SitRep: Mattis in Kabul, Taliban Hit U.S. Base; North Korea Warns Washington; Watch Trump Learn About NATO and Terrorism
- 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.
With Adam Rawnsley
Wheels down in Kabul. Again. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis landed in Kabul on Monday, becoming the sixth Pentagon chief to land in the capital to check in on America’s longest war. He arrives as the Trump administration weighs its next move in the seemingly endless conflict that continues to claim American lives and cost billions of dollars a year, with no clear end in sight.
The wheels of his plane touched down just after the announcement that his Afghan counterpart, Defence Minister Abdullah Habibi, and the Afghan army chief had resigned in the wake of a disastrous Taliban assault on an Afghan army base last week that left over 140 Afghan soldiers dead. It was the deadliest single attack on government forces since the Taliban’s ouster in 2002.
Breaking: Taliban attack. During the trip, suspected Taliban militants attacked Camp Chapman, a U.S.-operated base in Afghanistan’s Khost province with what looks to be a car bomb. A spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Capt. William Salvin, confirmed the attack, and indicated there appeared to be a number of Afghan casualties but none to U.S. or NATO forces at the camp.
Washington has spent over $74 billion to build and equip the Afghan armed forces, but the force has been unable to contain the Taliban, and some estimates put the total price tag for American taxpayers for the war at about $1 trillion.
Here comes the general! The Afghanistan trip was the sixth stop for the Defense Secretary on a week-long swing through the Middle East and Africa, and comes just after the U.S. commander there, Gen. John Nicholson, told Congress that the war has stalemated and he needs “a few thousand” more troops on top of the 9,800 already on the ground. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, also recently visited to assess the American commitment.
Upon arriving home, McMaster told ABC News that as the U.S. effort in Afghanistan drew down from over 100,000 troops in 2010 to under 10,000, “our enemy sensed that and they have redoubled their efforts, and it’s time for us, alongside our Afghan partners, to respond.”
Also, this. A new United Nations report released Monday says that the Afghan security forces still regularly torture suspects in their custody.
Frequent flyer. Prior to landing in Kabul, Mattis visited Djibouti, the tiny east African country that hosts a U.S. base that is a key part of Washington’s drone war in the Middle East and Africa. The country has also become another front in the global competition between Washington and Beijing, as a Chinese company is finishing up work on a $590 million port facility right next to Camp Lemonnier, the American base of operations, part of an estimated $12.4 billion in Chinese upgrades to the country’s shipping facilities. “They are the biggest investors in our country,” president Ismail Omar Guelleh said last year. The Chinese navy is expected to make frequent use of the new port facilities.
North Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping urged President Donald Trump to tread cautiously on North Korea during a Sunday phone call, amid rising tensions over Pyongyang’s missile tests and an expected upcoming nuclear test. Trump also dialed up Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday, who later said in a statement the American leader “has indicated by his words and actions that all possible options are on the table.”
The USS Carl Vinson carrier group — we think — is finally moving toward the Korean peninsula, leading the North Korean government on Monday to call the deployment “an extremely dangerous act by those who plan a nuclear war to invade.” Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party added that the U.S. “should not run amok and should consider carefully any catastrophic consequence from its foolish military provocative act.” Two Japanese destroyers have joined the carrier group for exercises in the western Pacific, and South Korea announced Monday it was considering holding joint naval exercises with the allies. North Korea has threatened to sink the Vinson.
Here’s one. In an interview with the Associated Press on Friday, president Trump told us about NATO’s recent discovery of terrorism, which the commander-in-chief appears to believe didn’t exist until after WWII. Asked about his flip-flop on whether or not the alliance is “obsolete,” Trump admitted he didn’t really know anything about NATO until after he was elected, “because I wasn’t in government. People don’t go around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in Manhattan, right?”
He also assured the American people “now I know a lot about NATO.” But he no longer considers the alliance obsolete due to the fact that it now focuses on terrorism, thanks to his prodding, and “you know, back when they did NATO there was no such thing as terrorism.” NATO was founded in April 1949 — after centuries of insurgent groups having used bombing, assassination, and other forms to terror to try and achieve their aims — and the alliance has long focused on international terrorism, including fighting side-by-side with U.S. forces in Afghanistan since 2001.
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Hostages. North Korea has detained an American citizen amidst growing tensions over the country’s weapons of mass destruction programs. The American, Tony Kim, was teaching accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. It’s unclear why North Korean authorities detained Kim but the U.S. State Department, as well as the Swedish Embassy, which serves as the Protective Power for the U.S. in North Korea, both said they’re monitoring the situation. Kim would be the third American detained by North Korea in the past year.
Ukraine. A vehicle carrying three monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hit a mine while monitoring the fighting in Ukraine, killing an American and wounding a Czech and a German citizen. Reuters reports that the explosion took place near the town of Pryshyb, held by Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels. In a statement, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the American had been working as a paramedic for the OSCE, noting that employees of the organization are working in “increasingly dangerous conditions” in eastern Ukraine.
Christening. China’s first homemade aircraft carrier is expected to launch at sea shortly. Satellite imagery has shown the ship under construction at Dalian for some time now but local news outlets report that the construction equipment has left the docks as workers put the finishing touches on the carrier’s hull paint. China already has a Soviet-era carrier, the Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine in 2012 and its domestically-produced carrier, thus far known as the 001A, will be an upgraded version of its Kuznetsov-class cousin.
Old smokey. Meanwhile, in Russia, the Liaoning’s sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is getting an upgrade in the form of Kalibr-NK missile launch complex, according to Tass. The system is capable of firing Onyx and Zircon hypersonic missiles. The Kuznetsov is back in Russia for upgrades after a brief and much-maligned visit to the Mediterranean, where it briefly participated in attack in Syria before losing a MiG-29 and a Su-33 to accidents.
Who are you. The Islamic State appears to have goofed its claim of responsibility for a gunman’s attack in Paris that killed a police officer. Following the attack the group’s Amaq News Agency pushed out a customary claim of responsibility, calling the attacker Abu Yussef al-Belgik, indicating a Belgian nationality. The shooter in the Paris attack, however, was the Frenchman Karim Cheurfi. The misidentification of the attack has left experts wondering whether the Islamic State simply made a mistake in rushing out an uncharacteristically quick statement or whether it slipped up and accidentally outed another of its followers based in France.
Slow start. The Senate Intelligence Committee is taking its sweet time spinning up its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, according to The Daily Beast. Three months after the investigation supposedly kicked off, the committee has yet to hire a full time staffer, relying instead on seven part time staffers, and has thus far yet to interview any of the major figures on the Trump campaign staff suspected of having close ties to Moscow. Thus far, the Senate’s investigation has been limited to interviewing the intelligence agency analysts who wrote a January 2016 assessment on Russian activities and intentions during the election.
Ordinary decent criminals. Russia has long relied on a thriving cybercrime ecosystem to support its intelligence services, drafting personnel, malware, and information from the underworld for use towards official ends. Now the U.S. is trying to drain that swamp with anonymous officials telling Buzzfeed that “the gloves were coming off” when it comes to going after Russian cyber crooks. The Department of Justice has already helped track down alleged Russian hackers in Spain and the Czech Republic with rumors of more to come. The arrests are having an impact, leaving Russian hackers who used to feel protected by the state looking over their shoulder more and more and growing wary of the long reach of American law enforcement.
Photo Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images