Situation Report: Taliban off limits; Patriot missiles coming home; more drones coming soon to a battlefield near you; fighting picks up in Ukraine; Iraqi blame game; and lots more
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Let the dominoes fall. Launching strikes against Taliban targets has become all but off-limits for the handful of American special operators still working in Afghanistan, FP’s Sean Naylor reports, though commanders have recently added the Islamic State to their shrinking hit list.
The number of missions that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conducts in Afghanistan have been slashed in recent months thanks to restrictive new targeting rules which specify that the Taliban can’t be hit unless a specific target poses a direct threat to U.S. interests or allies.
Limiting the strikes against Taliban operatives doesn’t mean that the war is winding down, however. Late last week, a spokesman for the Defense Department said that since January, a staggering 4,302 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed in action along with 8,009 wounded in what has by far been the bloodiest year for Kabul’s security forces since the ouster of the Taliban in 2002. Overall, 13,000 Afghan security forces have been killed over the past three years.
Not all Taliban-related groups are in the clear, however. The Haqqani Network continues to be hunted by JSOC, though only after a thorough scrubbing of of the details of each mission by military leadership. It remains to be seen whether the recent naming of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the network, as the Taliban’s new deputy commander will further complicate JSOC’s ability to target the group.
Brace and break The Defense Department is finally being allowed to scrub a mission that some military officials never much liked in the first place: stationing two U.S. Army Patriot anti-missile batteries in southern Turkey.
A joint statement by the United States Embassy in Ankara and the Turkish government on Sunday said that the two Patriot batteries and 250 U.S. soldiers will come back to the States in October so that the missile systems can undergo “critical modernization upgrades.” The Patriots — along with Patriot units from Germany and The Netherlands — were deployed to Turkey in 2013 to calm Ankara at a time when NATO feared that Turkey was in danger of being hit by ballistic missiles fired by Syrian forces.
But with that threat all but eliminated now that Syrian forces have abandoned the Turkish border region, Pentagon leaders have been eager to bring the batteries home. Patriots are in high demand by commanders across the Middle East and Asia, and the soldiers manning the systems in Turkey had yet to conduct a single mission during the deployment. The timing of the move was a delicate diplomatic issue, however, as the U.S. and Turkey had been working on a deal to get Turkey into the anti-Islamic State fight while allowing U.S. warplanes and drones to begin flying out of Turkish air bases. Once that deal was reached, U.S. officials told their Turkish counterparts about the Patriot redeployment.
As part of the deal, six U.S. F-16 fighter jets and 300 American military personnel have now arrived at Incirlik and have started flying combat missions against the Islamic State in Syria. Germany also announced on Saturday that it was pulling its Patriot battery from Turkey, leaving only a Spanish unit behind. The Spanish system replaced the Dutch battery this year.
Drones to the left of me, drones to the right. The U.S. Army, which says that it is so cash-strapped that it might have to slash tens of thousands of soldiers from its ranks in the coming years, is being asked by the Pentagon to begin flying more drone missions. The plan, outlined by defense officials to the Wall Street Journal, calls for the number of daily drone flights to increase from 60 to as many as 90 by 2019.
The uptick in missions comes just months after the Air Force cut the number of daily flights from 65 to 60, citing a heavy workload for the limited number of aircrews trained to operate the drones. The way the new plan would break down is this: The Air Force will keep flying 60 flights a day, while the Army would kick in another 16 flights, and the Special Forces Command would contribute another four. But here’s the fun part. Private contractors would pick up the remaining slack, flying as many as 10 Predator drone flights a day, though none of those flights would be armed.
Military commanders, unsurprisingly, have for years lamented the lack of drone coverage overhead. In particular, Gen. Philip Breedlove of the U.S. European Command and Gen. David Rodriguez, of the U.S. Africa command, have called for more drones to help cover their flanks and reassure allies in their areas of operations. There’s no word on how this new plan would be funded, though one would expect that supplemental budgets would be used to keep the birds in the air.
Many thanks to FP colleague David Francis for filling in last week while your SitRep editor was away. David and Adam kept the trains running all week at the expense of a proper night’s sleep, and as expected, killed it each morning. As usual, please direct any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information to firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Who’s where when
10:30 a.m. Brookings hosts a panel discussion on “the defense economy and American prosperity” featuring Ben S. Bernanke, Brookings distinguished fellow in residence, and Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program.
The fighting between Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and forces loyal to the Kiev government is heating up to levels not seen since the parties agreed to a nominal ceasefire back in February. The renewed intensity of fighting has Germany, which negotiated the ceasefire, somewhat nervous. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that, absent a renewed political process to end the fighting, the “explosive” situation in Ukraine could escalate.
A brutal Syrian government airstrike on a market near Damascus on Sunday has reportedly killed nearly 100 people, marking a breathtaking toll even by the standards of Syria’s bloody civil war. Human rights groups are calling the attack a massacre, reporting that over 200 civilians have been injured by the bombings, as well. The attack comes as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have suffered a number of battlefield losses to rebel forces.
The Arab League is mulling a request by the Libyan government for fellow Arab states to help it confront Islamic State forces, which have gained strength in Libya in the wake of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster. In a statement, Libyan representatives called for Arab League countries to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have already flown sorties into Libya attacking the group and other jihadists.
When it’s time for another joint exercise between South Korea and the United States, that can only mean one thing: we’re in for another round of chest-thumping and threats from up north. The U.S. and South Korean militaries are kicking off the annual Ulchi Freedom exercises and North Korea is none too happy. Pyongyang historically gets antsy at the sight of American and South Korean troops mobilizing, if only for drills, and so it has responded with implicit threats of war. Tensions between North and South Korea are already high after two South Korean soldiers were injured stepping on landmine reportedly placed across the border by North Korean troops.
In a new audiotape, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau says that he is not, contrary to rumors, dead. The terrorist leader’s extended absence from public view has led to rumors that he’s either dead or no longer in charge of Boko Haram — rumors fanned by Chadian President Idriss Deby during a recent press conference. In the tape, Shekau says that he remains very much alive and claims to still be in charge of Boko Haram.
In a move that has surprised nearly no one, an Iraqi parliamentary panel on Sunday called for former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and dozens of other top officials to stand trial over the fall of the northern city of Mosul to the Islamic State last year. As part of a wider reform effort, current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also cut 11 ministerial positions on Sunday, including the vice presidency of Maliki, while combining four ministries with other similar ones.
The Brookings Institution’s Charles Lister penned a new report that’s well worth checking out. Titled, “Returning Foreign Fighters: Criminalization or Reintegration?” the paper considers the fate of the thousands of fighters who have flocked to the Islamic State banner in Syria and Iraq in recent years, as they begin returning home to Western Europe, North Africa, and countries across the Middle East.
Should local governments nab and jail them as they come home, or work with them to bring them, on some level, back into the fold? Brookings teases: “Lister concludes that countries should adopt a nuanced approach toward returning foreign fighters, relying on closer coordination between local authorities and community leaders, improved information sharing on the foreign-fighter phenomenon, and a better understanding of the dynamics of recruitment and radicalization.”