Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

The Surge in Afghanistan Ends

The Monday Morning Quarterbacking on Libya, You Just Can’t Bomb Syria, and more.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Foreign Policy's Situation Report.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Foreign Policy’s Situation Report.

Follow me @glubold or e-mail me at

Sign up for Situation Report here:


Tomorrow marks the end of the surge in Afghanistan, as the last of the 30,000 troops President Obama ordered to Afghanistan in November 2009 return home. Soon, only about 68,000 American troops will remain in Afghanistan, and come mid-November, ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen will make recommendations to Obama about how much of that force should remain in the country through next year. Much of the remaining conventional combat power will work in eastern Afghanistan and with Afghan units. The jury is still very much out on what the surge accomplished and what it didn’t. And its effects won’t fully be felt for many months. There are still pockets of violence where surge troops operated, and it is still far from clear if the Afghan National Security Forces will be able to step up to create a sustainable piece.

For now, ISAF spokesman Col. Tom Collins wrote in an e-mail to Situation Report that the surge was "clearly successful" because it brought "time and space" for the Afghans and coalition forces to achieve some key markers. It pushed insurgents out of the main population centers of the south, like in Kandahar City, and the communities along the Helmand River Valley. "There are still pockets of periodic violence to in outlying areas to be sure, but these populated areas are largely free of violence today," Collins wrote.

The surge also gave room to the Afghan army and police to grow, from 80,000 members of the Afghan National Army and 73,000 national police in January 2009 to 189,000 and 148,000 respectively. Last month, over 80 percent of the operations in the south were led by the Afghan Army, according to Collins.

In an exclusive interview with Situation Report last month, ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen said he would watch the post-surge environment in the south:

"I’m going to watch it very closely because this in the end, of course, is the spiritual homeland of the Pashtun rebellion. So for us it is less about a full-up conventional battle her than it is about consolidating our holds on the population," he said.


Meanwhile, the Monday morning quarterbacking has begun about Libya and how the U.S. appeared to miss the signals that would have hinted at the violent attack in Benghazi. How, on the anniversary of 9/11, could the building be so vulnerable even as officials knew a video that could incite violence was spreading across the Internet? Libya was known to have many armed militant groups, some of which are tied to Salafi extremists or jihadis who fought in Iraq and elsewhere. Administration officials have been reluctant to say much about the failure as the FBI and Department of Justice begin investigations.

"Qaddafi loyalists" had been blamed for inciting the violence this week, but analysts have pushed back on that notion because it ignores a serious problem of emerging extremism, especially in a place like Benghazi, home to the revolution that toppled Qaddafi in the first place.

"There has been a pattern of militant extremist violence picking up the last few months, but it’s very easy to blame it on the Qaddafi loyalists," Sean Kane, who worked for a Swiss NGO in Libya up until this summer, told Situation Report. "And there is some reluctance to confront it directly in my view."

Extremist acts there were not new, he said, recalling an incident in January in which a meeting of the National Transitional Council in Benghazi turned violent, with extremist groups attempting to take advantage of public anger on an issue to foment violence.

Much of the extremist influence on the ground in Benghazi emanates from the city of Derna about three hours away. A State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks titled "Die Hard in Derna" details how the city became a refuge within Libya for returned foreign fighters and provided a climate for extremist influences that may have contributed to the violence this week in Benghazi: "…frustration at the inability of eastern Libyans to effectively challenge Qaddafi’s regime, together with a concerted ideological campaign by returned Libyan fighters from earlier conflicts, have played an important role in Derna’s development as a wellspring of Libyan foreign fighters in Iraq," according to the cable. "The [government of Libya’s] limited ability to extend its writ in eastern Libya — along with limited social outlets, dim economic prospects and the town’s historical role as a center of resistance — have fostered a landscape in which Derna’s angry young men view the conflict in Iraq through the lens of dissatisfaction with their government and with the USG’s perceived support of it."

