The Cable

Situation Report: Kunduz eyewitnesses contradict official line; Dunford in Israel, Jordan; Middle East allies flocking to Putin; US aircraft carriers vacate Arabian Gulf, parade near Japan; Syrian offensive pushes on; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley More grim Kunduz news. New details are emerging of the deadly Oct. 3 U.S. airstrike on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma center in Kunduz. In an exclusive, FP contributor Andrew Quilty — who walked into the center a week after the attack and sent back gripping photos of ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

More grim Kunduz news. New details are emerging of the deadly Oct. 3 U.S. airstrike on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma center in Kunduz. In an exclusive, FP contributor Andrew Quilty — who walked into the center a week after the attack and sent back gripping photos of the destruction — writes that some inside the building during the incident are contradicting the claims of the U.S. and Afghan governments.

A local mullah and two other individuals who wish to remain anonymous said that on the night of the strike there was some fighting in the vicinity, but no closer than between 200 yards and half a mile away from the MSF compound. The official word has been that fighting was raging around the compound, which helped lead to the “fog of war” that caused Afghan troops to request a U.S. AC-130 gunship hovering over the city to open up on the buildings. The witnesses also dispute the Afghan government’s claim that the Taliban was using the MSF hospital as a fighting position, or that there were Taliban fighters in the building.

“All parties said that there were no active fighters from either side present nor, as per MSF policy, had they seen any indications of weapons in the hospital,” Quilty writes. “Another person familiar with MSF procedures, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, stated adamantly in a phone interview on Oct. 15: “Our hospital is for everyone. The rule is that no one can enter with a gun.””

And continuing questions. While the U.S. military command in Kabul doesn’t expect to have its investigation complete for several weeks, the AP reported last week that the MSF facility was well-known to U.S. forces, and that special ops analysts had put together “a dossier that included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of the Pakistani operative and activity reports based on overhead surveillance.” The strike killed 22 patients and hospital staff, and the aid group and other NGOs continue to call for an independent international inquiry into the attack.

Jet setting, agenda making. Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the Black Sea estate of Russian President Vladimir Putin last month threw light on just how much the Middle East’s power dynamics look to have shifted over the past several weeks, and how the Russian president is angling to become a key player in Middle East. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that with Russian warplanes pounding the enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “and with the United States unwilling to confront the Damascus regime, Moscow has seized the initiative military and diplomatically. That means high-level delegations from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf powers are knocking on Putin’s door instead of that of the Oval Office.”

Old allies looking for new path. New Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joe Dunford landed in Israel over the weekend on his first overseas trip since taking on the job earlier this month. Dunford met with Israeli Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, commander-in-chief of the Israeli Defense Forces, and the two took a trip up north to the Golan Heights on the Syrian border, where the Israelis are watching movements of both the Islamic State and newly arrived Iranian troops more than a little warily.

Dunford also met with Defense Minister Boogie Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who admitted the obvious on Sunday, saying, “there’s no shortage of challenges” to confront in the region — as well as between the two allies. High on the list of topics discussed was the deal to curb Iranian nuclear activity, which Netanyahu vehemently opposed. But there are also the stalled talks over a new 10-year military aid package that would extend U.S. grants to Israel, which amount to $3 billion annually. The current deal expires in 2017, and Netanyahu froze ongoing negotiations on an extension before the July deal with Iran. Word is, terms of a new package would make it worth as much as $3.7 billion a year, but could go higher as Iran begins to realize gains from sanctions relief.

On Monday, Dunford landed in Jordan for meetings with King Abdullah and his military staff.

Good morning yet again from the SitRep team. It’s a new week, so let’s get at it. We like to think that we cast a pretty wide net over here, but if you have any juicy tidbits, or national security-related events pop up on your radar, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Syria

The Assad regime’s offensive in Aleppo made some gains with help from Russian airstrikes and Iranian ground troops, clawing back a handful of rebel-held villages. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a non-governmental observer group which monitors the conflict, says that the gains may help the Syrian military gain control of lines of communication between the city and regime-controlled parts of the country.

