentagon official who was responsible for Iraq policy when the U.S. and Iraq failed to come up with a security agreement – that some would argue could have prevented the current situation – tells the story of what happened behind the scenes at the time. Kahl, for Politico Magazine: "…Ultimately, at great political risk, President Obama approved negotiations with the Iraqi government to allow a force of around 5,000 American troops to stay in Iraq to provide counterterrorism support and air cover and to train the Iraqi army. But, as commander in chief, he was unwilling to strand U.S. forces in a hostile, anti-American environment without the legal protections and immunities required to ensure soldiers didn’t end up in Iraqi jails. These protections, which are common in nearly every country where U.S. forces operate, were guaranteed under the 2008 status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration; Obama simply demanded that they continue under any follow-on accord.

"Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. This was the judgment of every senior administration lawyer and Maliki’s own legal adviser, and no senior U.S. military commander made the case that we should leave forces behind without these protections. Even Sen. John McCain, perhaps the administration’s harshest Iraq critic, admitted in a December 2011 speech discussing the withdrawal that the president’s demand for binding legal immunities ‘was a matter of vital importance.’

"…Unfortunately, Iraqi domestic politics made it impossible to reach a deal. Iraqi public opinion surveys consistently showed that the U.S. military presence was deeply unpopular (only in Iraqi Kurdistan did a majority of people want American G.I.s to stay). Maliki was willing to consider going to parliament to approve a follow-on agreement, but he was not willing to stick his neck out. Other political factions would have to support the move, and the support wasn’t there." More here.

Criticizing Obama: The President pulled the United States out of Iraq without actually ending the war – and now we’re paying for it. Obama critic Kori Schake for FP: "Is this is what a ‘responsible withdrawal’ from Iraq looks like? … Soon, either Iraq will be the caliphate Osama bin Laden yearned for, or the Iraqi government will be beholden to Iran for preserving it. Iran will have achieved a stunning victory: dramatically expanding and consolidating its regional influence while getting us to ignore its domestic repression and lethal influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in hopes of a nuclear weapons deal. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be thrilled: so little invested, so much achieved." More here.

Nick Kristof puts the blame for the situation in Iraq on Maliki, here.
The United States tried to build a stable state in Iraq – we should’ve known better. American University’s Gordon Adams for FP: "What is happening in Iraq right now is both a cautionary tale and an unfolding tragedy. The lesson is not about leaving Iraq too early, nor is it about having a Status of Force Agreement that would have kept us there. It’s not about firing the current national security team and appointing another one. It’s not about the effectiveness of air power in halting the advance of an insurgency.

"The caution is about the blithe American assumption that the United States is omnipotent, that with enough money, good will, expertise, equipment, and training Americans can build foreign forces and bring security to troubled areas around the world. The tragedy is that what the U.S. does and has done leads down the road to failure. And more often than not, America bears the costs of its mistakes." More here.

Thomas Friedman offers five principles for thinking about Iraq, here.

Ross Douthat looks at the map of the Middle East, after Iraq, here.

Irony alert: For the WSJ, in what some might believe is a little rich, Paul Bremer, George W. Bush’s envoy to Iraq in 2003-04, and the man to whom much blame goes for early American missteps, argues that only America can prevent a disaster in Iraq, here.

Just sayin’ - with Iraq falling apart, suddenly everyone wants to have a "Situation Report." Obviously there are others out there – and some news organizations had "Situation Reports" before us. But now the think tanks are into it – Brookings’ Ken Pollack wrote a blog – "Iraq Military Situation Report" – and the Institute for the Study of War has begun a  series of "Situation Reports" on what’s happening there. We don’t have a monopoly on the term, natch. But in ou
r minds? There’s just one Situation Report – FP’s.

Meantime, the VA didn’t want to hear about the problems its own people were saying was a problem. In the sad story of how a government bureaucracy that was trying to reform itself really didn’t want to reform itself, the NYT today has a piece about the whistleblowers who couldn’t be whistleblowers – because somewhere inside the VA, no one wanted to hear it. The NYT’s Eric Lichtblau: "Staff members at dozens of Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country have objected for years to falsified patient appointment schedules and other improper practices, only to be rebuffed, disciplined or even fired after speaking up, according to interviews with current and former staff members and internal documents.

"The growing V.A. scandal over long patient wait times and fake scheduling books is emboldening hundreds of employees to go to federal watchdogs, unions, lawmakers and outside whistle-blower groups to report continuing problems, officials for those various groups said. In interviews with The New York Times, a half-dozen current and former staff members – four doctors, a nurse and an office manager in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Alaska – said they faced retaliation for reporting systemic problems." Read the rest of this story here.

So is the VA situation an "emergency" or not? Many people who know say the problems at the VA aren’t necessarily about money – more about government ineptitude and bureaucratic backlash against those who speak up about problems. But Congress – perhaps in its guilt over the treatment of veterans – wants to throw money at the problem – a lot of it. AP: Spending on veterans’ health care could double in three years under the Senate’s solution to the long waits experienced by thousands seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics, according to congressional budget experts. Analyzing a bill the Senate passed overwhelmingly last Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the measure would add $35 billion over the next three years to the $44 billion the government now spends annually on medical care for veterans.