Indeed, the void left by the toppling of strongman Muammar Qaddafi — and the many stockpiles of weapons he left — created an environment allowing armed groups to grow in strength. Many Libyans have been demanding of their government a stronger security force.

"We had asked the government many times to help create a strong military, to put the police everywhere, to secure the city," said Najla Elmangoush, a professor of criminal law at Benghazi University and an activist in Benghazi, told Situation Report. But the governmental response has not been robust amid widespread security challenges in a country lacking much in the way of security infrastructure.

While most Libyans are considered moderates who don’t have a problem with foreigners, there are some groups who "don’t like Libya," she said.

"They are people with their own agenda and they try to make conflict in this country," said Elmangoush. Violence on the ground in Libya, she said, isn’t typically a big problem. "The problem is these weapons with the wrong guys with the wrong groups with the wrong agenda, and they try to ruin the peace process," Elmangoush said.

Meanwhile at State, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday she was able to give few details about security around the Benghazi building where the attack occurred. "What I can say is that, as we did with all our missions overseas in advance of the September 11th anniversary, and as we do every year, we did evaluate the threat stream and we determined that the security at Benghazi was appropriate for what we knew," Nuland said during a press conference Thursday. "But I can’t speak to any other diplomatic conversations that might have gone on with the Libyans."

And, as Kevin Baron of the E-Ring reported, a CRS report earlier this year warned Congress that security had deteriorated since the election in July and that the government has not appeared able to stop attacks on buildings or prevent assassination attacks on former regime officials. "The attacks on the U.S. offices in Benghazi were the latest and most severe in a series of attacks on foreign diplomatic facilities and international organizations in Libya," according to the CRS report.


Does Libya become Iraq? There are a raft of angles to the question of whether the U.S. and international community essentially checked the box on Libya after the revolution and moved on too quickly, leaving a government lacking the capacity to provide security or governance and leaving in the vacuum room for extremist elements to emerge. Christopher S. Chivvis, writing on FP, asks if the international community was naïve. No matter what happens in Libya, he writes, "history will recall that NATO’s intervention saved lives in Benghazi and opened new prospects for Libya’s future. But the post-conflict order has been in limbo ever since Qaddafi was killed last October." He adds: "The nightmare scenario that Libya could go the way of Iraq in 2004 is still not likely, but no longer seems implausible," he writes.


Did the international community fail Libya by ignoring the signs of extremism? Mary Habeck on FP’s Shadow Government writes that there were indications of al-Qaida-affiliated groups rising. "Now Ansar al-Sharia has been implicated with  responsibility for this latest attack on the U.S. consulate. If this is true, then Libya’s security problems are no longer a matter solely of local concern, but have global implications. Even before this attack there was evidence to suggest that al Qaeda was involved in Libya. Although there is no proof of al Qaeda participation in the original uprising against Qaddafi, high-ranking al Qaeda leaders did make their way to Libya at the end of 2011," she writes.


You can’t just bomb Syria. The E-Ring’s Kevin Baron explains why the WMD problem in Syria can’t be just blown away. "…here’s why, defense officials privately concede: Even if the Pentagon knew the targets, knew that they contained biological or chemical weapons, knew which specific agents were hidden at each site, had the right vehicles and ordinance to penetrate air defenses and fortifications, determined the agents were sufficiently away from populations and in calm wind conditions, determined their use or insecurity was imminent and that there was a high-probability that all of those factors were correct — well, it’s not that simple."


Correction: Yesterday Situation Report referred to an exclusive interview former CIA Director Michael Hayden had with the news site Newsmax, in which he criticized the move to go into Libya at the time for failing to take into account the first and second order effects of toppling Moammar Qadaffi. A headline on the Newxmax story cast his criticisms in a far more negative light, suggesting he was calling the invasion "Obama’s Libya Adventure." Hayden did not make that comment in the taped interview or the accompanying article.  

Blowing up

The Nexus of Politics and Foreign Policy

The Film


Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.