SitRep: Americans Killed in Kunduz; Baghdadi Emerges, Urges More Attacks
Russian Official Threatens Finland With Nukes; al Qaeda Operative Down; And Lots More
Baghdadi emerges. For the first time in almost a year, we’ve heard from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He dropped a new 30-minute audio statement Wednesday, calling on his followers to launch a fresh wave of attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, while trying to boost the morale of this fighters who have been rapidly losing territory and taking heavy casualties for much of the past year across Iraq and Syria.
The terrorist leader also tried to rally the surrounded ISIS fighters in and around Mosul, telling the estimated 5,000 ISIS holdouts in the city that “holding your ground in honor is a thousand times better than retreating in disgrace.”
The message, titled “This Is What Allah and His Messenger Had Promised Us,” also directly threatened Turkey, with Baghdadi imploring his fighters to “unleash the fire of their anger’” on Turkish troops fighting them in northern Syria, and to take the fight into Turkey. “Turkey today entered your range of action and the aim of your jihad…invade it and turn its safety into fear,” he said.
Grinding on in the longest war. Two U.S. service members were killed and two others wounded in combat in Kunduz, Afghanistan on Thursday, the latest casualties in America’s longest war. The deaths come as American forces are increasingly engaged in ground combat in an effort to beat back a country-wide offensive by the Taliban, and as U.S. Special Operations Forces pressure Islamic State positions in the country’s east.
Overall, six Americans have died fighting the Taliban and the Islamic State this year. Multiple others have been wounded in firefights and IED attacks across the country.
In a brief statement, the U.S. military command in Kabul said that the troops “came under fire during a train, advise and assist mission with our Afghan partners to clear a Taliban position” in Kunduz. The Taliban took parts of the city last month, leading to the deployment of American commandos to shore up Afghan forces fighting for control of the key city. Taliban fighters also stormed the city in September 2015, and during that fight, an American AC-130 gunship mistakenly fired on a Doctors Without Borders charity hospital, killing 42 doctors, staffers, and patients.
The terms of war. The Pentagon has used the “train, advise and assist” explanation for all U.S. combat casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as to describe what American troops are doing on the ground when coming under fire in places like Somalia. While American Special Operations Forces are advising local forces, they’re also often involved in direct combat, something the clunky term doesn’t fully capture.
In two months, President Barack Obama will hand the war off to his successor, making either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump the third American president to wrestle with what to do in the increasingly violent conflict.
More airstrikes? Afghanistan-based Photojournalist Andrew Quilty, a frequent FP contributor and the first photographer to have shot pictures of the Doctors Without Borders hospital last year after the American attack, tweeted Thursday morning there were reports that twenty-one civilians, “incl. women & children killed in #Kunduz air strike this morning according to local reporter.”
The New York Times filed a similar report on Thursday, saying one of their reporters “counted 22 bodies brought into the city on the way to the Kunduz hospital, 14 of them children, four women, two older men and two men of fighting age. They were accompanied by a large group of protesters from the area that was hit, the village of Boze Qandahari.” U.S. aircraft had been active in the area.
The world turned upside down. Five more days to go, friends, and we’ll hopefully know who the next president of the United States is. But, as FP’s Molly O’Toole and Dan De Luce write in a smart new piece, “this year’s contest has upended the politics of U.S. foreign policy more dramatically than any in recent memory. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the nominee of the typically “diplomacy first, force as last resort” Democratic Party, sounds more hawkish than the usually “strong on defense” GOP. And businessman Donald Trump, the Republican Party standard-bearer, is the one questioning military interventions overseas and offering olive branches to adversaries.”
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A Russian MP is issuing nuclear threats against Norway over its plans to host a deployment of 150 U.S. Marines. Norway’s The Local reports that Frants Klintsevitsj, a deputy chairman of Russia’s defence and security committee, said the decision by Norway would compel Russia to add the NATO country to the “list of targets for our strategic weapons” and that “Norway’s population will suffer.” Russia has been ratcheting up its nuclear saber rattling since its invasion and annexation of Crimea, including carrying out a simulated nuclear strike of neighboring Sweden as part of a 2013 exercise.
Reuters has an important read about the use of Russian mercenaries in Syria, suggesting that the Russian footprint in the country is much larger than had been assumed, and the fighters-for-hire are taking casualties.
The Pentagon says a drone strike it carried out on October 17 killed “a long-serving and experienced facilitator and courier for al Qaeda in Syria.” The strike targeted Haydar Kirkan, whom the Defense Department says was tight with al-Qaeda’s leadership and in charge of planning terrorist attacks outside of Syria. Separately, the Pentagon also said it killed Abu Hadi al Bayhani, a senior member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in an airstrike in Yemen.
Russia’s defense ministry has given Syrian rebels an ultimatum to leave the city of Aleppo by Friday, Al Jazeera reports. It said fighters will be allowed to leave the city through two corridors, as long as they walk out unarmed. Rebel groups —currently trying to break a siege of eastern Aleppo laid by regime-allied troops — shrugged off the offer, claiming that the corridors don’t exist and that both civilians and fighters in rebel-held areas don’t trust Russia enough to use them in any case. The end of Russia’s ultimatum on Friday is expected the mark the beginning of an increased bombing campaign by Russian forces.
The fight against the Islamic State has led the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurds in northern Iraq to form an alliance that few could have anticipated just two years ago. But when fighting for survival, stage bedfellows sometimes emerge, the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov reports from Kurdistan. “The iceberg of mistrust between both sides has already melted down,” said Hemin Hawrami, the head of foreign relations at Mr. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. “The level of coordination is beyond the imagination of both sides, which is excellent.” That’s today. It remains to be seen what happens once the ISIS threat recedes.
The United States is shelling out $30 million to help Ukraine upgrade its navy, Reuters reports. The balance of forces between Russia and Ukraine’s navies became especially lopsided following Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Ukraine lost two thirds of its vessels once Russian forces seized Sevastopol where much of its fleet was docked and Russia has been steadily reinforcing its Black Sea Fleet ever since. Ukrainian Navy commander Vice Admiral Ihor Voronchenko says the aid money from Washington will be used to help refurbish the service’s flagship, the Hetman Sahaydachnyy.
A top Army general is sounding the alarm over Army ground combat vehicle development or the lack thereof. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, spoke at a conference put on by the Association of the United States Army and made the case for more investment in Army vehicles, if only obliquely. The Army published parts of McMaster’s speech in listicle format, breaking it down into a series of “myths.” McMaster argued that Army ground combat vehicles were more affordable, useful, and relevant than detractors argue and that U.S. technologies aren’t keeping pace with investments from allies or adversaries.
Business of defense
The F-35 has encountered yet another problem in the long-troubled F-35 program, and the Pentagon is now demanding over half a billion dollars extra for the already massively over budget and delayed fighter jet. Bloomberg got the scoop that F-35 program officials made the big request during a recent meeting of the Defense Acquisition Board. The money will go to pay for “unforeseen delays,” according to the Pentagon, as well as flight tests. Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord played down the $530 million price spike, saying it amounted to a drop in the bucket for the $379 billion F-35 program.
Photo Credit: BASHIR KHAN SAFI/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary