The Cable

Situation Report: State and Afghan watchdog clash; first step for NDAA; more cash for French fight in Africa; and more to come

By Paul McLeary and Ariel Robinson Lost in translation. There’s a real fight brewing between the State Department and the outspoken Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko over the watchdog’s staffing levels at its office in Kabul. And the two sides have very different versions of a recent meeting, the Situation Report ...

By Paul McLeary and Ariel Robinson

Lost in translation. There’s a real fight brewing between the State Department and the outspoken Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko over the watchdog’s staffing levels at its office in Kabul. And the two sides have very different versions of a recent meeting, the Situation Report has learned.

During testimony Wednesday before a House of Representatives oversight committee, Sopko — according to his prepared remarks first reported here — complained that “within the past week,” he was told by State officials that he must reduce his Kabul staff from 42 to 25 positions by summer 2016. SIGAR was told that the cut “is non-negotiable,” Sopko said. “This arbitrary number was developed without SIGAR’s input, and embassy officials did not provide any explanation for how they determined these cuts.”

This didn’t go over well at the State Department. When asked about Sopko’s comments, an official there told the Situation Report that “any assertion that the Embassy Kabul unilaterally ordered SIGAR to make staffing cuts in 2016 is false. In preparation for a congressionally mandated rightsizing exercise, an embassy official in Kabul discussed staffing size with SIGAR, but underscored that the exercise was the beginning of a dialogue on what functions and positions must be kept, not a decision to cut.”

Obviously, there’s a difference of opinion here. “We are happy that State is now willing to discuss SIGAR’s staffing numbers,” Alex Bronstein-Moffly, SIGAR’s spokesman said late Wednesday night. “However, on Monday SIGAR was informed by senior US Embassy leadership not to bother challenging the staffing cuts.”

Those are two very different versions of the same meeting. SIGAR has clashed with State, USAID, and the Defense Department repeatedly over the last few years, as Sopko’s investigations have ramped up. Most recently, SIGAR got into it with Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, for classifying information about Afghan troop numbers that had your years been made public.

Happy, together. It’s pretty unusual when a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff goes out and lobbies Congress for a major change in policy contained in a budget already submitted by the President of the United States, and by extension, the Defense Department. But that’s exactly what National Guard Bureau director Gen. Frank Grass did Wednesday morning.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, Grass urged senators to undo Big Army’s plans to snatch 36 Apache helicopters from Guard units and give them to regular active duty squadrons. He also spoke against  the 8,200-soldier reduction in the Army National Guard’s end strength, pleading for Congress to wait for the Commission on the Future of the Army to finish its work in in February 2016 — the same time as the fiscal year 2017 budget is due to drop — to make decisions about the Guard’s future.

We’re almost there! The week grinds on and we’re still SitRepping. Let us know what’s new, what’s going to be new, and what may or may not be on the record. Try paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Quotable

“China should understand that the strengthening of the Japan / U.S. relationship will be in the interest of China because the more stable security environment will benefit the Chinese economy…so I’d like to ask the Chinese side not to misinterpret” the newly released defense guidelines between Japan and the U.S.”

— Hideshi Tokuchi, Director-General, Defense Policy Bureau, Japanese Ministry of Defense

Defense Budget

It’s going to be a while before we sort out exactly what went down overnight during the House Armed Services marathon “markup” of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

But we do know that we received our last email from the committee staff at 4:47 a.m. Thursday, letting us know that the committee passed the NDAA by a vote of 60-2. This is only the beginning of a long road for the defense budget however, as it’ll now spend months running the gauntlet through the rest of the House and Senate.

If House Committee gets its way, “a slew of amendments it approved Wednesday will keep Pentagon and service officials plenty busy next year,” writes John T. Bennett in Defense News, including “a bloc of amendments that would require 13 briefings, reports or “assessments” from the department or General Accountability Office (GAO).”

And Kristina Wong of The Hill tells us that the venerable A-10 will live to fly another year, at least in this version of the bill, sending a pretty serious rebuke to the U.S. Air Force, which desperately wants to retire the bird and shift the money and maintenance staffs to the coming F-35 megaprogram. Hope this A-10 talk isn’t considered “treasonous.”

Cyber

A report out of Arlington, Va.-based cyber security firm Lookingglas, finds that Russian-based hackers have waged a sustained campaign against Ukrainian government, military, and law enforcement targets. “The researchers dubbed the campaign ‘Operation Armageddon’ after the nom de guerre of an author (according to file metadata) of the Microsoft Word documents used in the attacks” Fortune reports.

The Business of Defense

Defense bigwigs Harris Corp. and Thales have “won” a potential $3.8 billion, 5-year contract to make 150,000 radios for the U.S. Army. The only hitch is that they’ll have to keep competing against each other throughout those five years, and the requirements will keep changing. Yay?

U.S. weapons maker General Dynamics Corp. — which actually pulled out of the above-mentioned Army radio competition — on Wednesday reported higher-than-expected earnings and revenues for the first quarter, saying that net earnings rose 20 percent to $716 million. Revenues also rose to $7.78 billion from $7.26 billion.

Counterterrrorism

“U.S. allies in the Middle East have ramped up their support for rebels fighting against Syrian forces in recent months, potentially widening a gulf over strategy between the Obama administration and its regional partners” report the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly.

President Obama has increased the amount the Defense Department is spending to help France fight terrorists in northwest Africa. Obama on Wednesday ordered the release of up to $35 million in cash to battle extremists in Mali, Niger, and Chad, following up on the $10 million allocated to helping France in its effort in August. France has about 3,000 troops deployed to fight Islamic groups in Africa’s Sahel region.

Canada’s Special Forces have made quite the impression on Kurdish forces in Iraq. More — though not much — from Matthew Fisher for the National Post here. (Apparently the Commandos don’t like to talk to the media.)

Russia

Our worst fear is realized: Russian things are falling from the sky! Ian Sample and Shaun Walker, reporting for The Guardian, note that “a Russian spacecraft that is tumbling around the Earth after it malfunctioned en route to the International Space Station (ISS) could remain in orbit for more than a week before crashing down to Earth.”

Iran

The U.S. has asked Iran for assistance bringing warring parties in Yemen to the table, Reuters reports. “Asked whether U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had asked Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in talks in New York on Monday to use its influence to get all sides into talks, a U.S. State Department official told reporters, ‘Yes.’”

North Korea

According to satellite images from the last four months, a “North Korean nuclear reactor that can yield material for atomic bombs may be operating again at low power or intermittently, U.S. experts said,”  David Brunnstrom reports for Reuters.

Egypt

“A court in Egypt has sentenced 69 Islamists to life in prison for setting fire to a church in a town near Cairo,” reports the BBC.

Not helping

The day after Iranian warships fired upon, and then snatched, a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship out of the Strait of Hormuz, Secretary of State John Kerry offered his “warmest congratulations to the citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands on the 36th anniversary of your nation’s independence this May 1,” according to a statement released Wednesday. We’re sure the early salutations don’t have anything to do with the unpleasantness in the Gulf.

Comings and Goings

The Defense Department has announced a new chair of the Defense Business Board (DBB), appointing Michael Bayer, president and CEO of Washington strategic advisory firm Dumbarton Strategies to the post, replacing Bobby Stein.

“We need Michael’s energy and expertise to bring the very best private sector ideas and actionable solutions to the department,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in a statement. The DBB will convene again in July. The board was established in 2002 to provide the department with an independent voice on its business operations.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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