The Cable

Situation Report: China’s big case; Gitmo plan due next week; did U.S. kill its target; Turks bomb Kurds in Iraq; crypto wars; Taliban and the drug trade; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Crunch time. China’s claims to a string of islands and rock formations in the South China Sea will be tested by an international tribunal in The Hague this spring, which will rule for the first time on their validity. Underscoring the importance of the pending court decision, of course, ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Crunch time. China’s claims to a string of islands and rock formations in the South China Sea will be tested by an international tribunal in The Hague this spring, which will rule for the first time on their validity. Underscoring the importance of the pending court decision, of course, is China’s deployment of the long-range, surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in the Paracel island chain.

FP’s Dan De Luce writes that “China’s tough tactics are forcing the United States to decide whether to push back aggressively — even if it risks a military confrontation — or sit back and let Beijing continue to slowly but surely dismantle an international order that cemented 70 years of peace and prosperity in Asia.”

The big decision, and it’s political fallout. The White House is facing a congressionally-mandated Feb. 23 deadline for releasing its long-awaited plan for shuttering the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. FP’s Molly O’Toole has been following the ebb and flow of the debate closely, and points out that “if the administration complies, the plan — expected to propose alternative options in three states, including South Carolina  — will come out just three days after the Republican primary there and less than a week before the Democratic one.” Republicans see opposition to the administration’s willingness to bring detainees to American soil as a winning issue, while for Democrats it could be a political grenade, dropped right before the pivotal Super Tuesday primaries.

Bombing leads to bombing. Turkish fighter planes pounded Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq on Thursday, answering an attack in Ankara on Wednesday that killed at least 28 people. Turkish authorities have blamed Kurdish rebels for the attack, but the Kurds have denied any involvement. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is blaming a member of the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish YPG militant group for the bombing, Today’s Zaman reports. The YPG denies any link to the bombing and says the accusations are cover to allow Turkey to justify its recent military campaign against YPG after the group has taken advantage of Russian airstrikes to seize territory held by Arab anti-Assad rebel groups.

Fate of terrorist unknown. Did two American F-15s kill legendary Algerian militant, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, when they bombed a house in eastern Libya where U.S. officials thought he was holding a meeting? Washington Post’s Missy Ryan says that the June 2015 strike at first appeared successful, but some U.S. officials now aren’t so sure, since they were never able to prove conclusively that they got him. The uncertainty points to larger problems in Washington’s ability to know exactly who it is killing in bombing strikes in countries where it has little to no intelligence assets on the ground.

Filling chairs. John Kerry has finally managed to fill several top leadership positions at the State Department after a deal with Senate Republicans cleared a slew of diplomatic nominees that had been blocked for up to a year — and that many feared would never make it through at all. FP’s John Hudson runs down the list of top offices at the State Department that are now being filled, with just a year left in the Obama administration.

Morning, all. Thanks for clicking on through this morning. 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.

Crypto wars

NSA boss Admiral Michael Rogers has waded further into the heated debate about encryption and terrorism, telling Yahoo News that encryption is to blame for the Islamic State’s November terrorist attack in Paris. Rogers confirmed that some of the Paris attackers used encrypted messaging apps, blinding the agency. “Clearly, had we known, Paris would not have happened,” Rogers said. The U.S. is currently embroiled in a debate over whether the government should have the authority to order technology firms to undermine their products’ security in order to make it easier for authorities to access encrypted data.

Iraq

The U.S. is setting up a Nineveh Operations Center in Makhmour not far from where the Islamic State has used chemical weapons, Military Times reports. The Islamic State fired artillery shells against Iraqi Kurdish troops in the area in August 2015 and as recently as Wednesday. In November, the jihadist group also used chlorine gas shells near Makhmour. The U.S. is using its facility there as a base to help with training, advising, and assisting Iraqi forces.

The Islamic State

The U.S. has bombed the Islamic State’s cash holdings to the tune of a few hundred million dollars, U.S. coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren said on Wednesday. The U.S. started targeting the group’s oil infrastructure last year in order to cut off one of its most important revenue sources. But U.S. warplanes have also started targeting cash storage facilities used by the Islamic State as the jihadist group lacks access to formal banking system and remains dependent on vulnerable cash collection and distribution points.

Afghanistan

The Taliban is now a full blown drug cartel, according to the New York Times. The paper writes that many senior Taliban figures are now so deep into the drug trade that they’re blurring the line between the Taliban’s role as an insurgent group and a drug trafficking organization. Even the group’s leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, is getting personally rich off the group’s drug trade. The insurgent group’s deepening involvement in drug trafficking bodes ill for peace initiatives from the Afghan government as it gives many senior Taliban officials a financial disincentive, in addition to their ideological opposition, to lay down their arms.

Tajikistan

The Obama administration wants to spend $50 million in extra military aid to Central Asia as part of an increase in its Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, LobeLog reports. The spending would be spread out over the next two years — $20 million this year and $30 million the next — and focus mostly on Tajikistan. Budget documents outlining the proposal are short on details about how the money would be spent, outlining only the vague ends of countering human and drug trafficking, border security and infiltration by violent extremist organizations.

Somalia

A Kenyan airstrike earlier this month killed the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terrorist group’s intelligence chief, the BBC reports. According to Kenyan officials, the strike killed Mohammed Karatey during a graduation ceremony for recruits at a training camp operated by the group. Forty other Shabab members, including 10 senior commanders, were reportedly killed in the strike. The U.S. State Department formally designated Karatey as a terrorist shortly before the strike, citing his role in an attack on Garissa University College in Kenya, which killed almost 150 people.

Tech

Darpa, the Pentagon’s sci-fi weapons technology research arm, is working with Honeywell to create a virtual reality car windshield that can display enhanced imagery to drivers. The windshield, part of Darpa’s Ground X-Vehicle Technologies program, would offer drivers a range of different augmented viewing options, including infrared, binocular, and terrain views of the area around a vehicle.

Robotic exoskeletons have been the hot new battlefield technology for a long time, with Iron Man suits in development for special operations commandos along with research into suits to help soldiers carry heavier loads. But now the Department of Veterans Affairs is putting that same exoskeleton technology to work to help wounded warriors walk again, Military Times reports. Troops with severe spinal cord injuries are benefiting from ReWalk, an exoskeleton technology funded by the Veterans Health Administration, to walk and climb stairs.

 

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

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