Situation Report: U.S. commandos pulled out of Afghan crash site; North Korea nuke fallout; did Saudi bomb Iranian embassy?; Gitmo slowly clearing out; Pentagon reviews medal awards; bombing in Libya; and lots more on a busy day
- 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
Crash site cleared. American troops finally managed to reach a group of U.S. Special Forces and their Afghan allies stuck after a firefight with the Taliban in Helmand province, a military official confirms to FP. The fight, which began on Tuesday, claimed the life of Green Beret Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock, and wounded two other U.S. soldiers, along with several Afghan commandos. The hours-long fight also left an American helicopter disabled on the ground after it smashed a wall upon landing.
While plenty of questions remain over what happened, and why it took three attempts over the course of a day to get the soldiers out, “we can confirm the situation has been resolved, the helicopter has been recovered and the Quick Reaction Force has departed the area,” Lt. Cmdr. Ron Flesvig said in an email. But he said American Special Forces will remain active in the embattled Helmand province, which has seen major Taliban gains in recent months.
“Our forces will continue their train/advise/assist mission with their Afghan partners in the 215th Corps and Afghan Special Forces…to clear the areas of Marjah and Sangin of insurgents,” he said. The damaged American HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter was not destroyed. It was recovered but not repaired on site.
NORK nukes. This week’s test of a North Korean nuclear weapon has put President Barack Obama squarely in the crosshairs of both his political opponents and allies, FP’s John Hudson reports, “with critics lambasting the administration for not acting “tough” enough, while traditional supporters faulted the administration for missing opportunities to engage diplomatically with the regime.” The North’s nuke program has carried out four nuclear tests since 2006 and three during Barack Obama’s presidency, Hudson points out, and “although analysts doubt Pyongyang’s claims that the new test involved a hydrogen bomb, there is near-universal agreement that the size and sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear program has increased during Obama’s years in office.”
More fallout. The head of the United Nations also slammed Pyongyang for the test, FP’s Colum Lynch writes, but what the international community is keeping its eye on is the response from China.
In another important update to the unfolding story, Lynch reports that the Chinese government is “unlikely to go as far as the United States and its allies want.” The U.S. envoy to the U.N., Samantha Power said Wednesday that Washington wants a “tough, comprehensive, and credible package of new sanctions” to punish North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But as Lynch points out, “stern rhetoric aside, any effort to punish Pyongyang will need the blessing of Beijing.” The problem there is “it appeared unlikely later Wednesday that Beijing would agree to the crippling economic and diplomatic penalties that the United States, South Korea, and Japan have long sought.”
Gitmo gone. And then there were 105. That’s now many prisoners remain at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility after two Yemeni men were released Wednesday. The two didn’t go home after spending almost 14 years behind bars, however. Rather, Mahmud Umar Muhammad bin Atef and Khalid Muhammad Salih al-Dhuby were sent to Ghana, where they’ll be freed upon arrival according to a deal worked out with the Ghanaian government.
Both men were approved for release years ago, with al-Dhuby waiting since 2006 for release, and Atef having been cleared in 2010. Another 15 prisoners are expected to be released in the coming weeks as the White House scrambles to find ways to close the prison before President Barack Obama leaves office. The White House has yet to submit a plan to Congress for the facility’s closure, and in November the Senate passed a bill that bans moving Gitmo detainees to facilities in the United States. The White House has previously hinted that the president might use executive action to close the prison.
Everyone loves a map. Confused by the web of alliances among the Middle East’s feuding Sunni and Shia powers? FP’s Henry Johnson has you covered with a map by French cartographer Emmanuel Pène showing Saudi Arabia and Iran’s regional squads broken down by religion, population, and diplomatic alignment.
We have medals. After years of complaints that the military’s system for issuing medals has been unfairly restrictive, the Pentagon may be set to review over a thousand medals it has awarded throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the plan submitted to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the review would prompt the services to examine Distinguished Service, Navy, and Air Force Crosses and Silver Stars for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has strongly opposed the review proposal, saying it could damage the integrity of the awards system.
It’s still 2016, and this is still the Situation Report. 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 email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
U.S. intelligence had an inkling that North Korea was about to test a nuclear weapon, NBC News reports. American spies saw signs of preparation for a test two weeks before the device went off, and a military source says the U.S. quietly slipped a drone into the area before the test took place to sniff for air samples to be used for comparison after the test.
Now that the underground test has taken place, it’s up to the Air Force’s WC-135 airplane to sniff around the area for clues of what exactly happened. The Washington Post reports that the aircraft, known as “Constant Phoenix,” will be headed to the region to collect radioactive particles from the radioactive plume given off by the test. The aircraft is a modified C-135B transport plan outfitted with a range of atmospheric collection sensors.
Gulf diplomatic throwdown
Qatar has recalled its ambassador to Iran, joining Saudi Arabia in sending diplomatic ripostes to Tehran in the wake of Iranian protestors’ sacking of the Saudi embassy following the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Djibouti, and Sudan have all either cut off or downgraded diplomatic relations with Iran.
Al Jazeera reports that Iran is accusing Saudi Arabia of bombing its embassy in Sanaa, Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is carrying out a ground and air war to oust the Houthi movement from power. Early Thursday morning Iran’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying Saudi warplanes hit their embassy, injuring Iranian personnel in a “deliberate action.” There has been no confirmation yet from Saudi Arabia.
Iraqi authorities declared Ramadi free of fighters from the Islamic State over a week ago, but “squad size” units of fighters for the group are still carrying out attacks around the city, according to Military Times. Coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reports that groups of Islamic State fighters numbering between five and seven or as many as dozen are harassing Iraqi troops, who have also discovered a network of tunnels created by the group under the city, similar to those found in Sinjar after it was retaken.
A large truck bomb has killed at least 60 people at a police training facility in the western Libyan city of Zliten, Sky News reports. The truck was reportedly parked outside the facility and detonated in a suicide attack. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack but the bombing follows a Monday attack claimed by the Islamic State on a Libyan oil complex near Benghazi.
A new addition to the latest drama in the Middle East comes in the form of Berlin rethinking its relationship with the Saudi military. In response to Saudi’s execution of 47 prisoners to kick off the new year, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that Germany “must now review whether in future we should take a more critical stance on defensive armaments which we have so far sold to Saudi Arabia for its national defense,” reports UPI. Germany has already stopped selling tanks and assault rifles to Saudi Arabia, but maintains several other contracts for military equipment. Overall, Germany is the fourth-largest arms exporter in the world, with sales of about $4 billion over the first half of 2015.
British security services are under pressure as authorities reveal that the latest British citizen to star in a video for the Islamic State managed to slip out of the country following a botched effort to confiscate his passport. Reuters reports that Siddhartha Dhar, a Muslim convert who appeared in an Islamic State execution video, received a letter from police instructing him to hand over his passport only after he’d already left the country for Syria. Home Secretary Theresa May has promised to improve security at exit points in the country.