- 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
Troops to Afghanistan. Defense Secretary James Mattis finally confirmed he’s sending more troops to Afghanistan. But he won’t say how many, or where they’re going.
“I have signed orders, but it is not complete,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. “In other words, I have signed some of the troops that will go and we are identifying the specific ones.”
Trump administration officials have yet to fully explain how the new plan to send several thousand advisors to bolster the 11,000 U.S. troops already there will be effective in beating back the Taliban. Despite years of training the Afghan army, spending over $76 billion on building and equipping that force, and the prior deployment of over 100,000 U.S. troops in previous years had all failed to defeat the Taliban or force it to the negotiating table for a political solution.
SecDef and the press. Mattis also expressed frustration over how his recent remarks concerning social upheaval at home, and comments on how the U.S. still has time for diplomacy with North Korea despite president Trump’s tweet that the time for talking is over, have been reported as breaks with the president.
He insisted that he was just restating Trump’s views, in different terms. “If I say 6 and the President says half a dozen, they’re going to say I disagree with him. Let’s just get over that.”
The secretary’s comments came during one of the informal Q&A sessions he regularly holds with reporters at the Pentagon. He has been known to pop in unexpectedly in the press room there, taking questions from the reporters who happen to be at their desks as press officers scramble in once word spreads he’s next door. He said he prefers that format to the more formal televised briefings behind the podium in the press room.
Asked if he had ever considered resigning because of policy differences with the president, Mattis said he just wants to serve. ”I don’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat, we all have an obligation to serve,” Mattis said. “That’s all there is to it.”
“I mean, the first time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in my first 40 minutes with him — on NATO, on torture and something else — and he hired me,” he added. “This is not a man who’s immune to being persuaded if he thinks you’ve got an argument.”
General in Iraq prefers Trump approach. The outgoing commander of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria slammed the way former president Barack Obama handled the war effort there on Thursday, saying that the hands-off approach the Trump administration is taking is much appreciated.
“The current administration has pushed decision-making down into the military chain of command,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon. “And I don’t know of a commander in our armed forces that doesn’t appreciate that.”
Since January, “we don’t get second-guessed a lot,” he added. “Our judgment here on the battlefield in the forward areas is trusted. And we don’t get 20 questions with every action that happens on the battlefield and every action that we take.”
Some might call that civilian control of the military. But mileage may vary.
Sticking around? Townsend said he hopes the U.S. government works out an arrangement for a long-term military presence in Iraq to help guard against the resurgence of the Islamic State. And he said talks are under way.
“We all saw what happened in 2011 when we parted ways completely,” he said, referring to the pullout of U.S. troops under Obama. “My personal view is I wouldn’t want to repeat that,” Townsend said. “So I think that our governments will work out something that will work for the future.”
What U.S. presence looks like on the ground. A report in Stars and Stripes gives us a little better picture of what some of the thousands of U.S. troops are doing in Iraq, an operation that sees little on the ground press coverage. Stripes spent some time with a crew of a Paladin mobile howitzer system, who described how the fast pace of the Iraqi army’s operations in Tal Afar kept them on the move, and firing on the run.
Compliance. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement agreed to by the U.S. and five other countries. President Trump has hinted that he may not certify that Iran is abiding by the deal as U.S. law requires him to do every 90 days. Iranian officials have pushed back on calls to allow inspections of military sites they say are unrelated to the nuclear program, calling the prospect a “dream.” In a statement issued after the IAEA’s report, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that “If inspections of Iranian military sites are ‘merely a dream,’ then Iranian compliance with the JCPOA is also a dream.”
Moscow and Washington wage real estate war. On Thursday, the State Department said its ordered Russia to shutter three diplomatic sites in the United States in the “spirit of parity,” including the Russian consulate in San Francisco. It’s the latest round in the two countries’ tit-for-tat expulsions and property closures. FP’s Robbie Gramer and Emily Tamkin have more:
“In July, Moscow ordered the United States to slash 755 of its own staff in Russia, in response to last December’s decision to expel 35 diplomats and seize two diplomatic compounds, which Russia maintains was a violation of U.S. and international law.” But this week, the State Department instructed Russia to shutter its consulate in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, and a consular annex in New York, all by Sept. 2. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a call early on Thursday, a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing call.
Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.
Vacation, all I ever wanted. The end of American tourism is North Korea is nigh, with the ban on U.S. citizens traveling there, put in place after the death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, taking effect on Friday. The State Department says reporters and those working for humanitarian organizations can apply for exemptions to the ban, but some aid workers worry that the regulations could interfere with their work.
Unfavorable reviews. North Korea sentenced authors James Pearson and Daniel Tudor and their publisher to death for their book “North Korea Confidential” about life in Stalinist dictatorship after finding their work in poor taste. The authors are, fortunately, not in North Korea and the sentence was issued in absentia, but the court found that the book “viciously slandered the reality of the DPRK.”
Japan. Nothing gooses a defense budget through the legislature quite like a ballistic missile flying overhead. In the wake of North Korea’s missile launch over Japanese territory, the Japanese defense ministry is asking for an additional 2.5 percent of its budget or $160 million in extra funding to go towards its missile defenses and purchases of F-35 stealth fighters and V-22 Ospreys.
Receipts. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is probing whether meeting notes made by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort referencing donations and the Republican National Committee contain evidence of illegal foreign donations to the campaign and the Republican National Committee. Manafort wrote the notes on his Blackberry during a meeting with a Russian lobbyist allegedly offering electoral help for the Trump campaign on behalf of the Russian government.
Infomercial. Russia has been using its war in Syria as a showroom for its latest weapons and now it’s reaping the reward in the form of export contracts. “Customers have started queuing up for the weapons that have proven themselves in Syria,” Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said.
Yemen. The New York Times runs a painful photo essay on the cost of the war in Yemen on the country’s children where two million children are now malnourished as a result of the conflict. Nicholas Kristof, author of the article accompanying the photos, has been trying to report from Yemen for over a year only to be repeatedly denied entry into the country by Saudi authorities.
Fine print. The Trump administration is giving Pakistan $255 million in military aid despite President Trump giving the country a browbeating for its support of extremists in his Afghanistan speech. The aid, however, comes with caveats. The U.S. will put the aid in an escrow account, allowing officials to turn off the taps if they feel Pakistan is supporting militants in Afghanistan or failing to crack down on them in Pakistani territory.
Photo Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images