SitRep: Trump’s Afghan Surge; Flynn In More Trouble; Syria Deal Debate; Lavrov Comes To Washington

SitRep: Trump’s Afghan Surge; Flynn In More Trouble; Syria Deal Debate; Lavrov Comes To Washington


With Adam Rawnsley

Afghan surge. The White House is considering plans to add 3,000 troops to the fight in Afghanistan, loosening rules for how military advisors operate in the field, and allowing military commanders more leeway over when and how they launch air strikes against Taliban targets.

The plan, which the Washington Post reports  has been dubbed “McMaster’s War” by some opponents in the West Wing, still needs the final approval of president Trump, but would fall within the new rules of Washington, where the Pentagon has been given more control over how it deploys forces, and conducts air strikes. Under president Trump, U.S. air strikes have dramatically increased against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, Taliban and ISIS positions in Afghanistan, and ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Surges everywhere else. Parts of Somalia have also been declared an “area of active hostility,” allowing for more American strikes. Last week, a Navy SEAL was killed in a firefight in Somalia, the first U.S. casualty there since the early 1990s. On a recent visit to the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Foreign Policy had a first-hand look at the growing American military presence in the region.

“It is unclear whether Trump, who has spoken little about the United States’ longest war, will look favorably upon expanding the U.S. role in Afghanistan,” write the Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe write. “While he has voiced skepticism about allowing U.S. troops to become bogged down in foreign conflicts, the president has also expressed a desire to be tough on terrorism and has seemed to delight in the use of military force.”

Other reports about the plan say it is contingent on NATO’s support, suggesting not all of the 3,000 troops would be American, or that the Atlantic alliance would have to also send thousands more troops. Right now there are about 8,400 American forces training and advising Afghan forces, working alongside about 5,000 NATO troops.

On the road. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is spending Tuesday in Denmark, his first stop on a week-long trip that will also bring him to Lithuania and the U.K. While in Copenhagen, the secretary will meet with senior leaders from 15 countries involved in the campaign to oust the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria.

Hot water. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn never told the Defense Intelligence Agency that the Kremlin paid him $34,000 for appearing at an event celebrating government-controlled news outlet RT, and he also never received the CIA clearance common to NSA’s by time he was fired by Trump.

That was just one of the bombshells dropped Monday about Flynn and the White House. Up on Capitol Hill, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates said she discussed with Donald Trump’s White House counsel possible criminal charges related to Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian officials. “To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security advisor compromised by the Russians,” Yates testified during a hotly anticipated hearing examining Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. FP’s Jenna McLaughlin and Elias Groll have lots more on the hearing.

New Syria agreement, same Syria problems. Diplomats are scrambling to figure out what the accord hashed out last week to establish four “de-escalation zones” in Syria might look like. Initially, Russian officials — who signed the agreement with Turkish and Iranian co-signers —  indicated that outside powers could play a monitoring role. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Monday that his government can handle it alone.

At a news conference in Damascus, Moallem stated flatly that “we do not accept a role for the United Nations or international forces to monitor the agreement…the Syrian Army will be prepared to respond in a decisive manner.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis edged up to supporting the concept on Monday, telling reporters during a visit to Denmark that Washington is studying the deal. “It’s all in process right now,” he said. “Who is going to be ensuring they’re safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them? All these details are to be worked out and we’re engaged.” The agreement, slated to last for six months, would prohibit all weapons — including air strikes — in the four zones in Western Syria, and would allow humanitarian aid to civilians in these areas. All sides can continue to target the Islamic State and the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Waiting for my man. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday for a day of talks at the State Department to work through conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, marking the Russian diplomat’s first visit to Washington since 2013. FP’s Emily Tamkin and Robbie Gramer have more on the visit here.

