The Cable

Situation Report: Afghan war grinds on; Iraqi troops thank Moscow; big Gitmo release in the works; Syrian Kurds eating up territory; more detail on failure of $500 million U.S. plan to defeat ISIS; and lots more

By Paul McLeary Taliban keeps pushing. NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan may have ended last December, but the deaths of six U.S. soldiers near Bagram airbase on Monday, and the rushed deployments of U.S. and British forces to Helmand province to hold back a resurgent Taliban, tell a very different story. The loss of six ...

By Paul McLeary

Taliban keeps pushing. NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan may have ended last December, but the deaths of six U.S. soldiers near Bagram airbase on Monday, and the rushed deployments of U.S. and British forces to Helmand province to hold back a resurgent Taliban, tell a very different story.

The loss of six soldiers in one strike is the largest battlefield loss for the U.S. in Afghanistan in well over a year, and more than doubles American combat fatalities there in 2015, which stood at four before Monday.

Renewed Taliban offensives across the country call into question the effectiveness of the Afghan army, which continues to struggle despite years of training and billions spent on equipping the force. And now, American commandos are back in the fight in the southern province of Helmand to backstop Afghan forces, who are in danger of losing control of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and the key town of Sangin, FP’s Paul McLeary reports.

British troops have also been sent to Helmand, though London insists they are only acting in an advisory role. It’s worth remembering that Sangin resonates deeply with the British public, “as more than 100 of their 456 fatalities in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001 took place in the district,” the AP notes.

Credit where due? “We should thank the Russians, because they encouraged America to increase their bombing. They helped our forces. Any place they find a threat to us [the U.S.-led coalition] hit. We’ve started to give them coordinates, and whatever coordinates we give them to hit, they blow up. It’s not like before, so our work has become easier.”

— A sniper with Iraq’s Golden Division, fighting in Ramadi, speaking to a Vice News crew in a new documentary.

Walk the line. The Pentagon has notified Congress that as many as 17 prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba could be released in January, a major step in fulfilling President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to close the prison before he leaves office. The move would bring the number of detainees down to about 90 from the current 107 still being held.

Obama telegraphed the move late last week during his end of the year press conference, saying by “early next year, we should have reduced that population below 100. And we will continue to steadily chip away at the numbers in Guantanamo.” The administration has already taken some lumps from Capitol Hill for its failure to release a plan to close the facility. Just last month, the White House pulled back the public release of a plan at the last moment, citing unhappiness with the $600 million price tag attached to the potential transfer of 59 detainees to prisons in the United States.

In November, Obama signed a $607 billion defense policy bill that bars him from transferring the detainees — who are considered too dangerous to release — to the U.S. He included a signing statement, however, warning “under certain circumstances, the provisions in this bill concerning detainee transfers would violate constitutional separation of powers principles.”

On the ground. Be sure to check out this moving story by FP’s Reid Standish, who profiles Rami Jarrah, a prominent Syrian citizen journalist who braves airstrikes and barrel bombs to point his camera at the carnage of collapsed houses and hospitals, pushing images out to the world of the four year-old civil war that has claimed the lives of 250,000 of his countrymen.

Good morning! Appreciate you checking your Inboxes this week, we’re happy to have you on board. 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

Three months of Russian airstrikes in Syria have largely failed to move the needle on the battlefield, but they have added to the misery of the civilian population, which now finds itself at the mercy of Russian jets. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which keeps track of attacks across the country, says “mosques, bakeries, residential buildings, schools, power stations and water supplies have been repeatedly hit,” by the Russians, The Guardian reports. The group has “compiled records of 570 civilians, including 152 children, killed in Russian attacks” in recent weeks.

The embarrassing failure of the $500 million U.S. train and equip program meant to churn out moderate Syrian forces to fight against the Islamic State has many fathers, and a new story by    McClatchy’s Roy Gutman shows just what  a mess the program was from the get-go. The story digs further into the Division 30/Nusra fiasco last summer that tore through the first 60 U.S. trainees, and finds that divisions among the Syrian trainees, their leaders, and their American trainers ultimately left the fighters unprepared for the environment they were facing.

Iraq

Months after Iraqi security forces began laying siege to the provincial capital of Ramadi, reports are coming in that they have finally crossed the Euphrates river and are pushing their way toward the center of the ISIS-held city. In typical fashion, Iraqi officials predict a quick victory. “The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours,” Sabah al-Noman, a spokesman of the Iraqi counter-terrorism service said. Ramadi fell to several hundred ISIS fighters in May in a humiliating loss for the Iraqi army, who fled despite vastly outnumbering and outgunning their attackers.

The Islamic State

Over the course of 2015, the Islamic State lost about 5,000 square miles, or 14 percent, of the area it once controlled across Iraq and Syria, according to a new analysis of the fighting by IHS Jane’s. But while ISIS may be losing ground, the group is still in control of lucrative oil regions in Syria and traditional smuggling routes across both Syria and Iraq — along with millions of Iraqis and Syrians who pay taxes to the jihadist group — bringing in tens of millions of dollars in illicit revenue.

While the group loses ground however, the Kurds are eating it up. “Syria’s Kurds are by far the biggest winners in 2015, expanding territory under their control” by 186 percent, the analysis finds. “They have established control over nearly all of Syria’s traditionally Kurdish areas, and are the largest component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are being nurtured to form a key part of the US ground campaign against the Islamic State in 2016.”

Canada

After the Liberal Party government of new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected in October, there was lots of talk about Canada walking away from the planned purchase of the often-delayed, problem-plagued F-35 fighter jet. But not so fast, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said Monday. Speaking with reporters about finding the best aircraft to replace Ottawa’s aging CF-18 jets, Sajjan was careful, saying Canada is still looking into the issue, but is looking for a plane that can be acquired “in a timely manner” and can work alongside U.S. and European allies. “My focus isn’t about F-35 or any other aircraft,” he said. “We will open it up to an open process.”

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

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