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.

Afghanistan Indecision 2013: Is the zero option for real? The Pentagon may trim furlough days again; The Navy’s drone, Walloped; The Poo pond saga continues; A life worth living: Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart; And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold Is There Really a ‘Zero Option’ for Afghanistan? The Aftermath of the NYT’s story this week that floated the idea once again of a "zero option"  – no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 – had the administration scrambling to provide answers even as it seemed unable to spell out anything definitive. Many ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Is There Really a ‘Zero Option’ for Afghanistan? The Aftermath of the NYT’s story this week that floated the idea once again of a "zero option"  – no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 – had the administration scrambling to provide answers even as it seemed unable to spell out anything definitive. Many believe it’s simply a bluff as the U.S. negotiates a security agreement with Afghanistan. But if so, it may not be worth the trouble as the mere talk of walking out of Afghanistan with nothing left – with reminders of Iraq still lingering – angers so many in so many quarters. To questions on the matter yesterday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Jim Dobbins provided the administration’s refrain, saying Obama was "still reviewing his options" on the issue. But earlier this week, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, the Republican from California, said he had been assured by the administration that no zero option existed. McKeon: "News of the ‘zero option’ damages our position in Afghanistan, erodes our standing with our allies, emboldens the Taliban, and demoralizes our troops. I call on the president to confirm the assurances of his senior officials and clarify his ‘zero option’ position."

Naming the source: Although Dobbins was vague during the hearing yesterday on the options confronting the administration, a Committee aide tells Situation Report that it was Dobbins who assured McKeon that the zero option was off the table.

The decision from the White House on a troop commitment for Afghanistan is a growing political liability as both Democrats and Republicans ask: where is it? It remains a mystery even to top national security officials why the administration has failed to at least throw out a number for the amount of troops it would like to leave in Afghanistan after the drawdown of combat forces at the end of 2014. Many believe that if the White House could articulate a specific number of troops it would like for the country, it would quell criticisms from allies, the Afghans themselves and members on the Hill. At this point, any number would suffice – it could be modified as circumstances dictated, experts say. At a hearing yesterday, leading Democrats voiced with increasing alarm the administration’s radio silence on the issue.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, as quoted by the WaPo this morning: "The lack of clarity on this point has led to too much hedging in the region…Afghans who may otherwise be interested in building a fledgling democracy want to know that they will not be abandoned by the United States as the Taliban claims they will be." Read the rest of the WaPo’s story, here.

Carnegie Endowment’s Sarah Chayes, who participated in the hearing yesterday: "As for residual U.S. troops, I don’t think 10,000 would make much more of an impact on security and stability in Afghanistan than zero.  My reading of the signals in this town is that zero is a likely bet.  And to be honest, in the absence of an overall policy framework within which the commitment and sacrifice would make sense, I find it hard to argue with that.  But how to get to zero responsibly, without Afghanistan unraveling behind us?" Her full written statement, here.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Situation Report, where the weekend provides a number of options. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. Please follow us @glubold. And remember, if you see something, say something — to Situation Report.

The Pentagon may trim the number of furlough days once again. Defense officials are taking a hard look at reducing the number of days DOD civilians must be forced onto unpaid vacation, marking what would be the third reduction in the number of furlough days since the Pentagon first announced it would use unpaid leave as a way to meet budget demands. Pentagon officials may reduce by as many as three days, from 11 to 8, the number of days defense civilians would be required to be on unpaid leave, Situation Report has learned. The furlough program began for the Defense Department just this week, with an unofficial "fun run" to keep up morale; meanwhile, anyone working in the building can see the impacts: people one would expect to see or meet with in the building could as easily be gone. We’re told that this week the Pentagon had to turn down at least one interview request for Pat Tamburrino, chief of staff for the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness – who has been critical to furlough planning – because he was on, wait for it… furlough.