Aluminum as national security threat. Yep, and FP contributor Bethany Allen Ebrahimian can tell you why: Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, cheap Chinese aluminum has flooded American markets, wiping out a big chunk of the domestic industry. “High purity aluminum is used to make certain kinds of jets, such as Boeing’s F-18 and Lockheed Martin’s F-35, as well as armored vehicles. But the United States now has just one domestic manufacturer of high purity aluminum left — Century Aluminum’s Hawesville, Ky. plant, which is currently operating at 40 percent capacity amid dropping prices.” And only a few other smelters in the world produce the high-quality stuff, and those are located mostly in Russia, the Middle East, and China.

Finally… Check out the photo spread from the Kremlin-run TASS news agency documenting Tuesday’s annual Victory Day parade celebrating the end of WWII in Europe.

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

Conspiracies. The AP reports that North Korea’s KCNA propaganda news outlet has accused a vaguely-identified man by the name of “Mr. Kim” of communicating with the “murderous demons” of the U.S. and South Korean intelligence services, instructing him to kill dictator Kim Jong Un leader with a “biochemical” poison at an April 15 military parade. The North’s characterization of the far-fetched plot as state-sponsored terrorism is a likely nod to a push in the Trump administration to re-list Pyongyang as an official state sponsor of terrorism. Nonetheless, the rhetorical response to the alleged plot from North Korea propaganda organs has been over the top, even by the North’s usually hyperbolic standards, leading some to wonder what’s behind the aggressive showmanship.  

Palace intrigue. Is Trump’s national security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster in the good graces of his or has he fallen out of favor? Enter Bloomberg with a piece claiming that President Trump has “buyer’s remorse” about his pick of national security advisors, with insiders dishing that McMaster hasn’t been deferential enough for Trump’s liking. The general’s phone call to South Korea walking back Trump’s demand that the country pay for the U.S. deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, was a particular sore point with the president according to anonymous White House officials.

But in a statement to Bloomberg, the White House said the president “couldn’t be happier” with McMaster. MSNBC host and Trump pal Joe Scarborough also tweeted that the stories of a rift between the president and his national security advisor are merely an attempt by political advisor Steve Bannon to undermine McMaster.  

The song remains the same. U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift says that, contrary to reports in the press, there’s been “nothing that has significantly changed” in U.S. freedom of navigation policy in the South China Sea since Trump took office. The assertion follows a New York Times report alleging that the Pacific Command has nixed at least three proposals to sail within waters claimed by China, the result of an alleged hesitancy to annoy officials in Beijing while the U.S. engages in sensitive diplomacy over North Korea’s weapons programs. But Swift says it’s business as usual at Pacific Command, with sailors “on track to conduct over 900 ship days of operations this year in the South China Sea.”

You don’t know where your interest lies. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruffled feathers with a speech before State Department staff saying that the U.S. shouldn’t emphasize its values on human rights but rather privilege the pursuit of its interests around the world. Count Sen. John McCain among the ranks of the ruffled since the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman published an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday casting Tillerson’s statement as an abandonment of American exceptionalism. Calling the secretary’s speech a “graceless elucidation of a foreign policy based on realism,” McCain wrote that devaluing human rights in American foreign policy amounts to “depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in.”

Ready for a closeup. The F-35A is ready to make its debut at the Paris air show in June, Flight Global reports. The venerable air show is a kind of Fashion Week for aviation geeks, where militaries and civilian aerospace companies show off their latest and greatest aircraft. The announcement of an appearance at the show marks a swift turnaround for the F-35 Joint Program Office, which only two weeks ago said the stealth jet would be a no-show.

Computer love. The Center for Naval Analysis has a new report out on Russia’s differing approaches to hacking and online hijinks. In a report entitled “Russia’s Approach to Cyber

Warfare,” authors Michael Connell and Sarah Vogler argue that Russia doesn’t view cyber warfare as distinct from information warfare in general and views itself as in a perpetual battle of information war with internal adversaries as well as the West. Russia has also slowly been building its offensive cyber capabilities and will likely evolve from a model that leveraged attacks carried out by proxy groups like activists and criminals to a more centrally state-directed approach.   


Photo Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images