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.

FP’s Situation Report: Hagel to launch a big review of awards

How the off-ramp from Afghanistan has a former black site on it; What would you do with $26 billion?; Leo Shane gets a new gig; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Page One: Karzai suspects the U.S. is secretly staging "insurgent" attacks in Afghanistan to undermine his government. The WaPo’s Kevin Sieff: "President Hamid Karzai has frequently lashed out at the U.S. military for causing civilian casualties in its raids. But behind the scenes, he has been building a far broader case against the Americans, suggesting that they may have aided or conducted shadowy insurgent-style attacks to undermine his government, according to senior Afghan officials. Karzai has formalized his suspicions with a list of dozens of attacks that he believes the U.S. government may have been involved in, according to one palace official. The list even includes the recent bomb and gun assault on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, one of the bloodiest acts targeting the international community in Afghanistan, the official said. The attack, which left 21 people dead, including three Americans, was almost universally attributed to the Taliban." U.S. Ambo Jim Cunningham: "It’s a deeply conspiratorial view that’s divorced from reality." More here.

Fade to black: The off-ramp from Afghanistan includes a stop at a former CIA black site. FP’s own spook, Dan Lamothe: "The Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania is a short drive from the Black Sea and the port city of Constanta, a sprawling metropolis with beach resorts, museums, and nightclubs. It’s also about to become the main transit point for the tens of thousands of U.S. troops flowing out of Afghanistan. It won’t be the first time Washington has used the base for a sensitive mission, however: If human rights groups are correct, the facility also used to house one of the CIA’s notorious "black site" detention facilities.

"The spy agency’s mysterious use of the base has never been fully explained. In 2005, The Washington Post first reported the United States had secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe, but decided not to identify their locations at the request of the U.S. government. The organization Human Rights Watch demanded further investigation into CIA activities on the base shortly afterward, noting that the U.S. intelligence service had landed planes on the base, commonly known as MK, and that public access to the base had been sealed off. The Romanian government denied any detention facilities were there — but did acknowledge allowing the agency to quietly land planes on the base.

"That complicated history serves as the backdrop to MK’s new mission, which will begin next month, as the primary transit point for the troops returning home from Afghanistan. In 2006, MK became the first military installation in a former Warsaw Pact country to host a permanent presence of U.S. troops. It consisted primarily of a headquarters staff and rotating groups of troops charged with training the Romanians, giving the U.S. access to a strategically located base along the Black Sea." Read the rest here.

Meanwhile… State passed the Menendez test: The Senate paves the way to sell Apache helos to Iraq’s Maliki so he can do battle with a resurgent al-Qaida. FP’s own John Hudson: "The weapons sale, which the Obama administration strongly supports, had been held up by Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other powerful lawmakers because of concerns that Maliki could use the equipment for an internal crackdown on Iraq’s various minority communities. Menendez’s committee has now agreed to the sale because the State Department adequately addressed his concerns, according to a Senate aide familiar with the matter. The move clears the way for Baghdad to lease six Apache attack helicopters and buy 24 more, and includes training, logistical support and equipment. The total price tag is estimated at more than $6.2 billion.

"Iraq has wanted the helicopters for more than a year, but Maliki’s government has stepped up its lobbying campaign in recent months because of his country’s intensifying war with the al-Qaeda militants who recently conquered the key city of Fallujah. Maliki used a recent meeting with Vice President Joe Biden to personally ask for his help in winning over lawmakers like Menendez." Read the rest here. Supporting docs from State for FMS wonks: The official notification here and the "support notification" here.

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of Situation Report. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at and we’ll just stick you on. And if you like what you see, tell a friend.  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, because if you see something, we hope you’ll say something — to Situation Report. And one more thing: please follow us @glubold.

