The Cable

SitRep: Flynn’s Russia Bombshell; Trump Backtracks on China Talk; Pentagon Wants More Time, Troops, in Afghan “Stalemate”

Israel Coming to Town With a Plan; Trump’s Missile Gap; Allies Unsure About Sharing Intel with U.S.; Senate Wants Yemen Briefing

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured at right, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. On Saturday, President Trump is making several phone calls with world leaders from Japan, Germany, Russia, France and Australia. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured at right, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. On Saturday, President Trump is making several phone calls with world leaders from Japan, Germany, Russia, France and Australia. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

 

Thursday night massacre. In yet another potential headache for the perpetually troubled Trump administration, several U.S. officials are saying that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn spoke with the Russian Ambassador about U.S. sanctions on Moscow in the weeks before Trump took office. Flynn — and Vice President Mike Pence — had previously acknowledged the communications between the two men, but strenuously and repeatedly denied there was any talk of sanctions.

“Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election,” the Washington Post’s Greg Miller, Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima report in a major scoop.

Pence went on national television last month to back up Flynn and unequivocally shoot down the story, insisting, “I talked to Gen. Flynn yesterday, and the conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related to U.S. sanctions.”

When Flynn was asked directly if there was any sanctions talk by the Post on Wednesday, he answered “No.” But by Thursday, his spokesman backed away from the denial, telling the paper that Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

The New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo also spoke to anonymous officials who confirmed the story, writing, “throughout the discussions, the message Mr. Flynn conveyed to the ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak — that the Obama administration was Moscow’s adversary and that relations with Russia would change under Mr. Trump — was unambiguous and highly inappropriate, the officials said.” The Times story, which provided a bit more detail about the nature of the chats also drops a key detail: there are transcripts of the calls.

Backing down. President Trump backed down from pre-inauguration tough talk about renegotiating the decades-old U.S. “one China” policy, in which he said he’d use it as leverage in getting better trade deals out of Beijing.  “Everything is under negotiation including One China,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal when asked about the policy.

Things looked quite a bit different Thursday when the White House released a statement that Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by phone, and “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our One China policy.” A December call between Trump and the Taiwanese president upset decades of diplomacy and angered Beijing, which refused to have contact with the White House until Trump came around on “one China.” The New York Times reports that “Administration officials concluded that Mr. Xi would take a call only if Mr. Trump publicly committed to upholding the 44-year-old policy, under which the United States recognized a single Chinese government in Beijing and severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.”

Warheads. Reports emerged Thursday that during his recent phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump thundered that a key arms control deal between the two countries was unfair to the United States, but only after halting the call to ask his advisors what, exactly, the deal was. The New START treaty signed by Russia and the U.S. in 2010 limits nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads for each country. It’s slated to expire in 2021, but it could be extended. To be fair, during the campaign Trump criticized the agreement as biased against the United States, even though it gives Washington the ability to inspect the Russian nuclear facilities at least 18 times a year. The White House has denied that the president was unsure what New START is.

Longer, longest. Fifteen years into what is by far America’s longest and costliest war, and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Congress Thursday that he needs more troops and more time. The plea was hardly surprising, and Gen. John Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, was only the latest in a long line of U.S. generals to come to Capitol Hill to make the exact same pitch. And as in most cases over the past decade and a half — in which Washington has spent $117 billion on the war effort — the assembled senators merely shrugged their approval. Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he thinks the war against the Taliban has settled into a long “stalemate,” FP’s Paul McLeary reports, and the only way to break the impasse is for the U.S. and NATO to send more troops to train and advise local Afghan forces.

Hill takes hard line on Russia. There appears to be some rare bipartisan agreement in the Senate, but it’s mostly confined to the Foreign Relations Committee, and focused on Russia. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Thursday agreed that sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine need to stay in place, and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and several other senators voiced support for recently proposed bipartisan legislation that would take decisions about Russian sanctions out of the hands of the White House.

Senators want Yemen briefing. Following a recent raid on an al Qaeda camp in Yemen that left one Navy SEAL dead and several civilians — including children — dead, a bipartisan group of senators is demanding a briefing on U.S. policy in the country. “We write today with serious concerns about U.S. policy in Yemen and to urgently request a classified briefing regarding our actions and objectives there,” a  group of senators wrote to Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and acting Director of National Intelligence Michael Dempsey. The letter was signed by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Not so sure about this whole thing. In response to the very leaky early days of the Trump administration, several foreign governments are weighing how many joint intelligence operations they want to undertake with the United States. Voice of America reports that some foreign officials “admit that the ongoing lack of communication combined with what, at times, appears to be contradictory messages from the White House, key departments and even from President Trump himself, is starting to strain ongoing efforts.”

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

China

An American spy plane and a Chinese military aircraft have once again come into uncomfortably close proximity. Reuters reports that an unspecified Chinese military plane flew within 1,000 feet of a U.S. Navy P-3 maritime patrol plane in the South China Sea’s Scarborough Shoal, where the Philippines and China have competing territorial claims. Last year the Pentagon criticized China for carrying out what it called unsafe intercepts of an Air Force RC-135 and a Navy EP-3 but according to Reuters’s sources this week’s incident is different. Sources tell the wire service that the run-in appears to be accidental, rather than an act of airborne brinksmanship.

Meanwhile, Beijing looks to be beefing up its military presence in the South China Sea, adding helicopter landing pads, buildings, and new shipping facilities to the islands it has built in the critical, and highly contested, waterway.

Israel

The White House is looking into naming the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian Revolutionary Guards terrorist organizations, but when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to Washington next week, he has another goal in mind: enlisting Trump’s help in severing the ties between Iran and Hezbollah. “Netanyahu will urge the U.S. to drive a wedge between the Lebanese Shiite group and Iran,” Bloomberg reports, “through harsh sanctions that will make Tehran think twice about extending support, said Israel Katz, intelligence minister and a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.” Katz told the news service in an interview that “there need to be paralyzing sanctions on Hezbollah with a very credible threat of sanctions on Iran if it doesn’t stop” supplying the group with weapons and cash.

Syria

The U.S. military killed a veteran al-Qaeda member in a drone strike in Idlib, Syria on Saturday. CNN reports that Abu Hani al-Masri, whose ties to the organization stretched back to the 1990s, died in the strike. Al-Masri had links to former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden as well as current emir Ayaman al-Zawahiri. Al-Masri, initially a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, reportedly ran terrorist training camps for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Libya

Popular Mechanics takes an inside look at one of the last military operations of the Obama administration, the bombing of Islamic State camps in Libya by B-2 stealth bombers. Drawing on interviews with one of the pilots involved in the mission from takeoff in Missouri to Libya and back. The use of the B-2 for the mission struck many as an unusual, but Africa Command requested the long-range bomber for its ability to reach far, loiter for long periods, and deliver large payloads of munitions on target.

Yemen

The controversial special operations raid in Yemen which resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL remains shrouded in mystery and could stay that way for a long time. Buzzfeed reports that the Pentagon believes core elements of what took place on the raid that night are still difficult to determine, such as whether an 8- year old, the daughter of slain al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a stray American bullet. The girl’s grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, shared photos of her after the raid and wrote on Facebook that she had been killed. The Defense Department, while admitting that the raid killed civilians, has yet to conclude that the little girl was killed in the raid.

Navy

A new report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) commissioned by Congress argues for a 340-ship Navy composed of smaller vessels and focused on deterring near-peers like China. Breaking Defense reports that the report calls for increasing the number of unmanned surface vessels, frigates, an extra super carrier and 10 light carriers. CSBA, however, recommends cutting back the number of cruisers and destroyers. The tab for CSBA’s recommendations would come to around $23.2 billion a year over the next 30 years, or $3.5 billion per year more than the Obama administration’s shipbuilding plan.

 

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/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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