- 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.
Aleppo. The U.N. is giving up on plans to evacuate the sick and wounded from the rebel-controlled eastern half of Aleppo, after intense ground fighting and airstrikes again hit the shattered city following a three-day ceasefire that ended Saturday.
While activist groups on the ground say that airstrikes started pounding the city again over the weekend, Russian Defense ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov insisted Russian and Syrian planes had not even flown near the city since last Tuesday. “Flights over Aleppo by the Russian and Syrian air forces have been completely halted for the last seven days,” said Konashenkov in a statement. Syrian government troops kicked off a new offensive in the city on Monday, however, shelling rebel positions and taking a key hilltop in the southern reaches of town.
Mosul grinds on. In another city under siege – Mosul — the slow, bloody fight toward the city line continues for Iraqi and Kurdish forces and their American special operations advisors, supported by withering airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition.
The U.S. Central Command said coalition aircraft hit ISIS positions in the town of Rutbah near the Syrian and Jordanian borders on Monday in an attempt to push ISIS out. The group stormed the town over the weekend. Around Mosul, coalition jets destroyed 22 “fighting positions,” along with dozens of vehicles, tunnel entrances, mortar systems, communications towers and buildings. Reports are also beginning to surface that ISIS fighters within the city — estimated at about 5,000 — are calling for reinforcements from the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.
While you’re at it, watch this amazing video of a coalition aircraft taking out an ISIS suicide car bomber as it raced toward Peshmerga positions near Mosul.
Because we have to. And what does Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, think about Mosul? As with most other subjects he mentions, he called the ongoing, and largely successful, assault a “disaster,” as he Tweeted Sunday. Trump followed that up with his continuing befuddlement that Iraqi forces didn’t launch a “sneak attack” — with 30,000 troops across a mostly flat terrain from bases dozens, if not hundreds, of miles away — against the Islamic State held city. He also told Pat Robertson on The 700 Club, “you see what’s going on. You see how badly that fight is going.” At a rally in Florida, he also doubled down on his contention that the fight, which began last week, was launched to tilt the election in Hillary Clinton’s favor, FP’s Molly O’Toole writes.
Iran deal. What’s new? On Capitol Hill, the good news for Democrats is, not much. FP’s Dan De Luce and Molly O’Toole report that Democratic lawmakers in Congress don’t look to be paying much of a political price for supporting President Barack Obama’s deal with Iran last year, despite warnings that their support would be political suicide. Part of the reason? Donald Trump, who with his boorish behavior and outlandish and just plain false statements, has sucked almost all of the air out of the room this election season, leaving much less time or energy for policy debates.
Also, the duo write, “With Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton consistently ahead in national polls and widening her lead in key states, pro-Israel hawks are mostly resigned to a Clinton victory and see no reason to antagonize the next administration — as well as a possible Democratic majority in the Senate.”
New model army. A total of ten U.S. Army soldiers have formally asked to be recognized as their new, preferred gender, just weeks after the service allowed transgender troops to serve openly, the Associated Press reports. In a statement that would have been all but unthinkable a few short years ago, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the wire service, “it’s going to take a little bit of time, but there are some things I don’t think you need to necessarily be trained on. Rule One is treat your soldiers, your subordinates, your peers and your superiors as you want to be treated. Treat everybody with dignity and respect. Period. Flat out. Full stop.”
Where in the world is Qassem Soleimani? Kurdistan, it appears. The often fetishized commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force paid a visit to the family of Kurdish Peshmerga commander Hussein Mansour on Sunday, the Long War Journal points out. Mansour was killed last year in fighting with the Islamic State. The visit was the first time Soleimani has been spotted since the offensive to oust ISIS from Mosul kicked off last week, but we don’t know exactly where he met with Mansour’s family.
Good morning and 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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Wired magazine has a lengthy whodunnit piece walking through the investigation of the massive hack targeting the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The breach left attackers with personal data on over 80 million federal employees and others whose information had information held in its databases. The break-in apparently began when an OPM contractor was hacked, allowing the hackers to move through the Office’s systems in order to compromise the most sensitive parts of the network. Engineers believe the attack may have originated with the Chinese government, based on IP records, hacking tools, and the use of sites with Avengers names to exfiltrate data — a hallmark of a specific People’s Liberation Army hacking group.
The Putin Effect
For the first time since World War II, Norway is allowing foreign troops to be based on their soil, Reuters reports, and the troops in question just happen to be 330 U.S. Marines. Norway is NATO member but, like its non-member neighbors Sweden and Finland, the country has grown increasingly wary of Russian behavior since its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. The 330 Marines will be stationed at a military base in Vaernes, but left wing members of Norway’s parliament voiced opposition to the move, saying it was needlessly provocative.
The Czech interior minister announced that the Czech Republic will put together a rapid response team to counter what it says is a propaganda campaign being launched by Russia aimed at its citizens. The Guardian reports that the Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said the ministry is assembling a 20-strong team to monitor and respond to what it says is Russian propaganda. The move follows statements from Czech intelligence in September warning that Russia had begun launching an “information war” on the eastern European country.
Somali pirates released 26 captives grabbed off a fishing boat in 2012, and one of the negotiators involved in the release has said that the pirates dragged their feet on releasing the men because of a mistaken belief that the crew members they captured, poor fishermen from the Philippines, could fetch a hefty ransom. The men were only released after a long campaign involving the intervention of local clans, who helped talk the pirates down on their price.
As FP’s Dan De Luce wrote recently, the release of the captives marks a watershed moment in the world’s effort to crackdown on Somali piracy. Pirates in Somalia haven’t managed to capture a single crewmember since they took the men in 2012. But analysts aren’t even sure what worked so well in Somalia to begin with. As pirate hijackings surged in the late 2000s, the US created an international naval coalition to take on pirates at sea, tackled militant groups like Shabaab on land, and shipping companies armed their vessels with private security contractors — none of which seems likely to work where piracy is now on the rise in West Africa.
Business of defense
The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer is making the case that his job should continue exist, despite congressional doubts, Defense News reports. Frank Kendall, head of Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L) at the Defense Department released the Performance of the Defense Acquisition System annual report, which outlined decreasing delays and costs for purchasing major weapons systems. Kendall used the occasion and the data in the report to push back on a proposal, floated by the Senate Armed Services Committee, to split AT&L into two separate offices for management and research, claiming the improved cost and delay trajectories as vindication of AT&L’s current structure.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Andreas Mueller, chief of federal policy for the California Guard, warned California lawmakers two years ago that the Pentagon could try to force Guard troops to pay back re-enlistment bonuses paid out to them. Due to an accounting error, the Pentagon overpaid bonuses in some cases and has since begun demanding repayment from veterans, years after the initial payments. While the problem initially arose among California Guard members, Mueller says it could affect troops in every state. Lawmakers sent letters to Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking that he halt any attempts to collect the money from soldiers until Congress returns after the election to fix the issue.
Photo Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images