SitRep: SecDef Mattis Heads to Asia; Republican Defense Budget Fight Looms; Iraq Takes Eastern Mosul
NATO Moves East; Syria deal (Kind of); And Lots More
Mattis on the road. Defense Secretary James Mattis will head to Asia for his first foreign trip, making the long flight to Japan and South Korea sometime in early February. Both countries have been anxious about the future of U.S. security guarantees after President Trump repeatedly suggested throughout the 2016 campaign that he was more than a little skeptical about the value of American alliances around the world. And both have similarly sought and received early meetings with Trump. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew to the U.S. to be Trump’s first meeting with a foreign leader as president-elect followed quickly by a phone call from South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The trip also comes amid some tough rhetoric from the White House over China’s trade policies and Beijing’s posture in the international waters of the South China Sea. On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters that Washington is prepared to take action to prevent China from building more islands in the South China Sea and claiming the territory as its own. “We’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he said, echoing similar tough talk from Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson. The comments drew a swift rebuke from Beijing.
Space race. On Tuesday, Tokyo launched its first military communications satellite, which will be the first of three to eventually allow for high-speed, high-capacity communication. “While U.S. allies across Asia worry that the United States is pulling back on its commitments, Japanese policy makers are bracing for an increasingly aggressive China in the South China Sea and East China Sea,” FP’s Emily Tamkin writes, noting that the sats will help keep an eye on a North Korea that some believe has enough plutonium for 10 nuclear bombs.
Budget troubles ahead? On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) blasted Rep. Mick Mulvaney, (R-S.C.) Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, for repeatedly voting against new defense spending measures and his support for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Europe.
“Maybe you don’t take it with the seriousness that it deserves,” McCain said when Mulvaney — a Tea Party leader and dedicated fiscal hawk — said he didn’t remember many of the votes. “It’s nice to hear you think it’s important because you’ve spent your entire congressional career pitting the debt against the military,” McCain said.
Mulvaney said, however, that he is “absolutely in lockstep” with President Trump’s plans to massively expand the military by tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops. But there’s a catch: Mulvaney said any Pentagon spending increases would have to be offset by cuts to non-military spending. That’s a non-starter for Democrats, who, like Mulvaney and his fellow Freedom Caucus Republicans on the Hill, also have no desire to get rid of budget caps that have been placed on the federal budget, including the Pentagon. Game on.
The longer longest war? In December 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that he would be open to sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help train more Afghan commandos and fight a resurgent Taliban, according to the Wall Street Journal. “President-elect Donald J. Trump said he would certainly continue to support Afghanistan security forces and will consider a proposal for more troops after an assessment,” said one Afghan official briefed on the call.
There are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops on the ground in the country, along with 6,400 NATO troops training and advising Afghan forces. The 15-year war in Afghanistan was almost a complete non-issue during the election, and President Trump has made no indication that he has a plan for ending, or expanding, the war effort there.
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Iraqi forces have made progress in their bid to clear Mosul of the Islamic State, taking the Eastern half of the city, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and commander of the U.S.-led coalition. The fight to take back the terrorist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq has been a long and increasingly costly one in Iraq lives, leading to frustration as the pace of the liberation. But Iraqi forces managed to secure the East flank of the city, taking back a former headquarters used by fighters from the group and finding facilities for making explosives as well as an unknown chemical substance.
Though Iraqi military leaders say its security forces have already killed most Islamic State commanders in Mosul, its security forces may face an even fiercer battle when it pushes West, writes FP’s Robbie Gramer. An estimated 750,000 people still reside in Western Mosul under Islamic State rule, which could further complicate the fight. Rights groups have already raised the alarm on the number of civilians at risk.
President Trump’s hiring freeze is plenty vague and full of loopholes, according to the Washington Post. The Defense Department has yet to figure out who the freeze — which exempts uniformed service personnel and those “necessary to meet national security or public safety” — applies to, and Defense Department lawyers are working the issue feverishly. Experts tell the Post, however, that the policy likely isn’t so much a freeze as strategic messaging from the White House to executive branch agencies.
The Astana talks are over and they haven’t produced much of anything by way of agreement between the Assad regime and the rebels fighting it. But the talks have forged an alliance of sorts between Turkey, Iran, and Russia. According to the Washington Post, the talks — the product of an agreement between Turkey and Russia — produced an agreement between the three countries to fight the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and resolve differences over a shaky ceasefire between rebels and regime-allied fighters announced in December of 2016.
The first batch of NATO troops have arrived in Lithuania as part of an alliance-wide effort to provide reassurance to members neighboring Russia, Agence France Presse reports. German and Belgian military personnel arrived as part of what will become a 1,200 troop rotation to the Baltic country. The troops follow on the heels of a separate U.S. deployment of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division to Poland in early January as part of a similar reassurance effort.
President Donald Trump’s speech about his personal popularity and the size of his inaugural crowd in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall isn’t sitting well with some intelligence veterans. Former CIA Director John Brennan has already weighed in, calling the speech a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement.” But more agency veterans have raised objections since then. In the New York Times op-ed page, former CIA analyst Yael Eisenstat penned a personal note about the incident, recalling her colleague Gregg Wenzel, killed in the line of duty in Ethiopia in 2003 “complete disregard” for those serving in the intelligence community.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary