Situation Report: Obama Slows Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Clinton email probe is finished; Trump's long affair with Saddam; Cage, Connery, and the Iraq War; and a bit more.
By David Francis and Adam Rawnsley
Pump the brakes: President Barack Obama has decided to slow U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite his desire to close the book on the 14-year-old U.S. war. FP’s Dan De Luce and Molly O’Toole report, “The president said 8,400 U.S. forces will remain on the ground by the time he leaves the White House next year. He had previously planned to reduce the U.S. military footprint to 5,500 troops from the current force of 9,800.”
Obama declared the United States is “no longer in a major ground war in Afghanistan.” But U.S. troops are still dying. De Luce and O’Toole report, “Over the past 18 months, 38 service members have been killed in Afghanistan. And since U.S. forces set foot in the country in 2001 to topple the Taliban and hunt down al Qaeda militants, more than 2,200 troops have lost their lives and more than 20,000 have been wounded.”
Case closed: Despite protests from the GOP, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of private email while secretary of State is over. The decision not to move forward comes a day after FBI Director Jim Comey delivered a sharp rebuke of Clinton’s email habits while saying no criminal charges are warranted. FP’s Elias Groll has more here.
Crazy in love: Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Tuesday night of Saddam Hussein, “You know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good.” These comments sparked an immediate backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike.
It turns out Trump has a long history of making similar comments in support of the former Iraqi dictator. FP’s Molly O’Toole assembles a sampling of his comments here.
Hollywood swinging: Remember The Rock, the 1996 movie directed by Michael Bay featuring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery teaming up to stage an assault on Alcatraz, the famed prison island in the San Francisco bay? Well, apparently it served as false evidence for Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War and a further embarrassment to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. As FP’s Elias Groll reports, in the film, a chemical agent was stored in “linked hollow glass spheres.” A British source reported that chemical weapons in Iraq were stored in the same way. “The source, MI6 concluded, ‘was a fabricator who had lied from the outset’ — and in so doing helped embroil the U.K. in war.”
A first against North Korea: The United States has slapped economic sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for what U.S. officials called “notorious abuses of human rights.” This is the first time Kim has been held accountable for the way he treats his people. As FP’s John Hudson reports, “The move follows a lengthy investigation by the State Department and Treasury and the passage earlier this year of a law that requires the executive branch to assess Kim’s culpability for human rights abuses in the country.”
Welcome to Thursday’s Situation Report. Your regular presenter, Paul McLeary, is off on a well-deserved holiday. So I remain at the helm, with a healthy assist from Adam Rawnsley, for the rest of this week. You can reach me at email@example.com or either me or Adam on Twitter @davidcfrancis and @arawnsley.
South China Sea
The U.S. Navy has sent three destroyers to quietly sail around China’s man-made islands around Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands, two anonymous defense officials tell Navy Times. China has claimed the two territories — claims its neighbors strongly dispute — and an international panel in the Hague is set to rule on a case brought by the Philippines over control of the Spratlys. The three U.S. destroyers are pointedly steering clear of a 12-mile nautical buffer around the territories so as not to require approval from senior U.S. officials.
China is warning neighboring countries not to enter a maritime area the size of Maine while it carries out naval exercises there over the next week. Defense One reports that the nearly 40,000-square-mile zone off the coast of Hainan Island encompasses the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam also claims. The no-go zone borders a high traffic shipping route.
They’re not quite nuclear missile tests or ballistic missile launches but the wooden landmines showing up in North Korea are yet another sign of the growing strain in relations between the two Koreas. Yonhap News Agency reports that between 2010 and 2015 South Korea found 259 North Korean landmines washed up after heavy rains, part of a recent uptick in mine placement by Pyongyang. The mines are mostly made with wood to make them more difficult for mine detectors to pick up. The explosives injured two South Korean soldiers patrolling the demilitarized zone between the two countries in August 2015.
The U.K.’s military modernization programs just got more expensive, and it’s all thanks to Brexit. Ever since the U.K. referendum to leave the European Union, the pound sterling has taken a dive against the dollar, meaning the Brits will have to pay more to buy weapons systems from the United States. The U.K. generally spends about $10 billion per year on American defense imports. The British Ministry of Defense had been hoping to modernize its equipment with purchases of American Reaper drones, Apache attack helicopters, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft — purchases which might be in doubt now that the price of a dollar is more expensive.
The Assad regime has declared a unilateral three-day truce in recognition of the Islamic Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Despite the pronouncement, the Islamist rebel group Jaish al-Islam says regime forces are still fighting to capture territory near East Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus. Activists claim that fighting between pro-regime forces and rebels continues in Aleppo, and the U.S.-backed anti-Islamic State force, the New Syrian Army (NSA), says it has no plans to halt its operations.
A U.S. defense official tells the Washington Post that the U.S. pulled air support for the NSA at a critical moment during its first outing against the Islamic State. The paper reports that the Pentagon diverted coalition warplanes from the fight for the town of Bukamal and sent them to Fallujah at a critical moment in the force’s assault. The NSA lost at least two fighters in the conflict and was forced to retreat to its headquarters in Tanf.
Bots o’ war
BAE wants to brew military drones in labs for on-demand use, PopSci reports. The defense contractor is exploring ways that it can use a process called “chemputing” to fabricate unmanned aerial vehicles in a vat. Commanders in the field would be able to order up the drones from a menu of vehicles and have them shipped out in relatively short time frames.
A San Diego medical examiner has ruled the death of a U.S. sailor training to be a SEAL as a homicide. The sailor, James D. Lovelace, drowned in a pool after instructors held his head underwater. The ruling does not necessarily imply criminal charges such as murder or manslaughter are forthcoming, only that Lovelace’s death was directly attributable to another person’s actions. Navy officials have yet to say whether they will pursue criminal charges. Lovelace’s death follows a series of recent fatal incidents involving SEAL trainees, including the suicide of a sailor who failed to qualify as a SEAL and the drowning deaths of two other trainees.
The U.S. Air Force has apologized to retired Yankees infielder Derek Jeter after an unidentified airman posted a picture of a $280 ticket given to Jeter for boating in a restricted area. The image was posted with the message “On behalf of the Boston Red Sox, here is your ticket Derek Jeter.” Air Force officials say the offending poster will face discipline. The Yankees are currently in second to last place in the American League East behind the Red Sox.
David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis