The Cable

Situation Report: Gitmo plan details; Syrian cease-fire endorses more bombing; Obama gets an F on drone program; Pentagon expands investigation into Afghan child abuse; new drone base in Italy, aimed at Libya; Chinese building continues; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Another round of Gitmo. It’s here. The day the White House will finally release its long-expected plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. FP’s Molly O’Toole says we shouldn’t expect a lot of new information in the release, as many of its most controversial provisions — ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Another round of Gitmo. It’s here. The day the White House will finally release its long-expected plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. FP’s Molly O’Toole says we shouldn’t expect a lot of new information in the release, as many of its most controversial provisions — releasing dozens of detainees to other countries while housing the 91 prisoners considered ineligible for release in prisons in the United States — have been known for months. The document won’t name any potential sites for housing those prisoners, despite a Pentagon team having toured military and federal prisons in Colorado, Kansas, and South Carolina last year. The plan will call for as much as $475 million in construction costs, but could save as much as $180 million per year in operating costs.

With Republican members of Congress already lining up to oppose the move, “the plan and its timing promises to shakeup the 2016 election, as it drops just days before the Democratic primary in South Carolina” O’Toole writes. “Republicans have already begun this cycle to use Guantanamo to hit Democrats. And even key Democrats such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have actively avoided the question of bringing detainees to U.S. soil.”

Hold your fire. Except when you don’t. There are a few things we know for certain about the Syrian cease-fire plan hammered out by Washington and Moscow due to take effect later this week. The agreement doesn’t cover the Islamic State, the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front, or any other individuals considered terrorists by the U.N. Security Council. “Those groups will continue to be fair game for Russian air raids — a fact that could render the cease-fire useless depending on how Moscow interprets the “cessation of hostilities” agreement,” FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson point out.

With Russia being given leeway to define who is a terrorist, the Russian-backed Syrian offensive will likely continue to take a grim toll on its usual targets: hospitals, bakeries, and schools. The strikes have deepened the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and altered the course of the war, according to a new report issued by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which just released a 31-page report detailing atrocities from July 2015 to January 2016.

Drone days. Remember when President Barack Obama called for more transparency in Washington’s overseas drone program? Some in this town sure do, and a new review by the Stimson Center — released Tuesday — gives the Obama administration an “F” for failing to provide a clear legal justification for its use of drones to kill extremists in countries where the United States is not at war. FP’s Dan De Luce takes a look at the document, and points out that the grades come two years after “Obama had promised more openness and scrutiny for U.S. drone strikes” in a May 2013 speech, which White House officials at the time “portrayed as a major shift away from a state of perpetual secret war against terrorists.”

Eyes on. Under pressure from Capitol Hill and an aggressive government watchdog group, the Pentagon has vastly expanded the scope of an inquiry into what U.S. commanders have known, and what they told their troops, about how to handle cases of alleged sexual abuse of young boys by Afghan security forces. FP’s Paul McLeary says that lawmakers were unhappy with the scope of the Pentagon’s original plan, and called in the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, to launch its own probe. A Hill aide tells FP that the issue demands an outside look, which SIGAR can provide, even if Pentagon investigators have upped their game in exploring the issue.

Morning, all. Thanks for clicking on through to kick off the last full week of February. 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.

Who’s where when

9:30 a.m. The Senate Armed Services Committee hosts U.S. Pacific Command’s Adm. Harry B. Harris, and Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, head of the United Nations Command / Combined Forces Command / U.S. Forces Korea to talk about security challenges and budgets. Watch here. We expect it to be sporting.

Libya

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Italian government will allow the U.S. to use Naval Air Station Sigonella as a base for armed drone strikes against the Islamic State in Libya. Sort of. Armed drones can now use the base, but only on the condition that they be used to protect U.S. special operations forces in Libya and not actively target senior members of the Islamic State for assassination. The restriction is a reflection of Italy’s political anxiety about the potential domestic opposition should Sigonella become the base for a controversial drone strike campaign — anxiety likely not helped by reports that a manned U.S. fighter jet may have accidentally killed two Serbian diplomats in a strike in Libya last week.

Iraq

The Islamic State is tweaking the currency exchange rates to wring as many bucks out of the residents of Mosul as possible. Currency traders tell Reuters that the jihadist group has set the exchange rate between dollars and Iraqi dinars such that dollars are more expensive in dinars than the rate set by the Iraqi government. The news comes as the U.S. has stepped up a campaign against the group’s finances, bombing its oil infrastructure and concentrated cash holdings. Other austerity moves by the caliphate have included pay cuts for the Islamic State’s employees and foreign fighters.

Afghanistan

The Afghan army’s 215th Corps is withdrawing from three bases in the increasingly contested province of Helmand, effectively abandoning the districts of Musa Qala and Now Zad to the Taliban. Afghan army officials say the withdrawal of 400-some troops will allow them to redistribute those forces and buttress the troop presence in the rest of the province. Helmand has been home to fierce fighting in recent months, leading the U.S. to send more troops to the province to assist the beleaguered 215th.

Less time manning checkpoints, more time shooting Taliban. That’s the advice NATO is giving to Afghan troops, according to a report from Reuters, as fighting is expected to intensify with the warmer weather on the way. NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner explained the shift as a reflection of the fact that Afghan forces are spread too thin. Abandoning checkpoints and going on the offensive may be difficult for Afghan troops as checkpoints are politically popular with local leaders and the Afghan military lacks the logistics and support capabilities necessary to sustain offensive operations.

Add Afghanistan to the list of issues where Russia is now looking to spite the U.S. as part of the downturn in relations between the two countries. The New York Times reports that Russia is cutting back on its cooperation with the U.S. on Afghan security issues, despite its own interest in ensuring that the violence and chaos there don’t spill over into its backyard. Russian envoy for Afghanistan Zamir N. Kabulov recently sighed that Russia is “already tired of joining anything Washington starts,” and Russia has signaled it will sit out talks with the Afghan government’s talks Taliban which countries like Pakistan and China have supported.

South China Sea

China is deploying advanced radar systems to its man-made island in Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago, the Washington Post reports. Scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative spotted the radar in satellite imagery of the island. The Cuarteron Reef sits on the southern edge of the Spratlys, and the system’s deployment suggests that China may intend for it to act as a kind of early warning radar for ships and aircraft heading through the Strait of Malacca. China has already added surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracel chain.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin is nudging his Australian counterparts to carry out their own freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to challenge China’s controversial assertions of maritime sovereignty around its man-made islands. The U.S. has already carried out two freedom of navigation operations, sending a U.S. Navy ship within the 12 nautical mile limit of islands claimed by China. Australian officials have reportedly been considering similar operations for months.

Think tanked

The age of the aircraft carrier may be coming to a close, according to a new report from the Center for a New American Security. The study warns that growing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities by countries like China and Russia have put carriers at risk like never before, leaving the U.S. to consider extending the range of carriers. CNAS argues that the U.S. could focus on extending the operating range of carrier aircraft or investing in undersea assets which are more capable of mitigating (A2/AD) threats.

Culture

How is the U.S. Army like global mega-retailer Amazon? U.S. Army Col. Michael Jason says both are obviously big organizations with complex leadership and accountability structures, and in an interesting new piece in The Strategy Bridge, he pulls the thread to explore how the two attract talent, evaluate their staffs, hold people accountable, and generate leaders — and how the process can go off the rails.

And finally…

Beware Japanese mobile shrubbery bearing troops.

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

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