Situation Report: Iraqi Army mobilizes to take back Mosul; Germany to add more troops; Trump and Kelly on different deportation pages; and a bit more.
By FP Staff and Adam Rawnsley
Welcome to Reaperland. A long row of Reaper and Predator drones sit silently on the runway or tucked away in shelters, as U.S. F-15s and Belgian F-16s roar into the sky nearby, headed for Iraq and Syria. The base — which can only be identified as being located in “Southwest Asia” due to host nation sensitivities — is home to dozens of U.S. and coalition aircraft that operate 24 hours a day to track and hit ISIS positions. It’s also growing. Brand-new facilities are being built to accommodate the Americans and their allies as they settle in for what U.S. military officials say will be a long fight against the Islamic State.
The Americans call the shelters that house the drones “Reaperland,” and it sits near a U.S. Army HIMARs rocket artillery site that, along with other systems in Iraq and Turkey, have fired 1,400 rockets at ISIS targets over the past six months. Visiting the base this week, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel told troops stationed there that he’s visiting allies in the region to solidify the final recommendations he plans to submit to the White House about what changes can be made in the U.S. effort against ISIS. —Paul McLeary from Baghdad
Iraqi Army Ahead of Schedule in Mosul. While traveling with Votel in the Middle East this week, McLeary sat down with coalition and Iraqi officials in Baghdad, and reports that Iraqi forces are going all-in on retaking Mosul from the Islamic State. “All 14 battalions of Baghdad’s elite U.S.-trained counterterrorism service, the CTS, are pushing in from the west, close to the Iraqi army’s 9th Division which is moving with heavy armor. Further south, federal police battled their way to the airport, securing most of it by nightfall, while U.S. and French fighter jets and drones, and U.S. Apache helicopters pounded Islamic State targets from above, called in by American special operations forces working on the ground with Iraqi units,” McLeary writes.
Breaking overnight: From the Associated Press, “Iraqi forces pushed into the first neighborhood in western Mosul on Friday and took full control of the international airport on the city’s southwestern edge from the Islamic State group.”
More breaking news: Again, from the AP, ““Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu says the death toll from a car bomb near the town of al-Bab, just captured from Islamic State militants in northern Syria, has risen to 60. Most of the victims were civilians.”
More Boots. Germany’s planning to boost the size of its military to 200,000 by 2024. The new decision is splashy, but not substantive, as FP’s Robbie Gramer reports. The latest announcement adds only 5,000 troops to previously announced numbers over a longer timespan. Still, its another sign Germany is shedding its cultural reluctance to have a strong military. That’s good timing for Berlin, given Trump’s repeated calls for Europe to step up on defense or risk U.S. disengagement.
Well, which is it? On Thursday, President Donald Trump called efforts to deport “bad dudes” to Mexico a “military operation.” At a press conference in Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly disagreed with his boss. FP’s Emily Tamkin and Robbie Gramer write: “It is not, in fact, a military operation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and Border Patrol agents are civilian, not military, agents. Kelly himself said in Mexico there will be ‘no, repeat, no use of military force immigration operations. None.’”
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A Bad START. Trump called the New START nuclear nonproliferation deal with Russia “just another bad deal that the country made” in an exclusive interview with Reuters’s Steve Holland. “We’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power,” Trump said, adding as long as the world has nukes the United States will be at the “top of the pack.” The statements drew immediate rebuke from arms control organizations. “Once again, President Trump has called for a new nuclear arms race — signaling a dangerous turn for global security. This would be an alarming reversal of decades of nuclear weapons reductions that should scare everyone,” said Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero.
Nerve agent. Malaysian authorities have confirmed that the assassins who killed Kim Jong Nam, the brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, used VX nerve agent to carry out the attack. Channel News Asia reports that Malaysian Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar said swabs of Kim’s face and eyes tested positive for the chemical weapon, banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention to which North Korea is not a signatory. Two women accosted Kim Jong Nam in the Kuala Lumpur airport and rubbed his face with a substance before fleeing.
He said, feeb said. President Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus directly asked FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to tell the press that there was no truth to reports by CNN and the New York Times that President Trump’s associates had contact with Russians on the U.S. intelligence community’s radar during the 2016 campaign, according to CNN. The cable news outlet reports that Priebus followed up with McCabe and FBI Director James Comey, asking them to speak to the press on background to dispute the story. The move would be a violation of longstanding norms meant to keep the White House from interfering with or trying to influence FBI investigations. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the administration’s outreach to the Department of Justice wasn’t an attempt “to knock the story down” but a request “to tell the truth.”
The White House wants the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) intelligence arm to help make the case for its travel ban in court. CNN reports that a DHS intelligence report disagrees with the administration’s conclusion that the seven predominantly Muslim countries included in the ban represent a unique terrorist threat relative to other countries. A DHS spokesperson insists that the report is just one opinion. Nonetheless, the order in which the Trump administration has gone about executing its travel ban — issuing the policy first and working backwards to find the intelligence to support it — has some sources in the government worried that intelligence could be fitting intelligence to suit policy.
Imagery. China’s construction of shelters for surface-to-air missiles on a handful of man-made islands in the South China Sea leaked to the press earlier this week. Now you can take a look at Beijing’s missile housing construction with your own eyes thanks to satellite imagery released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The pictures show the structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi reefs that could be used to house missile’s like China’s HQ-9.
Eight days. That’s how long Rumana Ahmed lasted in Trump’s White House. A hijab-wearing Muslim American whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1978, Ahmed had worked for the NSC under the Obama administration and had decided to stay on to see if she could exert a constructive influence. But in the end, she could not abide by the Trump administration’s view that the West is at war with Islam. “Alt-right writers, now on the White House staff, have claimed that Islam and the West are at war with each other,” she wrote in the Atlantic. “Disturbingly, ISIS also makes such claims to justify their attacks, which for the most part target Muslims. The Administration’s plans to revamp the Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Muslims and use terms like ‘radical Islamic terror,’ legitimize ISIS propaganda and allow the dangerous rise of white-supremacist extremism to go unchecked.”
Boots on the table. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford is working a review of options for President Trump to pursue the war against the Islamic State and he’s not ruling out the possibility that American conventional ground forces in Syria could be one of those options. Defense News caught up with Dunford during a speech at Brookings where he emphasized that the Pentagon would provide Trump a “full range of options.” Dunford also emphasized the complexity of dealing with Syria’s civil war and said that “the only people with simple solutions to complex problems are refugees from accountability.”
Reality TV. Watch the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville reporting on the advancing Iraqi forces here.
Mystery drone killer. The Air Force has purchased an Israeli counter drone system, but it’s keeping quiet on what it is and how it works. Defense One reports that the Air Force dropped around $15 million for 21 man-portable counter drone systems made by Israel’s ELTA North America. The ELTA systems, according to Defense One, bear a strong resemblance to Israel’s Drone Guard system which uses radar to find and jam small drones. The purchases comes as the U.S. looks to counter the Islamic State’s use of commercial drones to drop grenade-sized munitions around Mosul.