The Cable

Situation Report: Ramadi in Ruins, Congress looking for answers after deadly Afghan fight; drone pilots get some love; Bergdahl court dates scheduled; Chinese laser guns; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley A problem like Anbar. However much territory the Islamic State lost in Iraq in 2015 — Pentagon officials say as much as 40 percent has been retaken by Baghdad — the blasted hulk of Ramadi points to the price of victory. Iraqi counterterrorism forces continue to hack their way ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

A problem like Anbar. However much territory the Islamic State lost in Iraq in 2015 — Pentagon officials say as much as 40 percent has been retaken by Baghdad — the blasted hulk of Ramadi points to the price of victory.

Iraqi counterterrorism forces continue to hack their way through the city, reporting that they have about 80 percent of it under control, but are still being hit by what one U.S. official said are “squad-size” teams of ISIS fighters. And judging by the daily tally of U.S.-led airstrikes on the city in recent days, the fighting is still fierce. On Friday, the Pentagon reported that over the previous 24 hours, its warplanes hit 16 ISIS “fighting positions,” 11 bomb making facilities, three “staging areas,” and multiple other gun emplacements and groups of fighters around the city. It’s quite a list.

Once the shooting stops, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad will have to find a way to gain some measure of support from the local Sunni population, while rebuilding the city in what some estimate to be a $10 billion reconstruction project. It’s a problem that only looks to get worse as fights for the densely-packed cities of Fallujah and Mosul loom on the horizon in 2016. But for now, read the front-line account by the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard for an idea of the state of play on the ground in Ramadi.

Fighting season. Some members of Congress are looking for answers about how and where U.S. forces are engaging in combat in Afghanistan after a day-long firefight in Helmand province earlier this week killed a Green Beret soldier and left an American helicopter disabled on the ground.

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a retired Navy SEAL commander, is leading the charge, and has requested a briefing from the Pentagon about the incident, and how Special Forces Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock ended up dead. Zinke and eight other lawmakers sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday demanding answers to questions over air support to the surrounded American commandos, and if that support was delayed. The letter says “concerns have been raised regarding the lengthy time it took to provide support and whether or not authorization for a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was intentionally delayed. Additionally there have been reports that an available AC-130 gunship was denied permission due to concerns of collateral damage.” It’s here.

You want a medal or something? To the consternation of some, armed drones have played a major role in the American way of war over the past decade, and there’s little chance of that changing any time soon. In a bit of a catching-up exercise, the Pentagon is now trying to recognize the service of those drone pilots and other servicemembers manning computer terminals thousands of miles behind the front lines.

That recognition won’t come in the form of a medal, FP’s Paul McLeary points out, but as a small “R” pin — short for “remote” — to attach to non-combat medals. In a document announcing the new award, the Pentagon explained that “as the impact of remote operations on combat continues to increase, the necessity of ensuring those actions are distinctly recognized grows.”

Next steps. The Army has scheduled a hearing for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on Jan. 12 at Fort Bragg, N.C. This isn’t the start of the full court martial proceedings — that won’t begin until August, with Aug. 8 – 19 having already been blocked off. Bergdahl, who walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 and was promptly captured by the Taliban, is currently telling the story of his five years of torture and confinement in the weekly “Serial” podcast. The latest episode, out on Thursday, provides some details on his captors, and how they would use razor blades to slowly slice his chest, chained him to a bed for months, and beat him with a rubber hose as punishment for trying to escape.

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 paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

It might get loud

South Korea’s is none too happy about North Korea’s nuclear test and is responding in a way known to annoy its neighbors across the DMZ: loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the border. The speakers are blaring a mix of Korean pop music and denunciations of the Kim regime. South Korea has used the loudspeaker broadcasts as a punishment for aggressive North Korean behavior before, deploying them in August 2015 after landmines planted by the North injured two South Korean soldiers.

China

China has landed two more planes on its man-made island on Fiery Cross reef, raising the temperature on a dispute with Vietnam over maritime borders in the waters off the island. Vietnam had already lodged a protest with China last week when a civilian plane first landed on the island, but China brushed off the objections, landing an additional two more planes on the island Wednesday. The new landings have forced the Pentagon to comment on the controversy, with Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook pronouncing the U.S. “concerned” over the flights, saying they “do nothing to foster further stability and understanding.”

