The Cable

Situation Report: Special Ops by the numbers; U.K. hits Syria hours after vote; Germany stepping up to the fight; watchdog finds more U.S. waste in Afghanistan; Pentagon pleads poverty; Tehran’s nuke program; U.S. diplomats are bad storytellers; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Questions over new Special Ops mission. After Defense Secretary Ash Carter abruptly dropped the announcement of a new combat deployment for U.S. commandos in Iraq and Syria Tuesday, defense officials said the force would consist of about 100 troops who would conduct raids to kill or capture Islamic State ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Questions over new Special Ops mission. After Defense Secretary Ash Carter abruptly dropped the announcement of a new combat deployment for U.S. commandos in Iraq and Syria Tuesday, defense officials said the force would consist of about 100 troops who would conduct raids to kill or capture Islamic State leadership. White House spokesman Josh Earnest had a different take on Tuesday afternoon, however, putting the number at “about 200” troops.

That number again shrank by half on Wednesday, when the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State, Col. Steve Warren, told reporters that the number would be “around 100, maybe a little bit less.” Of those, only a “double digit” number will be “trigger-pullers” he said, with the rest being made up of support personnel, including pilots.

But tough questions remain. One of the goals of the raids will be capturing ISIS leaders and gaining intel, but defense officials have so far refused to outline where these prisoners might be kept, how they would be interrogated, and by whom. On Tuesday, Earnest flatly said they would not be sent to Guantanamo Bay.

More eyes in the sky. On Friday, the German Parliament will decide whether to assume a ramped-up noncombat role in the fight against the Islamic State. FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson report that Berlin “is planning to deploy as many as six Tornado reconnaissance jets to collect intelligence on Islamic State activities in Syria, and to supply a frigate to protect France’s nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, according to a German official. The overall effort will require an additional force of up to 1,200 German troops and sailors.”

Brits are already in. Just hours after the British House of Commons approved airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria on Wednesday, four Royal Air Force Tornados took off from their base in Cyprus to target the Omar oil fields in eastern Syria. But it’s not as if the Brits have been standing idly by up to this point. RAF Tornado GR4 surveillance jets and armed Reaper drones have for some time been conducting daily flights over Iraq, gathering intel for coalition strikes while also providing close air support for Iraqi ground units.

Wartime austerity. The same Defense Department office that brought you the $43 million Afghan gas station is in the news again after an internal government watchdog found it spent $150 million on fully stocked private villas and private security in Afghanistan to house just a handful of staffers.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter released Thursday morning, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, says that if those U.S. government staffers had instead stayed at the U.S. Embassy in 2014, the U.S. taxpayer probably would have shelled out about $1.8 million — a cost delta that wasn’t lost on Sopko and his team.

The office in question, the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, or TFBSO, was set up in 2006 to promote Afghan business opportunities, but was disbanded this past March. The newly uncovered facts of how the staff lived while in Afghanistan stand as almost a parody of the worst contractor excesses in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, however.

The perks of staying off-base included queen size beds, flat screen TVs in each room along with “a DVD player in each room, a mini refrigerator in each room, and an ‘investor villa’ that had ‘upgraded furniture’ and ‘western-style hotel accommodations,’” according to the investigators. But the best part is the food. “The contractor was required to provide service that was ‘at least 3 stars,’ with each meal containing at least two entrée choices and three side order choices, as well as three-course meals for ‘Special Events.’” Sopko’s team also reports that the decision not to live on U.S. military bases or at the embassy in Afghanistan was likely made by the TFSBO’s director, Paul A. Brinkley, who “has not cooperated with SIGAR’s requests for information.”

Tehran’s nukes. The International Atomic Energy Agency has issued its long-awaited report on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, saying that Iran in fact did carry out clandestine work on a nuclear weapon, reports FP’s Elias Groll. The report jives with the U.S. intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, concluding that Iran worked on developing a nuclear weapon until 2003. After 2003, the reports says Iran performed modeling research on nuclear explosions until 2009 but that the agency has no information suggest any nuclear weapons work by Iran since that time.

Here we are again for another morning of SitRep, and we’re glad to have you along for the ride. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Syria

A “security source” tells Agence France Presse that Russian and Syrian troops have been conducting joint exercises in Syria’s Latakia province to ready themselves for a push against the rebel Army of Conquest coalition in Idlib. The capture of Idlib by Syrian rebels earlier this year unnerved many within the Assad regime and its supporters as it appeared to put neighboring Latakia province — the homeland of Syria’s Alawite minority and a key support base for President Bashar al-Assad — at risk.

The Islamic State

A panel of half a dozen marketing and branding experts put together by the State Department to review its counter-messaging against the Islamic State has suggested that the U.S. can’t be an effective messenger against the jihadist group, the Washington Post reports. The report comes as the Department is cutting back on its jihadist counter-propaganda office, with outsiders charging its efforts suffer from a lack of leadership, resources and a consistent strategy. Congress recently authorized the Defense Department to take on some responsibility for counter-propaganda against the Islamic State.

Afghanistan

An Afghan government source tells the AP that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was wounded in a shootout following an argument at the house of senior Taliban figure Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi that purportedly left six other Taliban members dead. The Taliban dispute the account of a shooting incident in Quetta and the wounding Mansour, saying it never happened.

While the U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan might have shrunk, the need for private security contractors continues. The Defense Department’s Special Operations Command is soliciting bids for contractors to provide security at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. The request specifies a demand for 52 armed guards, four interpreters and associated management personnel.

Defending budgets

Planners at the Pentagon are finishing up the details of their 2017 budget request, and Frank Kendall, the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, doesn’t like what he sees.

The Pentagon is preparing to make “disproportionate” cuts to its modernization and research funding in order to keep the personnel and readiness accounts stable, Kendall said Wednesday. The cuts may also force a slowdown in F-35 production, and likely pump the brakes on one of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s main priorities, the “Third Offset” strategy, which Carter has said is critical to maintaining America’s military technological dominance. “We don’t have the money to make the major investments,” in cutting edge technologies, Kendall said.

Europe

The U.S. Army’s 12th Combat Aviation Brigade commander Col. Christopher W. Waters is warning of an Army aviation “deficit” in Europe, National Defense magazine reports. The Army’s “aviation restructuring initiative” following 2011 budget cuts hit Army aviation assets in Europe hard, and the Army has tried to replace its assets there through a program of rotating units based in the U.S. into Europe for nine-month deployments. But the lack of permanent Army aviation assets in Europe at a time when NATO exercises and training demands are high in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is stressing the existing forces to the brink, according to Waters.

Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service published an analytical report labeling Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defense minister Mohammed bin Salman as a destabilizing force in the Middle East. The report says Salman is “impulsive” and overly ambitious member of the royal family, citing these qualities along with his alleged lack of faith in American support as the motivation for a more aggressive Saudi foreign policy.

NATO has officially invited the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro to join the Atlantic alliance and Russia is threatening “retaliatory actions” in response, the BBC reports. Montenegro won’t become a member immediately, with negotiations over accession that could take up to a year still to take place. Membership in the alliance is somewhat controversial in the country, which NATO bombed during the Kosovo War, but polls give a slight edge to those in favor of joining.

North Korea

38 North has published an analysis of satellite imagery by Foreign Policy columnist Jeffrey Lewis indicating that North Korea is carrying out work on a nuclear test tunnel at its Punggye-ri testing site. Although the new tunnel does not necessarily indicate a nuclear test will take place soon, it does suggest that North Korea is laying the infrastructure for future test at some point.

 

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

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