- 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 and Colum Lynch, Elias Groll, Robbie Gramer
Bloody day in Kabul. A massive truck bomb tore through a neighborhood housing several embassies in Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 80 and wounding over 300 more. The blast, several hundred yards from the German embassy, sent a massive cloud of smoke over the capitol, and will no doubt raise new concerns over safety in the city at a time when the Taliban has been capturing territory in other areas of the country.
Afghan officials say the bombing was carried out by a suicide attacker, and it comes just weeks after another car bomb targeting foreign troops detonated in the city near the US embassy, killing eight civilians. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack. On Wednesday, the Taliban denied responsibility for the latest bombing.
Surge politics. President Trump is expected to make a decision soon over whether to send an additional 3,000 to 5,000 troops to Afghanistan to help train and advise the beleaguered Afghan security forces. Pentagon officials had hoped to brief the president before he traveled to Brussels late last month, and it’s unclear if he has been provided the full set of plans yet. The issue has divided the president’s advisors, with the bevy of generals in the cabinet supporting the surge, while nationalists like Steve Bannon and his allies have opposed the move, dubbing the idea “McMaster’s War,” after national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Missiles up. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency successfully shot down a mockup of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday. “The successful test of the nation’s foremost ballistic missile defense program is marginally good news for a country increasingly faced with the growing threat of missile proliferation,” writes FP’s Paul McLeary, “but the $40 billion program continues to face questions over a problematic track record, and if it is keeping pace with North Korean advances in missile technology.” The long-planned test was the latest in a series that has managed to knock down only about half the missiles it targeted over the past decade.
Russian missiles. Moscow has quietly parked several ships and submarines off the Syrian coast, and on Wednesday, they launched four cruise missiles at what the Russians say were Islamic State targets near the city of Palmyra. The Kremlin said that U.S., Turkish and Israeli military commanders had been informed about the launches “at the appropriate time.” The U.S. military command in Baghdad overseeing the fight against the Islamic State has yet to offer its assessment of the strikes.
NATO in the house. On the heels of a tense and awkward NATO confab in Brussels, there’s a glimmer of good news for the transatlantic alliance. Sources tell Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer that the United States is mulling hosting a NATO summit in Washington in 2019 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of NATO’s founding. That news could soothe some fraying European nerves after Trump’s meeting at NATO headquarters last week, where he slammed allies for not spending enough on defense and refused to explicitly endorse to NATO’s collective defense clause.
Arms for YPG. Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have for the first time started receiving small arms and ammunition from the United States, in a move that will surely infuriate Turkey, which considers the YPG militia a terrorist group. In southern Syria, another group of U.S.-backed Syrian Arab rebels have started to receive more weapons and equipment, as Iranian-backed militias continue to inch toward their positions near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.
U.S. aircraft struck the Iranian-supported fighters last week when they come too close to a U.S. base, and over the weekend, dropped leaflets to warn them away from the facility. “We continue to see massing [of these forces], Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday. “We are concerned about it, that’s why we dropped the leaflets over the weekend to warn them against that.”
UN chief takes swipe at Trump. Facing the prospect that Washington will soon pull out of a landmark climate pact it helped negotiate, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday delivered an urgent appeal to the world to stay the course and implement the Paris Agreement, under which countries pledge to voluntarily curtail their emissions of greenhouse gases, FP’s Colum Lynch reports from New York. His comments come as president Trump mulls pulling out of the Paris Agreement, giving a backdrop to his remarks.
Op-Eds. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and president Trump’s top economic advisor Gary Cohn have a new opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal trying to walk back, or at least redefine, some of the president’s “America First” rhetoric. “America First does not mean America alone,” write McMaster and Cohn. The piece pivots off of Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Europe, painting the president as rekindling relationships with traditional American allies in contrast to Trump’s oft-stated skepticism about the value of American security guarantees.
Flynn’s paper trail. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn will turn over some documents to Senate investigators examining Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to the Associated Press. Flynn earlier refused to turn over materials and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee. Citing a “person close to Flynn,” the AP reports that the documents include some personal material and from two businesses belonging to the ousted Trump adviser.
Trump’s friends in the ‘stans. In a devilishly complex story, McClatchy reports that authorities are closing in on two Kazakh oligarchs accused of stealing millions from municipal coffers and then laundering the funds – including through Trump real estate holdings. The case implicates at least one well known Trump associate, Felix Sater of the Bayrock Group, and illustrates how Trump’s real estate holdings may provide a headache for the White House – that is, once investigators get to the bottom of the complicated transactions allegedly used to clean dirty money.
Ivanka watch. The White House may be seeking to gut U.S. funding for the U.N.’s humanitarian mission. But Ivanka Trump is looking to carve out a role as a champion for the very causes her father has targeted with cuts. In the coming days, America’s first daughter is expected to meet with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, and the World Food Program’s executive director, David Beasley, a former South Carolina Republican governor who was selected to run the international food program. The meeting — which has not been announced — follows a series of discussions between Trump and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, about the need to raise concern about humanitarian crises.
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Laptop ban. You can still stash your laptop in your carryon luggage when flying to the U.S. from Europe, the Department of Homeland Security says. In the wake of intelligence reports about the Islamic State seeking to hide bombs inside laptops and smuggle them aboard flights, Homeland Security banned passengers flying from the Middle East to the U.S. from carrying their laptops on board. That ban remains in place for flights from the Middle East but the department says it’s staying an extension to flights from Europe for the time being.
Less than meets the eye. President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia came with headlines heralding arms sales agreements potentially worth an eye-popping $110 billion over the next decade. Defense News peels back some of the hype and finds that the real tally might be less than that. At least $23 billion of that total has been in the works in varying stages since before the Trump administration took office. The remaining figure will still have to go through a lengthy approval process by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency and Congress, after which the two sides will agree on final pricing. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have generally enjoyed bipartisan support but a handful of lawmakers have begun to raise objections to the deals, citing civilian casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
You up? President Trump is handing out his personal cell phone number to world leaders he meets, risking eavesdropping by hostile intelligence services. The AP reports that Trump has handed out his number to the leaders of France, Canada, and Mexico asking them to hit him up later for a chat. So far only Canadian Prime Minister has dialed up Trump on his personal cell. The White House is equipped with a suite of secure communications equipment, including phones that allow the president to talk to other leaders without fear of interception. Any number of countries, however, can eavesdrop on regular commercial cell phone conversations.
Bulldozers. In the fight to take Mosul back from the Islamic State, the humble bulldozer is proving an essential weapon in Iraqi forces’ arsenal. The Washington Post reports that Iraqi troops are using the vehicles to clear obstacles placed by the terrorist group. Dozer drivers use the vehicles’ heavy blades to knock out Islamic State mines, break down earthen berms, and provide cover for infantry advancing in their wake.
Famine. The U.N. is trying to stop Saudi Arabia from launching an attack on Yemen Red Sea port of Hodeidah, warning of dire humanitarian consequences in the already crisis-ridden country. Reuters reports that Stephen O’Brien, U.N. under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, said that an assault on Hodeidah, where 80 percent of Yemen’s aid arrives, would “directly and irrevocably drive the Yemeni population further into starvation and famine.” O’Brien labeled Yemen “the world’s largest food security crisis” and said that its humanitarian crisis is being driven solely by conflict.
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