"Both the Senate bill and a House version also passed this past week would dramatically expand government-paid health care. They would require the Veterans Affairs Department to pay private providers to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics or who live at least 40 miles from one of them." More here.

Speaking of veterans, Bergdahl faces a long recovery. The LA Times’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske in San Antonio: "Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who returned to the U.S. on Friday in good physical condition, probably faces a lengthy recovery adjusting to life after five years of captivity in Afghanistan, Army medical specialists said. Bergdahl, 28, arrived at a near-empty hangar at Ft. Sam Houston from Germany, where he received initial medical treatment and counseling. No family or friends had come to meet him." More here.

Meet the sixth man the Taliban wanted in the Bergdahl swap. Oddly, in the wide coverage of Hagel’s hearing last week on Bergdahl before a House panel, it went largely unnoticed that there was to be another detainee as part of the Bergdahl deal – before the detainee died. FP’s John Hudson: "In an offhand remark during congressional testimony this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed a morbid detail about the controversial swap the United States made for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: The Taliban originally wanted six Guantánamo detainees but didn’t get their way. Not because the United States rejected the terms of the trade, but because the sixth man died in U.S. custody. Hagel to the HASC on Wednesday: "It actually started with six… One of them died."

"Although the revelation inspired no follow-up questions or explanations (lawmakers were more concerned about the administration leaving them in the dark about the Bergdahl deal), the White House revealed on Friday the sixth detainee’s identity and the circumstances of his death, in a statement to Foreign Policy. ‘In initial talks, the Taliban also sought the transfer of Awal Gul, who later died in Guantánamo of a heart attack in February 2011,’ White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said. ‘If you have further questions, please contact DOD.’ The Pentagon declined to elaborate." More here.

The military appointed a general to investigate Bergdahl’s situation. But the Pentagon isn’t saying just who it is yet – that announcement will come from the Army shortly. He/she has a difficult job though, as the general officer has to lead an unbiased investigation that gets to the bottom of the case when there is so much rancor over it. USA Today’s John Bacon: "A two-star general has been appointed to investigate Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and reports that he walked away from his post in Afghanistan prior to his capture by Taliban-aligned insurgents, multiple media outlets were reporting Sunday. CNN and NBC news were among outlets reporting the appointment, citing senior defense officials. Sources for both outlets, however, declined to name the general until the Pentagon formally announces the information. CNN said the general could begin his work as soon as this week." More here.

On Sunday’s NYT op-ed page, Chelsea Manning says the U.S. military was complicit in suppressing press freedoms in Iraq. For the Sunday Review: "…If you were following the news during the March 2010 elections in Iraq, you might remember that the American press was flooded with stories declaring the elections a success, complete with upbeat anecdotes and photographs of Iraqi women proudly displaying their ink-stained fingers. The subtext was that United States military operations had succeeded in creating a stable and democratic Iraq. Those of us stationed there were acutely aware of a more complicated reality.

"Military and diplomatic reports coming across my desk detailed a brutal crackdown against political dissidents by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and federal police, on behalf of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Detainees were often tortured, or even killed. Early that year, I received orders to investigate 15 individuals whom the federal police had arrested on suspicion of printing ‘anti-Iraqi literature.’ I learned that these individuals had absolutely no ties to terrorism; they were publishing a scholarly critique of Mr. Maliki’s administration. I forwarded this finding to the officer in command in eastern Baghdad. He responded that he didn’t need this information; instead, I should assist the federal police in locating more ‘anti-Iraqi’ print shops." More here.

Pakistan said it launched a major ground offensive Sunday to clear out the Pakistani Taliban and other local and foreign
militants from the North Waziristan tribal area by the WSJ’s Saeed Shah, here.

 

The Taliban’s existential threat to Afghanistan wanes, but the next president faces big problems. It’s maybe a good sign that, for now, security won’t be the new Afghan government’s biggest concern. Instead, it will be the bigger lifts, the ones that Afghanistan has always had to confront: corruption, governance and building an economy. The WaPo’s Kevin Sieff: "As Afghans wait for the results from this weekend’s presidential election, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Taliban – which failed to undermine the vote – no longer represents an existential threat to the country’s government. But that is of little solace to the millions of Afghans who may face a graver enemy in the government itself – a bundle of inept and corruption-plagued institutions whose actions could threaten the gains of the past decade.

"About 7 million voters turned out Saturday, a showing some Afghans read as a repudiation of the Taliban and others saw as a sign of the electorate’s desperation to reform a host of public institutions. The next president, who will be either former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, will inherit those institutions. On Sunday, both campaigns frantically tried to assess the election outcome, reporting dozens of cases of voting fraud to the country’s election commission. The official results won’t be released until early July. Neither candidate campaigned primarily on his ability to suppress the insurgency. Both found that the electorate had more pressing worries."

Yama Torabi, head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan watchdog organization: "I’m not concerned about the insurgency. The security forces are capable of dealing with it… But I am concerned about corruption and its impact on the economy."

One U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly: "The biggest concern is not the security situation – the Afghans have that mostly under control – but the political institutions." More here.