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.

Hagel’s one-word answer on shutdown; the al-Qaida fighter busted from Abu Ghraib now in Syria; Afghan’s next president could be a guy who brought al-Qaida to town; Hagel turns 67; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold Hagel returns to Washington and a smaller Pentagon workforce. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ends his Asia trip later today. When he returns to the Pentagon, there are far fewer civilian workers during the shutdown of government, which has curtailed the livelihoods of some 400,000 defense civilians across the Defense Department. Hagel is ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Hagel returns to Washington and a smaller Pentagon workforce. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ends his Asia trip later today. When he returns to the Pentagon, there are far fewer civilian workers during the shutdown of government, which has curtailed the livelihoods of some 400,000 defense civilians across the Defense Department. Hagel is still working with top officials at the Pentagon to see if he can exempt more people – thus bringing more people back to work as the shutdown begins to look like the new normal. But those efforts are still a work in progress.

The Defense Secretary spoke about shutdown earlier today outside Tokyo, where he toured the USS Stethem, a destroyer chopped to the 7th Fleet and in port at the Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. To a question from a sailor on the Stethem – would the shutdown have any effect on 7th Fleet operations – he was blunt: "No," he said, to laughter. "My team likes it when I give one-word answers," he joked. "I get myself in less trouble."

Touchdown to shutdown. The group of people supporting Hagel’s trip to Asia is comprised of military and civilian personnel. But when his E-4B Doomsday plane touches down at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. later today, as many as half of the civilians on board could be furloughed – maybe as many as 10 people. Since they were supporting the Defense Secretary, those people’s jobs were considered essential. But that mission ends when the Secretary gets home.

Hagel’s trip to Asia, his third as Secretary, was designed in part to assure allies that the "Asia pivot" is for real. Yesterday’s announcement of real hardware going to Japan, from Global Hawk drones to new X-band radar, MV-22 Ospreys among other announcements, seemed to show in a real way that the U.S. was investing in the pivot. But Hagel had to field questions throughout the trip on the shutdown at home. Even as he doubled down on Asia, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, who is also traveling in the region, the President had to cancel his trip to Asia altogether due to the shutdown.

From a Situation Report reader, on Obama having to cancel his trip: "Disappointing it had to come to this. Obviously [Obama] had to do it. Now this is messing with major foreign policy issues…Beijing chuckles…"

FP’s John Reed expanded on our news yesterday of the series of announcements yesterday of various hardware for Japan here.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Situation Report, where we’re blasting the letter today from the oddly slow Internet on Hagel’s Doomsday plane, expected to arrive in D.C. later today after the secretary’s week-long trip to Asia. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us at and we’ll stick you on. And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease. Remember, if you see something, say something — to Situation Report. That and please follow us @glubold.

Interestingly: In addition to giving Hagel an opportunity to chat up sailors assigned to Asia, the stop on the destroyer Stethem outside Tokyo had symbolic value. The boat is named after Robert Stethem, the Navy Seabee who was a passenger on TWA Flight 847 in 1985 when it was hijacked by Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Stethem was tortured then killed before group members dumped his body on the tarmac in Beirut. Imprinted on the ship’s coin, reffing Stethem: "They could not break him."

One day before, Hagel articulated the administration’s approach on Iran. Then again today he told sailors regarding Iran: "Democracies engage. Engagement is a sign of strength… but I think we all agree that if we can resolve differences and problems peacefully, versus going to war, I think you’re the first to agree that’s probably a better option because you have to fight the wars."

Kerry hand-delivered a chocolate birthday cake to Hagel. Today is Hagel’s birthday, but as he straddles the globe on his way home he’ll see to have celebrated it for three days. It started on Thursday evening, a day before his birthday, when Secretary of State John Kerry, staying at the same Tokyo hotel, surprised his old Senate buddy with a small chocolate-on-chocolate birthday cake while Hagel attended a social event in a meeting room of the Okura Hotel. The next day, Friday, he celebrated his birthday during the final day of his trip in Asia. But then he jumped on the E-4B "Doomsday" plane to fly home, where he will celebrate his birthday all over again in the EST time zone.

Al-Qaida busted Abu Omar out of Abu Ghraib. Now he’s fighting in Syria. Fears abounded that after al-Qaida-linked fighters staged a break-in of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and freed a number of suspected or convicted jihadists, they might turn up in Syria. Those fears have been validated. Writing for FP, Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa team up again to bring out the story of one such fighter, Abu Omar. They write: "Abu Omar, a handsome young man with long black hair, is not the only one making the trek to Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners — mostly suspected or convicted jihadists — were freed in July after al Qaeda-linked militants staged a deadly jailbreak at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. At the time, Iraqi and Western authorities feared that some of those men would travel to Syria, helping to fuel the rise of extremist groups there. Those fears have now become a reality. Abu Omar is one of the al Qaeda members who escaped during the Abu Ghraib prison break.

"He says six of his former cellmates have also made it to Syria. ‘Many more are on their way,’ he says in a strong Iraqi Arabic accent. ‘Everybody wants to go for jihad to Syria.’ Abu Omar sees the Syrian war as much more than a struggle against a brutal dictator. For him, it’s a war against unbelievers, and its ultimate aim is the establishment of an Islamic government that transcends the borders of the modern Middle East. ‘Syria and Iraq are the same struggle to us,’ he explains. ‘Both governments in Iraq and Syria are run by unbelievers, so we will fight both. Syria is currently very weak and close to falling into the hands of the mujahideen [jihadists].’ Read the rest here.