The Pentagon must decide soon, within the next few weeks, if it is able to make the additional trim to the number of furlough days. It’s a politically difficult position in which the Pentagon leadership finds itself: while it seeks to reduce the impact of furloughs on hundreds of thousands of employees and their families, it cornered itself with early declarations of budget gloom that Pentagon leaders at the time said would force as many as 22 days of furlough initially. In April, it was reduced to 14 days. Then on May 14, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that defense officials had found another way around it, announcing the current 11-day furlough program. Many Pentagon insiders believe the Defense Department hemmed itself in in an attempt to "show the pain."

In the meantime, don’t forget your Pentagon building pass. Times is tough, and furloughs are hitting the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, or PFPA, and its support staff. That’s why the line at the security checkpoint for Pentagon visitors without badges – or for those sad sacks who forget theirs and then have to go through the metal detectors like they’re headed on a plane to Dallas – has been ridiculously long. Since Monday, the line has stretched past the Metro escalators that are under construction.

Read Government Executive’s "Top Five Fake Out of Office Messages for Furloughed Workers," here. Best one, from Andrea Yaffe: "Today’s my furlough day. I am supposed to do 20 percent less work. You’ll find out on Monday whether your email is part of the other 80 percent."

Edward Snowden has requested to meet with human rights groups this morning at the Moscow airport where he’s still holed up. Various media reports say that a number of international and Russian human rights organizations have been asked to a meeting at Sheremetyevo International Airport today by someone thought to be Snowden. A spokesman for the airport told ABC News’ Kirit Radia that the meeting will take place and that airport staff will facilitate it by escorting participants to the transit side of the airport. More from ABC, here.

The meeting comes at a time when a new Guardian newspaper report shows that the NSA seems to have Microsoft in its pocket. FP’s Elias Groll writes: "According to an explosive Guardian report on Thursday, the NSA was granted access to Microsoft’s new free email service,, prior to its rollout so that the agency could circumvent the service’s encryption protocol and intercept chats on the web portal. Moreover, Microsoft allegedly worked hand-in-glove with the agency to give the NSA the ability to intercept video calls made via Skype. Skype’s reputation as a fervent protector of privacy rights has been dying a slow death in recent years, and Thursday’s report may have been its last gasp. It was only five years ago that Skype claimed it did not have the ability to intercept calls. "Because of Skype’s peer-to-peer architecture and encryption techniques, Skype would not be able to comply with [a wiretap request]," a company spokesperson told CNET in 2008."

The Navy made history this week, albeit with an asterisk. Nothing can really take away from the Navy’s historic landing of an autonomous, flying robot – the X-47B drone – on Wednesday. The test, comprised of three landings on the carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia, was almost completely successful, save the final, third approach when the onboard computers of the drone, nicknamed "Salty Dog 502," sensed an anomaly and waved itself off and flew over the carrier instead. Turned out, one of its three redundant navigation computers failed as the plane was on that approach, about four miles out as it attempted to land on the carrier’s stern. When that happened, humans intervened and ordered the plane to fly to Wallops Island spaceport. Thing is, it’s still there. Killer Apps’ John Reed: "The plane will now sit at Wallops until the Navy can fly it back to its home station across the Chesapeake Bay at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. Navy officials hope to get the jet there before Monday so they can do another round of flight tests aboard the carrier. If they can’t figure out what went wrong with ‘Salty Dog 502,’ they’ll have to use its twin, Salty Dog 501, for Monday’s tests." Read the rest, here.

It’s wheels up for Hagel on Monday. Hagel heads south for a series of troop visits and sit-downs with family members, DOD civilians and others at U.S. military bases in the south, including Bragg, Jacksonville, Charleston, Lejeune and New River. Hagel will visit with service members from each of the four services. A defense official tells Situation Report: "He’ll be visiting troops and meeting with civilian employees, community leaders, and military families. This is intended to be a listening tour in which the Secretary looks forward to touring flight lines to depots to industry facilities–and to hearing what rewards and challenges face the people in and around these bases on a daily basis, especially during this period of budget uncertainty."

Staffers on a plane (for now) –  Tom Waldhauser, George Little, Jacob Freedman and Larry Getz.

Reporters on a plane – AP’s Lara Jakes, Reuters’ David Alexander, NYT’s Thom Shanker, Bloomberg’s Gopal Ratnam and Military Times’ Andrew Tilghman.