Hagel is about to launch a big review of how troops are recognized and awarded in the post-war military – and drone crews will finally get an answer, early in 2015, on how they’ll get their own kind of recognition. Just before Leon Panetta left the Pentagon, the former Defense Secretary threw a political grenade into the building’s E-Ring when he created a new award — a "distinguished warfare medal" — in recognition of the work drone operators do. But so far, no medals have been issued. Chuck Hagel, Panetta’s successor, still hasn’t announced a decision on he’d like to handle an issue that may seem silly to the civilian world — but is beyond-radioactive within the military. 

As a former director of CIA and then Pentagon chief, Panetta felt it was time to show drone pilots and others in the community that the Defense Department values their work. In a military where medals and public recognition are the coin of the realm when it comes to promotions, many felt drone crews were unsung heroes. But the new medal caused an uproar. Ground troops felt disrespected because in the hierarchal world of military order, it sat two awards up from the Bronze Star medal in precedence — and three above the Purple Heart. That was seen as a bit of a slight at infantrymen in the war zones, because the personal risks and valor they exhibited on the ground now appeared to be seen as less valuable than "joystick operators" working out of  places like Creech Air Force Base, down the highway from Las Vegas, Nev.

Enter Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former Army sergeant who fought on the ground in Vietnam and immediately saw the need to take a deep breath on this issue. A month or so after entering office, upon the advice of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Pentagon’s other service chiefs, Hagel killed the medal altogether. Instead, he said he would create a "distinguishing device" — later known as the "Remote Impacts Device" — that would be affixed on existing medals, in effect downgrading recognition for drone operators. But that’s all that was said. Nearly 10 months later, key specifics about the recognition — who should be eligible, what awards it can be affixed to, and how operators would rate it — have yet to be announced. 

That’s because Hagel is preparing to launch a broad review of how all troops are honored for their service as the long war in Afghanistan winds down and U.S. forces potentially find themselves in other hotspots. Rear Adm. John Kirby, to Situation Report last night, saying the new review, to be announced formally in a few weeks and concluded in 2015, will include service members who operate remote technology, like drone pilots, as well as more "traditional forms of arms: "Having seen combat himself, Secretary Hagel fully understands and respects the traditions that come with awards and decorations," Kirby said. "This is a process that will take time and care, but he believes it’s important it’s done right." Read the rest of our piece here.

Read Mark Thompson’s piece on the A-12, the Navy’s stealth attack plane that never would be, here.

Then read J.D. Gordon’s opinion-bit about when politicians exploit the military – and then decide they don’t need them anymore, here.

If you had $26 billion, what would you do? Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio: "The Pentagon’s budget plan for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 will outline how it would spend an additional $26 billion if Congress could find the money, according to U.S. officials. The White House Office of Management and Budget last week directed the Pentagon to produce the what-if list as part of an "investment fund" it would include when President Barack Obama’s proposed budget is submitted to Congress on March 4. The Pentagon would present the fund to demonstrate its priorities if more money were added to what was allocated in last month’s congressional budget deal, one of the officials said. The wish list could include weapons, base maintenance, projects to improve readiness or research programs, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified in advance of the budget release." Read his story here.

Stimson’s Russell Rumbaugh ("R3") on the omnibus bill and the "hidden priority" that is readiness: "The FY14 Omnibus just signed into law chops $30 billion from the pre-sequester defense budget, reducing it to a level that will likely be fairly stable for the next few years. Although the defense budget will erode a bit in real terms over the next two years, the Omnibus brings the base defense budget to its lowest nominal value planned under the Budget Control Act and the Bipartisan Budget Act. After years of fighting over government spending, this appropriations bill gives the first clear look at what the priorities in defense budget will actually be in the future. Probably to many people’s surprise, readiness was prioritized over everything else, warding off the dangers of a hollow force." Read the rest here.

Curious about military retirement? Acting DepSecDef Christine Fox and Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Sandy Winnefeld appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning to talk about recent changes to military retirement and compensation generally. That’s at 9:30 in Dirksen G-50; they’ll be followed by a second panel that includes John Tilelli of the Military Officers Association of America; Gordon Sullivan of the Association of the United States Army; Richard Delaney of the Retired Enlisted Association and David Chu (former Pentagon Personnel Chief) who is now at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Senators! Expect an earful.

