The Cable

SitRep: Exclusive: Iran Arms Taliban, Chinese Drone on Disputed Island

U.S. commandos on the move in Syria; tracking al-Baghdadi; and lots more

WOODY ISLAND, SOUTH CHINA SEA - APRIL 26, 2016:  DigitalGlobe imagery from 26 April 2016 of Woody Island (Yongxing Island) in the South China Sea. The Island has been under the control of the People's Republic of China since 1956.  (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
WOODY ISLAND, SOUTH CHINA SEA - APRIL 26, 2016: DigitalGlobe imagery from 26 April 2016 of Woody Island (Yongxing Island) in the South China Sea. The Island has been under the control of the People's Republic of China since 1956. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

 

Friends and enemies. Iran has long history of working against the Taliban, who it views as a pretty significant security threat. Over the past year, however, there have been rumblings that the two rivals are working together to target the Islamic State. But FP’s Yochi Dreazen writes in an exclusive get that the coordination runs deeper than had been previously thought.

Western officials, speaking anonymously, told FP that Tehran is providing Taliban forces along its border with money and small amounts of relatively low-grade weaponry like machine guns, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades. “It’s not a game-changer, but it’s not insignificant,” one official said. This “buffer zone” along the border between the two countries stretches over a huge amount of territory, from Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan all the way to Kunduz province in the north, and it’s meant to keep ISIS out of Iran.

We see you. In a slow-motion escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria, the number of U.S. Special Operations forces on the ground there has increased from the 50 that President Barack Obama authorized late last year, to about 300. And while the Pentagon has insisted they’ll stay buttoned up well behind the front lines advising local Kurdish and Arab rebels, we’ve seen that the line between advising and fighting can be erased pretty quickly.

On Thursday, a photographer caught a team of American commandos a few dozen miles north of the Islamic State’s HQ of Raqqa, bristling with weapons and wearing Kurdish YPG patches while out and about with the Kurds. FP’s Paul McLeary rounds up the pics, noting that the patches would anger the Turkish government since the Kurds, known as the YPG, have long been accused by the Turkish government of being terrorists.  And in fact, on Friday Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the U.S. “two-faced” and said the practice of working with the Kurds was “unacceptable”

What’s the mission? Gen. Tony Thomas, who took over at the U.S. Special Operations Command in March, said earlier this week that the mission for the commandos he trains and equips has been complicated by the uncertain nature of the mission they’re undertaking in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’re officially acting in an advise and assist role, and can take part in combat only in self-defense.

Since October, however, a Navy Seal, a Delta Force soldier, and a Green Beret have been killed in firefights with ISIS, something the Pentagon and White House have tied themselves in knots trying not to call combat. When Delta’s Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was killed near Kirkuk in October in a firefight with ISIS, he was “riding the edge of advising and assisting,” Thomas said, since Wheeler’s job was to support Kurdish commandos, but he ended up joining the fight when the Kurds ran into trouble.

We know it when we see it. On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the U.S. troops in Syria “are not on the forward line,” acknowledging that there is actually no “specific measurement” or definition for what any forward line might be. Got it.

We see you, Pt. II.  Satellite imagery obtained by Fox News shows that China has deployed a drone to the disputed Woody Island in the South China Sea. The pictures show a stealthy Harbin BZK-005 surveillance drone, which can stay aloft for up to 40 hours. The deployment follows similar sightings of other military equipment on the island, claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Over the past few months, China’s military has sent air defense missiles and fighter jets to Woody, much to the annoyance of the U.S. and China’s neighbors. American defense officials have repeatedly urged China not to “militarize” the region. Beijing denies the charges and instead accuses the U.S. of pursuing a militarization of the South China Sea. In other words, “you started it.”

Thanks for clicking on through as we wrap up 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

China is apparently gearing up to send submarines armed with nuclear missiles out into the Pacific Ocean, the Guardian reports. Chinese military officials say the move was prompted by the U.S. decision to send missile defense systems to South Korea following a string of recent North Korean missile tests, and the Pentagon’s pursuit of hypersonic missile development. The moves have forced them to pursue this sea-based nuclear deterrent, they insist.

