- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Frame up. U.S government agents staged an “ambush” of U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lin in the Honolulu airport last September, his civilian lawyer says, after an FBI informant lured the naval intel officer into passing on sensitive information.
On Thursday, a handful of Pentagon reporters listened to a recording of Lin’s 80-minute preliminary hearing in a Norfolk, Va. military courtroom that took place in April, providing a rare glimpse into the legal strategies of the prosecution and defense as the service weighs whether or not to court martial the officer. SitRep was there, and found that the recording raised lots of questions about what, exactly, is going on. FP’s run-down of the new recording is here.
The bad old days. Fifteen years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to wipe out al Qaeda’s stronghold and punish the Taliban for playing host to Osama bin Laden’s fighters, the two groups are rebuilding old ties, a U.S. military spokesman says.
Ever since al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced his support for the new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor last fall, “we have seen more interaction” between the two groups, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday via video link from Kabul. Pressed by SitRep over what kind of threat this growing relationship poses, Cleveland said, “they can present a bit of an accelerant for the Taliban. They can provide capabilities and skills and those types of things.” He estimated there are between 100 to 300 members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, about 1,000 to 3,000 Islamic State fighters, and roughly 30,000 members of the Taliban, a number that has changed little over the years.
And this…Just last month, Afghanistan’s acting Defense Minister Masoom Stanikzai said al Qaeda “are really very active,” and is working with other terrorist groups. “It is a big threat.” Last October, U.S. aircraft along with a ground force of several hundred U.S. and Afghan troops hit two al Qaeda training camps in Kandahar, one of which was a massive, 30 square mile base that had been active for over a year without anyone noticing.
Man down. Has Washington lost some leverage in Ankara? Thursday’s announcement that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — who acted as the Obama administration’s behind-the-scenes ally in Turkey’s fight against the Islamic State — was stepping down, raises real questions over the relationship between the two countries. FP’s John Hudson writes that Davutoglu was seen as a reliable U.S. ally and “voice of sobriety inside a government turning increasingly authoritarian under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was widely considered a deft diplomat who was far more tolerant of the Kurds — America’s proxy ground force against the Islamic State — than his president.”
Hollow threats. Is Tehran going to close down the Strait of Hormuz? Not likely, writes FP’s Keith Johnson. Earlier this week, deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vowed to close the Strait to any “threatening” ships, signaling in particular U.S. Navy vessels that have long operated in the area and have just concluded a mine-clearing exercise there. But like previous Iranian threats, this one is likely all bluster, as the critical waterway acts as a chokepoint for the world’s oil supply, and no one wins if that is shut down.
Good and bad. The good news is that the number of people who died in combat decreased last year, part of a trend that has been active since 2008. The bad news comes if you live in Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa, says Dr. Anastasia Voronkova, editor of the Armed Conflict Survey. “Globally, conflict fatalities amounted to 167,000 [last year], which is less than the 180,000 documented in last year’s edition,” she said recently. “But, it’s important to know that half of these deaths occurred in conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. In Syria conflict fatalities accounted for one-third of conflict fatalities globally.” (Emphasis ours.)
Thanks for clicking on through as we wrap up an action-packed 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: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
South China Sea
China’s North Sea Fleet is carrying out a new series of drills in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, the South China Morning Post reports. The drills will bring in three destroyers, frigates and helicopters as well as troops from the Paracel and Spratly islands
Singapore and Australia are the latest of China’s neighbors to link up on defense issues. The Wall Street Journal reports that Singapore is expanding two military bases in Australia in preparation for annual rotations that will send 14,000 troops down under. The move comes on the heels of the U.S. expansion of Marine deployments to Darwin, Australia as part of the Obama administration’s rebalancing towards Asia. Singapore has grown anxious over the past few years as China’s territorial claims in the region have expanded and has increased its defense spending by over $2 billion since 2011.
Who’s where when
A huge, day-long event sponsored by Sasakawa USA is bringing together security experts to hash out the latest in U.S.-Japan relations and the implications for the wider Asia-Pacific region. Luminaries include Richard Armitage, Dennis Blair, William Cohen, Michèle Flournoy, Chuck Hagel, and John Hamre. Livestream here.
Messaging, White House style
Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication has a few things to say. A new profile of Rhodes in the New York Times points out his contempt for Washington’s foreign policy establishment. And then there’s this, which is already making waves: “The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal.” Shocker that a political operative would try and mold the narrative, no?
Sweden is pushing back against Russian military threats as it mulls a closer relationship with NATO. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov recently threatened Sweden with “necessary military-technical action” if the country joins NATO as it is once again considering. Deputy chairman of the Committee on Defense and Security at Russia’s Federation Council, Evgeny Serebrennikov, also threatened that his country would increase the size of its Northern Fleet should Sweden join NATO. Swedish and Finnish officials are having none of it, though, with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven labeling the comments “unnecessary and uncalled for.”
Moderate rebels in Syria are facing an agonizing choice: make peace with the Assad regime, or join forces with al Qaeda’s Nusra Front or other islamist factions, neither of which is appealing to the relatively secular fighters who have seen their families and friends slaughtered by Damascus. The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher and Erin Trieb recently spent some time with a group of young rebels moving back and forth between northern Syria and Turkey, who admit that “they are weakened and cornered after enduring months of bombardment from Russian forces.”
A Syrian refugee camp near the Turkish border has been bombed, killing 28 people and wounding as many as 50. The BBC reports that locals point to either Syrian or Russian planes as responsible for the attack on the Kamouna camp but thus far reporters are still waiting on confirmation. The British government appeared to lay responsibility for the attack at the feet of the Assad regime, with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond saying its “contempt for efforts to restore the cessation of hostilities in Syria is clear for all to see.” The attacks come as the fragile cessation of hostilities between Russia, the Assad regime, and rebels shows increasing signs of falling apart as fighting around the city of Aleppo has moved closer to its pre-ceasefire levels.
Libya’s Islamic State franchise carried out attacks near Sirte and Misrata that killed five people, Reuters reports. Locals tell the wire service that fighting took place in nearby towns and villages such as Abu Grain as well as Baghla, south of the city. The Islamic State claimed to have taken both areas, in addition to the villages of Zamzam and Abu Najaym.
The Washington Post tells a strange tale of the suspected poisoning of the CIA’s station chief in Pakistan shortly after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Mark Kelton came to believe that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency poisoned him after he experienced a mysterious bout of crippling stomach ailments after the bin Laden operation, eventually requiring surgery. The CIA’s spokesman Dean Boyd, however, said that the Agency could find “no evidence that Pakistani authorities poisoned a U.S. official serving in Pakistan.” Nonetheless, suspicions among some in the CIA about the incident still linger.
Reuters gets the scoop that U.S. wants to sell a dozen A-29 Super Tucano planes to Nigeria in order to help the West African country deal with the threat of the Islamic State-aligned Boko Haram terrorist group. The U.S. also bought Super Tucanos for Afghanistan’s air force, training pilots to use them in counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban. Anonymous officials also tell the wire service that U.S. plans to increase the number of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets in Nigeria keeping an eye on Islamist militants.
Photo Credit: Farida Amini/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images