The Cable

SitRep: What Will Obama’s Drone Legacy Look Like?

More Republican holds on White House nominations; al Shabab still in the game; Afghan militias growing; and lots more

UNSPECIFIED, UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 07:  A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), carrying a Hellfire missile flies over an air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. The U.S. military and coalition forces use the base, located in an undisclosed location, to launch airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to distribute cargo and transport troops supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. The Predators at the base are operated and maintained by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, currently attached to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED, UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 07: A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), carrying a Hellfire missile flies over an air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. The U.S. military and coalition forces use the base, located in an undisclosed location, to launch airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to distribute cargo and transport troops supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. The Predators at the base are operated and maintained by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, currently attached to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Drone world. Back in May 2013, President Barack Obama delivered what was billed as a landmark speech announcing his administration was getting its secretive drone program under control. He promised to tighten up who the U.S. bombs, and how, by placing restrictions on how groups of militants were targeted. But three years later, the program — and the “signature strikes” on groups of unidentified military age men thought to be acting suspiciously — continue.

But we’ve learned a few things. In an important — but little noticed — speech delivered last week at a legal conference in Washington, FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary report, a State Department lawyer for the first time said openly that Pakistan is considered an “area of active hostilities,” along with Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But the bombings elsewhere continue unabated, as we’ve seen in recent strikes on al Qaeda and ISIS operatives in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, with little of the promised transparency.

No go. Another Republican senator has placed a hold on an Obama administration nominee. This time it’s Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier this week announcing she was blocking the nomination of the Pentagon’s top lawyer in the wake of the transfer of two prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Senegal.

The hold on Jennifer M. O’Connor to be DoD General Counsel will be lifted, Ayotte wrote, when Congress receives a report that is required under law that contains more information about the conditions under which the detainees will be held and monitored in Senegal. “If the administration refuses to provide the requested information in unclassified form,” the letter says, “and instead conceals this information from the American people by placing it unnecessarily in a classified annex that will not comply with the law’s intent and would be inconsistent with the President’s stated commitment to transparency.” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has already held up the nomination of Army Secretary Eric Fanning until the Obama administration promises not to house detainees from Gitmo in Kansas, should the facility in Cuba be closed.

Sinai moves. There are about 700 U.S. troops currently serving as observers in the northern part of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as part of a decades-old peace pact between Egypt and Israel. But they may soon pull out of that base and move to another outpost further south. The move would come as a result of growing American concerns over the dangers presented by the Islamic State on the peninsula, though U.S. officials stress no final decision has been made.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we work through another week of SitRep. 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.

China

A former top Chinese general has admitted to taking lots of bribes during his decade-long tenure which ended in 2012, in exchange for helping officers gain promotions or transfers. Guo Boxiong, 73, who served as China’s leading military official, has been stripped of his Communist Party membership and will likely head for trial. The general’s very public  prosecution highlights how far President Xi Jinping is willing to go to purge the old guard from People’s Liberation Army in the midst of his massive reforms to the calcified institution.

al Shabab

American warplanes and drones have hit al Qaeda’s franchise in eastern Africa three times over the past week, taking out a leading commander in the process. This comes on the heels of another strike last month that wiped out about 150 fighters in one stroke. But some analysts wonder how much the strikes will matter in the end, and look to the decade and a half of bombing runs on al Qaeda and Taliban leadership that have failed to destroy those groups. “What we’ve seen time and time again is that there’s a whole swath of middle-ranking commanders who are well trained, experienced and eager to step into the shoes of their departed colleagues,” Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, has said.

Japan

Japan has started moving military and surveillance assets closer to China, deploying coastal defense units to far-flung islands and setting up observation posts hundreds of miles away from the mainland. The moves come as Tokyo sets up the country’s first amphibious brigade that will give Japan the ability to quickly move troops from island to island in case of an emergency. (Read: China.) Japan is also in the midst of buying 17 MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys and 52 amphibious assault vehicles that can move troops from ship to shore by 2018.

But is Japan ready to go it alone? Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was asked Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal if Tokyo was ready to defend itself if U.S. troops were to pull out, a scenario recently raised by Donald Trump. Abe left little to the imagination. “I cannot conceive of any situation within the foreseeable future when the U.S. presence wouldn’t be necessary,” he said.

Afghanistan

The Afghan government is scrambling to train and equip villagers to provide their own security against the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan, according to a new report. The militia groups, known as the People’s Uprising Program, are made up of about one thousand men, “mostly village farmers who turned against the extremist group’s harsh rule in areas it seized in the past year, are on the payroll of the spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, which receives funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. So far, the militias in Kot, with the backing of the army and police, have repelled six Islamic State attacks,” the Wall Street Journal notes.

Droned

Was an Israeli “suicide drone” just used in the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict? Sure looks like it, according to the Washington Post and some sharp-eyed drone spotters. A new video has emerged showing what looks to be an Israeli Aerospace Industries Harop loitering munition engaged in the conflict, apparently targeting a vehicle of Armenians, killing seven. The drone can either be piloted remotely or find targets autonomously, and in the attack captured on video, Artsrun Hovhannisyan, a spokesman for Armenia’s Defense Ministry, said it was piloted by Azerbaijani forces. The two sides agreed on Tuesday to a cease-fire after four days of fighting along the border of a disputed region.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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

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