Iraq

Shadowy Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been moving around northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, U.S. and Iraqi officials tell The Guardian. The report also says that reports last year the Baghdadi was hurt in a U.S. airstrike are true, though he actually wasn’t targeted in the hit, and he has since mostly recovered.

Residents of Fallujah are starving as Iraqi security forces gear up to take the city back from the Islamic State. Reuters reports that refugees who recently fled from the city have told the Norwegian Refugee Council that residents of the city that they’ve had to subsist on the scant remaining scraps of food and river water in order to get by. Fifty thousand residents remain trapped in the city, which the Islamic State has held since the summer of 2014.

Air war

The top Air Force officer at U.S. Central Command leading the air war against the Islamic State says the U.S. is getting better at finding and striking the group’s most important assets. Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. tells the New York Times, “we’re hitting them where it hurts a lot more than we were in the past” thanks to better intel. That improved insight has allowed the coalition to start hitting targets like cash reserves and communications centers that aren’t on the front lines, but are important for hurting the Islamic State’s ability to wage war.

The Pentagon is running out of bombs as the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria inches toward its two-year mark. Defense One reports that the military is now scouring its arsenals around the world to find munitions after over 12,000 airstrikes carried out since August of 2014. Spending caps constrain the military’s ability to buy munitions and a 2008 policy to start restricting the stockpiling of cluster munitions are contributing to the shortage, defense officials say.

Afghanistan

A new amendment to the defense authorization bill would make more visas available for 4,000 Afghan interpreters who served alongside American troops. The Hill reports that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) offered the amendment to with the support of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI). Many vets have pushed for years to allow Afghan interpreters, many of whom are under threat at home, to be allowed into the country. A whopping 10,000 Afghans are currently waiting to receive visas.

Air Force

The Air Force’s departing chief of staff says that restarting production on the service’s advanced F-22 stealth fighter jet isn’t necessarily a “wild idea.” Well, ok. Defense News reports that Gen. Mark Welsh made the comments at an Air Force Association event, saying the plane has been a great success and that reopening the production line might be worth considering. The service is currently studying the issue but past studies have suggested it could be pretty expensive and would require buy-in from its producer, Lockheed Martin.

Navy

Two Navy F/A-18F crashed into the waters off North Carolina after what the Coast Guard is calling a “mid-air mishap,” according to the Virginian Pilot. The four aviators are injured but fortunately still alive after the Coast Guard and a privately-owned yacht made it to the scene of the crash and brought the crew to safety. The incident took place as Navy officials were testifying about maintenance and supply issues but there’s no word yet on the cause of the incident.

Friday linkup

South Korea says it will spend $3 billion to import weapons from overseas this year, focusing on upgrading the country’s Patriot missiles and new ground-to-air missiles to counter North Korea’s threats. (Yonhap)

Special Operations troops from more than a dozen countries fast-roped out of helicopters, parachuted from airplanes, rappelled from buildings, and stormed ashore from boats as they attempted to rescue the mayor of Tampa, Fla. earlier this week. It was all a demonstration, but it was pretty cool. (Washington Post)

After a series of spectacular attacks by al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in several African countries, the U.S. is increasing anti-terror exercises with African allies. (New York Times)

New figures released by the Pentagon show that the Obama administration has reduced the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons less than any other post-Cold War administration. (Federation of American Scientists)

The Special Operations Command says it’s getting ready to test a directed energy weapons on an Apache helicopter. (National Defense)

The House Select Committee on Benghazi interviewed two drone pilots who were flying the night of the 2012 terror attack in Libya, after members complained loudly that the Pentagon was stalling. (The Hill)
Just weeks after a messy spat in which Indonesia attempted to detain a Chinese fishing boat for fishing in its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Chinese military officials say they want to deepen military ties between the two countries. (Reuters)

Photo Credit: DigitalGlobe via 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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