3,504: the number of RTs thus far to Matthew Barrett’s Tweet this week about Sir Adrian  de Wiart, and "best opening paragraph of any Wikipedia biography ever." The paragraph: "Lieutenant-General Sir Adiran Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880 – 5 June 1963), was a British Army officer of Belgian and Irish descent. He fought in the Boer War, World War I, and World War II, was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear, survived a plane crash, tunneled out of a POW camp, and bit off his own fingers when a doctor wouldn’t amputate them. He later said ‘frankly I had enjoyed the war.’" FP’s brief take, by our own Elias Groll, here. Guessing: de Wiart’s own Tweets would have been truly RT-worthy, and regularly. 

Panel selection for the Jeff Sinclair court martial panel selection begins July 16. Panel selection for the court martial of Jeffrey Sinclair, the Army one-star accused of forcing a subordinate, with whom he had allegedly carried on a three-year sexual relationship, to perform oral sex on him and at one point had threatened to kill her is next week and is expected to last several days, according to the Fayetteville Observer. Sinclair’s court-martial might not now occur until September, reportedly out of concerns that it could be hard to impanel a jury, which will be composed entirely of general officers. Sinclair’s defense team believes their client won’t get a fair trial because of intense media attention at the same time the Defense Department is grappling with a sexual assault "crisis" that the team contends could make it hard for Sinclair to receive a fair hearing.  Sinclair lawyer Richard Scheff: "The prosecution apparently shares our concern that the Army may not be able to impanel a fair and impartial jury to weigh the rather flimsy charges against General Sinclair. Given the current climate, it’s going to be challenging to find the right number of people, at the right rank, who are willing to put their careers on the line. We look forward to moving forward, on whatever schedule the judge stipulates, whether the prosecution feels ready or not." Read the Fayetteville Observer’s coverage here.  

Another one-star relieved for adulterous misconduct: Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, at Fort Jackson, S.C. Read about it here.

It’s time for another installment of "Poo Pond," an occasional series. Air Force Times’ Jeff Schogol has, in his typical fashion, doggedly pursued the story about a nasty cesspool in Afghanistan. Today, a new wrinkle. Schogol:  "While the mainstream media remains fixated about whether U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, we at FlightLines remained focused on the continuing saga of the ‘Poo Pond’ at Kandahar Airfield, which was supposed to be closed a long time ago. Last September, it appeared the foul-smelling lagoon would finally be drained, but then officials said it would have to remain open through at least mid-2013. Once again, it looks like the famous cesspool cannot go quietly into that good night." Read the rest, here.

Cruise missiles: C’mon, everybody’s doin’ it! John Reed also brings us his take on a new Air Force report about long-range "land attack" cruise missiles. Reed: "Modern cruise missiles are basically jet-powered drones capable of hiding from enemy radar by flying along the nap of the Earth or even taking circuitous routes to evade enemy air defenses before exploding when they reach their targets. The Tomahawk is America’s land-attack cruise missile, or LACM. For the last 30 years, it has been one of the U.S. military’s most effective weapons in kicking down the air defenses of its enemies. The latest version of the Tomahawk uses GPS, video cameras, and satellite communications — allowing commanders to reroute the missile in flight. This lets the Tomahawk hunt down a target whose exact location isn’t known when the missile is launched. The U.S. Navy is even working on fielding small drones than can work with Tomahawks in hunter-killer teams. However, the success of the Tomahawk — thousands of which have been launched in anger — at taking out targets has made the world jealous." Read the rest of Reed’s piece, here.


  • Defense News: House GOP’s decision on immigration another blow to defense firms.
  • DOD Buzz: PACOM addresses growing Chinese ICBM program.  
  • At War (NYT): Guide to non-profit groups that providing care to veterans.
  • The Cable: Dominicans rage against Obama’s gay ambassador pick.  
  • Reuters: Senators call for hearing on Pentagon payroll problems.  
  • Duffel Blog: Army study finds Marines’ Tun Tavern was actually a gay bar. 

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

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