Syria

Britain’s Sky News has obtained exclusive footage of the Islamic State’s weapons lab in Raqqa, Syria after the Free Syrian Army captured an Islamic State fighter carrying footage of the facility. Technicians working in the lab appear to have succeeded in creating replacement thermal batteries for use in shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS. It’s a worrying development as that kind of maintenance can breathe life into plentiful, older MANPADS such as the SA-7, which tend to lose functionality over time.

The Syrian rebel-held town of Madaya is starving to death as the regime of Bashar al-Assad has cut off food supplies. The Washington Post reports that Doctors Without Borders has tallied 23 deaths from starvation in the town in the past month and seen other residents who have been killed trying to leave the town — claims echoed in a United Nations report. Under the terms of a ceasefire agreement, the Assad regime was supposed to allow food aid to reach the city but no shipments have arrived there since October.

Iraq

A lucky someone is due to get 120 more brand new Humvees! The Iraqi government could use the new rides after misplacing as many as 2,300 of the U.S.-made vehicles over the past year, which the Islamic State promptly took off their hands. A new $24 million contract with Indiana-based Humvee maker AM General is set to deliver the vehicles by April 30 of this year, just in time for the Iraqi army to keep on pushing north to Mosul, the city where it lost most of its Hummers in the first place. It’s not clear if this sale is the first installment of the $579 million deal announced in December for 1,000 Humvees.

While Washington is at it, might as well sell Baghdad another $800 million worth of Hellfire missiles, right? A pending contract announced Thursday would send 5,000 missiles to Iraq, which would “improve a critical capability” of the Iraqi forces to defeat ISIS, the Pentagon said in a statement announcing the proposed sale. The Hellfire is made by Lockheed Martin, who we assume approves of the deal.

U.S. officials say Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a senior member of the Islamic State, has been injured in a U.S. airstrike and reportedly lost a significant amount of blood, according to CNN. The statement came from Joint Special Operations Command, the shadowy commando outfit which has been hunting senior members of the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria. The airstrike reportedly took place in Barwanah, Iraq. Adnani, who often acts as a spokesperson for the Islamic State, is one of its most senior leaders, sometimes thought of as a possible successor to its purported caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Return to sender

Defense officials are scratching their heads over how an inert U.S. Hellfire missile was erroneously shipped to Cuba, the Wall Street Journal reports. The missile was shipped from Florida to Spain for use in a NATO exercise. After the exercise, the missile somehow missed its return flight back to the U.S. and was loaded onto an Air France flight bound for Cuba. Investigators still can’t determine whether the missile’s wrong turn was an accident or the result of an intelligence operation. Officials are reportedly worried that Cuba could provide access to the missile to countries like Russia or China who might try to reverse engineer the technology inside it.

Nigeria

As Nigeria continues to struggle with the threat that Islamist militant group Boko Haram poses, Washington has gifted the country 24 heavily armored MRAP vehicles. The $11 million transfer is part of a larger effort by the United States to get rid of as many of the 20,000 MRAPs it bought in the mid-2000’s for about $50 billion to protect troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military has decided to only keep a few thousand of those trucks, and has been shipping hundreds of them to Iraq, Pakistan, and allies across Europe.

Dept. of Pew, Pew!

Laser guns are here and Chinese soldiers have them, apparently. PopSci reports on an announcement by China’s People’s Liberation Army that their special operations troops have received laser rifles. China has talked up its various models of laser rifles before, including the PY132A, WJG-202 and BBQ-905. Unlike the action movie laser weapons, though, the guns distributed to Chinese troops aren’t thermal. Rather, they’re used for “blinding” enemy sensors on enemy vehicles.

Think tanked

On the last day of 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin gifted the world a new Russian national defense strategy paper. On its face, there isn’t a lot there that would surprise anyone, save for some saber-rattling over the grave threat that NATO presents Moscow.

Olga Oliker at the Center for Strategic and International Studies is out with a smart analysis of the document, writing that “it presents a Russia focused on increasing its influence and prestige and cementing its national unity; a Russia that believes that it is accomplishing its aims, but which simultaneously feels threatened by the United States and its allies.” In the end, she says, “Russia will continue to be activist in its foreign policy and will continue to refuse to “back down,” though it is also aware of its limitations, and may temper near-term goals accordingly.”

 

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

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