Apologies: We saw our mistake yesterday just after we blasted Situation Report. In our item yesterday about Air Force public affairs, we demoted Les Kodlick. it’s Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick, not Colonel. Sorry for the error.

Shane is the new Maze: Leo Shane’s got a new gig. From his "mass email:" This is my last week at Stars and Stripes. It has been a great nine years here, and I appreciate all of the help that you all have been during my time reporting here… And I hope you’ll continue providing that help. I’m heading over to the Military Times group to take over Rick Maze’s old spot, covering military personnel issues and veterans policy on Capitol Hill…I’m looking forward to the new team and the new opportunities it brings." Best luck to Shane in filling aMaze-ingly large shoes, but he won’t need it.

Jim Stavridis on Syria, scotch, "warrior-scholars" and cyber-command. War on the Rocks’ Ryan Evans sat down with the former SACEUR/EUCOM Commander. One question he asked was the role NATO could play as a peacekeeper force in Syria – and where Turkey comes into it. Stavridis: "We are a long way from a peacekeeping force of any kind in Syria. If and when the United Nations decides to intervene, it will require a Security Council Resolution to authorize the use of force.  If the United Nations Security Council chooses to ask NATO to take on the task (as it did in Libya), I believe NATO would be the most credible and combat ready force with built-in command and control to take on the mission.  But at the moment, the UN clearly would not authorize such a mission due to deep disagreement on the Security Council (principally between the United States and Russia) about the proper course to take.  Turkey would obviously be integrally involved in such a force, whether it was NATO or a UN coalition of some other type.

And Evans also asked why Stavridis likes scotch: Stavridis: "I always remember my Dad, a USMC Colonel and combat veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, having a sip of Scotch at the end of the day with my Mom.  My sister and I would join them (not in the Scotch, sadly), but I always associate a little good Scotch with family, the end of the work day, and relaxation.  I have about 40 different single malt Scotches I have picked up here and there, and my favorites are the heavy, peaty types:  two of my favorites are Laphroaig and Ardbeg, from Islay. Generally, I like them over an ice cube or two, although a purist would say drink them neat or with a dash of water.  It is all good.  Wish I had one right now…" Read the rest of the questions here.

Page One: The Assad regime blocks aid to Homs. The WSJ’s Sam Dagher, in Homs, Syria: "Attempts to send convoys of food and medicine to thousands of people under siege in a rebel-held area of Homs failed Monday, lowering hopes about the regime’s commitment to confidence-building measures coming out of peace talks in Geneva. Syrian government and United Nations officials met for talks in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, but they couldn’t agree how to implement a U.N. plan proposed to the regime more than a week ago. The regime insisted on Sunday in Geneva and on Monday in Homs that it would only discuss the evacuation of civilians." Story here.

Tara Sonenshine, former EVP of the U.S. Institute of Peace and more recently State’s Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, on the blurring of borders and pseudo-states and how hard it is to teach geography in 2014: "Syria is the most urgent case defying our notion of a country. Most observers can hardly make sense of who is fighting. Bashar Assad still runs the place and seems to have no interest in stepping down. The rest is a blurry mess of images and names – jihadists, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, the al Nusrah Front and a host of coalitions that don’t seem very coalesced. Iraq is challenging its own geography. U.S. troops fought to liberate citizens from the yoke of tyranny and gave Iraqis back their country. Now extremists have taken parts of that territory and are flying their own flag. That is confusing. (And what’s with the Kurds – is Kurdistan a real place?) Lebanon is now a country with a northern part run by Western-style bankers and politicians and a southern portion that is constantly lobbing missiles at Israel. It sounds like an uneasy marriage." Read the rest of her bit here in The Washington Times. 

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

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.