It’s not just Russian and Iranian troops pouring into Syria for the Assad regime’s renewed offensives. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech on Sunday that the militant group now has more troops fighting in Syria than ever before. Nasrallah spoke at an event to honor Hassan Hussein al-Hajj, a senior Hezbollah commander killed in Syria earlier this month. On Sunday, Syrian rebels posted a video on YouTube showing another piece of drone wreckage that closely resembles Russia’s Orlan-10

On Friday, a Turkish jet show down a drone over Turkish territory in the second such incident this year. The wreckage also resembled a Russian Orlan-10 drone, but Russian media reported that officials there claimed the aircraft was a new and heretofore unannounced model.

Iraq

Iraqi forces are now farther north and closer to the Islamic State-held city of Mosul than they’ve been since the jihadist group first seized the city in the summer of 2014, Agence France Presse reports. After recapturing most of the Baiji oil refinery, Iraqi troops have pushed north along the Tigris River and are currently fighting the Islamic State in the town of Zawiyah.

Navy

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has left the Persian Gulf, leaving a bit of controversy in its wake. With the Roosevelt’s exit, the United States now has no carriers in the gulf. The absence is raising eyebrows given that it comes just as the Iran nuclear goes into effect and after Iran conducted a provocative ballistic missile test, which the U.S. says constitutes a violation of United Nations sanctions on the Islamic Republic. U.S. naval aircraft have also played a key role in bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria over the past 14 months, but U.S. officials say that there are plenty of planes parked at air bases around the region to make up for the slack.

Japan

While there might not be any American flattops in the Gulf, the USS Ronald Reagan is making a big show of its recent arrival in Tokyo Bay. The carrier teamed up with Japanese helicopter carrier, the JS Izumo for an annual fleet review which was also attended by the cruiser USS Chancellorsville and guided missile destroyer USS Mustin. In a significant show of the military relationship between Tokyo and Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a helicopter out to the Reagan, becoming the first serving Japanese leader ever to board a U.S. aircraft carrier. The big show comes just as U.S. ships prepare to begin sailing within 12 nautical miles of a series of artificial islands Beijing has built in the South China Sea.

Cybersecurity
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the U.S. in September, it seemed like there might be a thaw in U.S.-China cyberdiplomacy after Xi pledged China would not breach American companies’ networks to steal intellectual property. But that pledge might not be all that reliable. The Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence and cybersecurity firms are still seeing China-linked hackers breaching American corporate networks, including technology and pharmaceutical firms.

Revolving door

You can leave Capitol Hill, but can you ever really leave Capitol Hill? Not if you’re Robert A. Cochran, former chief of staff to then-head of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon. Cochran is now working for McKeon Group LLC, the lobbying shop founded by his former boss. Recent lobbying documents filed with the federal government show that Cochran — who has been busy working for several other defense-related companies in recent months — will now also lobby on behalf of Oregon-based SureID, which provides identity management services for the Defense Department and other clients.

The business of defense

Mega defense contractor Boeing has been told to pay the U.S. government back $18 million to settle claims the company made false labor charges on its C-17 Globemaster contract with the U.S. Air Force. A whistleblower from inside the company told government auditors that Boeing managers had long overcharged for labor costs on the contract, including billing for things like lunch breaks — a no-no — in the bill.

Fiscal year 2015 was an especially good one for foreign military sales. Defense News reports that U.S. defense companies racked up a record-breaking $46.6 billion last year, a sum driven largely by the global push to crack down on the Islamic State. The U.S. government’s inability to budget for longer than three months at a time due to congressional gridlock, however, may put a crimp in next year’s sales as potential foreign customers worry about government shutdowns and look to other, more stable suppliers.

Drones

The United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will soon be protected by robotic boats. The BBC reports that defense contractors BAE Systems and ASV are working on drone boats that will patrol the waters around the carriers and carry out a number of missions, including surveillance.

Think Tanked

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Joseph Campbell takes a brief look at President Obama’s recent push to pressure on Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group that has menaced Nigeria and its neighbors. The president is sending 300 U.S. military advisors and unarmed Predator surveillance drones to Cameroon, creating the thirteenth American drone base in Africa. But more worryingly for Campbell is the U.S. embrace of authoritarian governments in the region in the name of pursuing a terrorist group whose operational coordination and links to international Islamist terrorism he finds somewhat suspect.

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

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