The Cable

Situation Report: General wants U.S. troops closer to the fight in Afghanistan; gadgets to monitor Iran’s nukes; Libya decision hanging over Washington; Saudi is up for a fight in Syria; big price tags for the Pentagon’s nukes; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley More, more, more. Placing American commandos in Afghan army units and allowing forward air controllers to move closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes are a few of the ways that Gen. John Campbell, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, thinks his troops might be ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

More, more, more. Placing American commandos in Afghan army units and allowing forward air controllers to move closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes are a few of the ways that Gen. John Campbell, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, thinks his troops might be able to bolster their beleaguered allies.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, the general said Washington may need to keep thousands of troops in the country for years to come. “Afghanistan has not achieved an enduring level of security and stability that justifies a reduction of our support in 2016,” he said. President Barack Obama already adjusted his troop withdrawal plans in Afghanistan, deciding late last year to keep about 5,500 troops there heading into 2017, as opposed to previous plans that called for a force of about 1,000 by the end of this year.

But even then, Campbell says, the numbers probably aren’t high enough. “The 5,500 plan was developed primarily around counterterrorism,” he said. “There is very limited train, advise and assist” capability in those numbers. “To continue to build on the Afghan security forces, the gaps and seams in aviation, logistics, intelligences, as I’ve talked about, we’d have to make some adjustments to that number,” he said.

Talks kick off, again. Remember, on Saturday, negotiators from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States will gather in Islamabad, Pakistan to kick off a third round of talks in an attempt to forge a roadmap for future peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government.

Libya, what’s next? The administration of President Barack Obama continues to struggle to find ways to answer the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, even as some military officials begin to warn of pending military action. One government official told FP that any decision would not be held up or linked the faltering effort to form a unity government in Tripoli. “I don’t believe they’re pinning it to the political process,” the official said.

To catch a cheater. How will the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency detect if Iran is living up to its commitments under the historic nuclear deal inked last year? FP’s Elias Groll goes deep, reporting that the group has obtained a slew of new gadgets since its inspections on Iraq’s nuclear program in the 1990s. Among them are environmental sampling tools that can detect the most minute traces of nuclear material, even in facilities that have been scrubbed clean. The agency also “commissions large volumes of satellite imagery to examine suspect sites. It uses advanced digital camera technology that can remotely monitor nuclear facilities. Those cameras are increasingly able to communicate with seals used to close storage containers. When the seals are tampered with, the cameras switch on and monitor the activity.”

All in. Military officials in Saudi Arabia say they’re ready to take part in ground operations in Syria if the U.S. decides to go in. “The kingdom is willing to participate in these efforts because we believe that aerial operations are not the ideal solution and there must be a twin mix of aerial and ground operations,” Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri told al-Arabiya TV. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday the “news is very welcome,” since “it’ll be easier to sustain the defeat, and it’ll be, also, easier to accomplish all the nonmilitary aspects of the defeat, if other countries that are part of the coalition accelerate their efforts.”

We planned for this, right? U.S. government budget analysts are predicting that Washington’s nuclear arsenal will cost almost $350 billion to upgrade and maintain over the next decade, a number that rises to about $700 billion over the next 25 years. And no one knows exactly how the Defense Department is going to pay for it. Defense News’ Aaron Mehta goes long on the problem, and finds that even those at the highest levels of the Pentagon are shrugging their shoulders over the massive price tags.

We’re wrapping up another week here at SitRep HQ, but as you know, we can never get enough information, so 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

Ground forces fighting for the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad have almost completely encircled the city of Aleppo and cut the rebel presence there off from its supply route from Turkey. Rebels cite Russian airpower as a major factor in the regime offensive as airstrikes have hobbled their ability to hold ground against the various Shiite militias now fighting on behalf of the Assad regime. Rebels fear that the regime will begin starving the city with a prolonged siege in order to wring concessions out of the opposition and begin pressing west toward supply lines running across the Turkish border in neighboring Idlib province.

The Islamic State

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said a new intelligence assessment reveals that the Islamic State is getting weaker, and has lost nearly a fifth of its manpower in Syria and Iraq. Using the maximum end-strength estimates for the group in 2014 and 2015, U.S. intelligence believes the Islamic State lost roughly 6,000 fighters, going from 31,000 in 2014 to 25,000 last year. Earnest says the report shows the group is having a more difficult time recruiting fighters to make up for its battlefield losses at the hands of U.S. coalition forces in both countries. U.S. military officials have previously estimated that about 20,000 ISIS fighters have died in coalition airstrikes which kicked off in August, 2014.

Afghanistan

The intra-Taliban feud over Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s ascension to the insurgent group’s top slot appears to be settling down as opposition to Mansoor’s leadership wanes, the AP reports. Abdul Rauf, a senior Taliban commander friendly with one of Mansoor’s chief detractors, Mullah Mohammad Rasool, told the wire service that opposition to Mansoor is softening among Taliban dissidents, citing a number of other commanders who have reconciled to the his reign.

Bye, Robot

The company that made many of the robots that U.S. troops have used in Iraq and Afghanistan to help find and defuse roadside bombs is getting out of the defense business. iRobot announced Thursday it’s selling the arm of its business that makes the PackBot and the 5-lb. throwable First Look ‘bots to Arlington Capital Partners for up to $45 million. Colin Angle, iRobot chairman and CEO said that the move to dump the warbot segment will allow the company to “to focus on our much larger Home segment,” which includes the Roomba robot vacuum. The Roomba isn’t without its military uses, however. A few years back when touring one of the U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships, your correspondent spotted one zipping around the carpeted floor of the bridge. The ship’s captain said that with his small crew, none of his sailors had time to clean the floor, so the Roomba became a valued shipmate.

Europe

Russia practiced carrying out a nuclear strike on Sweden as part of a March 2013 military exercise, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s annual report. As part of the drills, Russia sent two Tupolev Tu-22M3 across the Gulf of Finland and close to the Swedish border to practice dropping nuclear weapons on Sweden.

Somalia

An explosion aboard a Somali plane shortly after takeoff was likely a bomb, according to a diplomat familiar with the investigation NBC News reports. The head of Daallo Airlines, the airline which owns the affected plane, said investigators found an explosive residue on the aircraft, strongly pointing towards a bombing as the cause of the explosion. One man, Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh, was killed in the incident after being sucked out of the hole caused by the blast.

China

China is beefing up its logistics capability with a new aircraft and ship that will help China’s People’s Liberation Army carry out operations farther abroad, PopSci reports. For airborne cargo, China’s Y-20 is about to enter service. The 200-ton behemoth, roughly analogous to the U.S. C-17 Globemaster, can carry up to 66 tons of cargo and will soon have a WS-20 engine to allow it to take off from shorter runways. China will also soon commission the Type 901 ship with a cargo hauling capacity in the tens of thousands of tons. Despite its large size, the Type 901’s gas turbine engines will help it move relatively quickly through the seas.

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

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