Military personnel costs have risen at a rate that outstrips inflation by 30 percent. Writing on Defense One, CSIS’s Maren Leed and Ariel Robinson: "While military members will continue to get paid through the current government shutdown, questions about the affordability of military compensation over the long term are gaining greater attention. There is a growing recognition that the long-term fiscal health of the Defense Department requires finding common ground on overall budget levels. This will not, however, be enough.  More must be done to slow the rates of internal cost growth, which are eating away at the Pentagon’s purchasing power…The two main components of service members’ compensation package — military health care and pay and allowances — now account for about one-third of DoD’s budget. Long considered a third rail, the need to address military compensation as part of a broader effort to put the defense budget on sound footing is finally being more broadly acknowledged… There is one way to achieve this balance that has yet to be meaningfully explored. Some of the cost in the current system is driven by inefficiency. The homogeneity in the compensation system means we may pay service members, directly or through in-kind benefits, for things they do not really value, and fail to provide them with things that may be more meaningful to them than money." Read the rest here.

So much for being on track: the shutdown is affecting the JSF. Defense News’ Aaron Mehta: "Throughout the year, officials for the F-35 joint strike fighter have consistently said the program is on track. But if the US government shutdown continues for too long, a plane that has been long characterized by its historic delays could find itself falling behind once again, according to the head of the JSF program. ‘The current closing of the federal government coupled with the furloughs from earlier this year has not been good for the F-35 program,’ Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), said in a statement Thursday. ‘The shutdown is negatively affecting our ability to conduct flight tests and other areas of the program, such as development, aircraft deliveries and sustaining the fleet, are also at risk of delay and disruption,’ Bogdan said. ‘Maintaining a stable program is one of the key drivers to keeping the F-35 on track and on budget; we look forward to a quick resolution that will enable our government to properly function again so we can continue to carry on with our mission.’ At the core of production delays is the fact that many Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) workers have been furloughed due to the shutdown. DCMA has oversight of major acquisition projects, auditing and approving work being done on military platforms." The rest here.

Clickbait: The shutdown in pictures, on Mashable, here.

Why is the Army closing down 13 ROTC sites across the country? According to the Army, it’s for this reason: "The decision to close the 13 ROTC programs is not a reflection on the quality of those academic institutions or the outstanding officers produced at those schools," said Karl F. Schneider, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. "These closures are necessary changes that allow for more efficient use of available resources within the command, while maintaining a presence in all 50 states. The Army will continue to be good stewards of its resources through prudent transformation of the institutional Army." Army story here.

A former warlord who helped bring al-Qaida to Afghanistan could be the country’s next president. The former Islamist warlord threw his hat in the ring Thursday, registering to run in Afghanistan’s presidential elections next year – and he’s backed by major power brokers and the chairmen of both chambers of the Afghan parliament, reports the WSJ’s Yaroslav Trofimov. He writes: "Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf-the most conservative, and most controversial, among Afghanistan’s presidential hopefuls-is seen as a credible contender for the job, in part because of his Islamic credentials and his past as a leading mujahedeen commander with high name recognition. His registration ceremony at the country’s Independent Election Commission turned into a show of force, as several dozen trucks and sport-utility vehicles packed with gun-toting militiamen and bedecked with giant Afghan flags trailed the politician through the streets of Kabul.

And: "As Mr. Sayyaf, an Egyptian-trained cleric with a long white beard who espouses the ultra-rigid Salafi interpretation of Islam, presented his documents, hundreds of backers erupted in loud chants of ‘Long live Islam’ and ‘Long live jihad.’ Sayyaf to the crowd: "We will clean the dust off the face of the people, and wipe the tears of the orphans of this country… The first step that we need is national unity."

But: "Speaking in English to Al Jazeera and The Wall Street Journal after his registration on Thursday, Mr. Sayyaf declined to say whether he would back a continued U.S. military presence after the coalition’s current mandate expires at the end of next year. ‘They are already here,’ he said when asked about U.S. troops in Afghanistan. ‘In any decision, in any discussion we will take care of the priorities of our nation. This is what we want to do.’

"He said, however, that he seeks better ties with the U.S. and allies, as well as Afghanistan’s neighbors. ‘Those countries who have helped us in this crucial point of our history, we will strengthen our relations with them,’ Mr. Sayyaf said, adding he expects international aid to continue flowing should he gain power. Seeking to soften his conservative image, Mr. Sayyaf also said he backed women’s rights-though the giant entourage trailing him to the election commission was exclusively male." Read the rest of the story here.
Egypt’s al-Sisi shows that he’s probably not a big fan of sunlight. Remember Egypt? Shinier objects knocked it off the front pages. But a new video gives us a hint of how Egyptian military leader Gen. Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi views the world. The NYT: "A leaked video of senior Egyptian Army officers debating how to influence the news media during the months preceding the military takeover offers a rare glimpse of the anxiety within the institution at the prospect of civilian oversight. In the leaked six-minute clip of a private meeting led by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi in the period before his July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the officers express their dismay at public scrutiny of the army, unknown in Egypt until after the 2011 uprising. Calling even mildly disrespectful news coverage ‘dangerous and abnormal, the officers call for a restoration of ‘red lines’ that had protected the military for decades. And they urge General Sisi to pressure the roughly two dozen big media owners into "self-censorship." The story here. The leaked video, here.


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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