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: Obama’s drone war in Yemen

Biden to pledge support for Ukraine; Assad still using chems?; Possibly less than 10k in Afg; Dem gubernatorial candidate steps in it; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

The U.S. and Yemen conducted one of the largest attacks against Al Qaeda militants in months this weekend. The NYT’s Eric Schmitt: "… At least three airstrikes were carried out against Qaeda fighters in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities, government officials said in a statement. Yemen’s Interior Ministry said Monday that as many as 55 militants had been killed, but a senior Yemeni official put the figure in the 40s. The government’s statement also acknowledged that three civilians had been killed and five wounded in one of the airstrikes on Saturday. Yemeni officials said they were working to identify those killed in the attacks. As part of a campaign using armed drones in Yemen, the United States has been trying to kill Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s master bomb maker. But American officials said Monday that those men were not the intended targets in these strikes."

"The drone attacks were the largest barrage of airstrikes carried out in Yemen this year – 11 in all so far, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes – and one of the largest strikes carried out since President Obama outlined a new strategy last May for targeting Qaeda militants in battlefields outside Afghanistan." More here.

High stakes: Obama’s drone war in Yemen. CNN’s Peter Bergen: "…Unlike in Pakistan, where President George W. Bush significantly ramped up the CIA drone campaign while he was in office, there was only one drone strike in Yemen during Bush’s two terms in office. During Obama’s administration, there have been 92 drone attacks, as well as a further 15 U.S. strikes using other forms of weaponry such as cruise missiles, according to a count by the New America Foundation… Indeed, Obama vastly accelerated the drone campaign in Yemen in 2011 and 2012, just as CIA drone strikes in Pakistan began to slow. Forty-seven strikes took place in Yemen in 2012, marking the first time the number of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan reached comparable levels… As of Monday, U.S. drone and air strikes have killed an estimated 753 to 965 people in Yemen, of whom the large majority were militants, but at least 81 were civilians, according to the New America Foundation study. All but six of the many hundreds of victims of the strikes were killed under the Obama administration." More here.

Of course, drone strikes aren’t the silver bullet. Reuters’ Mohamed Ghobari and Yara Bayoumy: "An intense two days of air strikes on al Qaeda in Yemen may have killed or wounded some of its commanders, but drones alone are unlikely to eradicate the threat the group poses to Yemenis and the West. A weak central government, a rivalry-ridden and poorly equipped security force, endemic poverty and corruption have made Yemen the ideal haven of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whom U.S. President Barack Obama has described as the group ‘most active in plotting against our homeland.’ Desperate to prevent AQAP from planning more attacks like its attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner in December 2009, Washington has used drones to kill group members and leaders. A U.S. national security source said on Monday that the U.S. government believed that AQAP is currently plotting attacks against American targets, including the U.S. embassy on Sanaa.

"But analysts say drone strikes do only limited harm to AQAP. They say the group will remain a serious menace unless the government can address challenges such as poverty and inadequate security forces, and curb the occasional civilian casualties inflicted by drone attacks that inflame anti-U.S. sentiment." More 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. 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. Follow us! @glubold and @njsobe4.

Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby will brief reporters today at the Pentagon at 1pm.

Situation Report corrects – an item we picked up yesterday from the Washington Post about changes to Navy submarine working schedules was not a WaPo story but one by AP, written by AP’s Michael Melia. Apologies for the error.

The Dem running against an Iraq war vet for Maryland governor just sort of stepped in it. Fox News: A Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland is defending comments he made Monday in which he suggested his opponent, an Iraq war veteran, was not up to the task of a ‘real job.’ Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler drew ire from a veterans’ group after he made the comments about his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, at an event held by the Tech Council of Maryland. During the event, Gansler was asked what the state had learned from the rollout of ObamaCare…Gansler said the website’s woes prove Maryland needs someone who has leadership experience and worked with budgets, someone, he claimed, unlike Brown. What Gansler said: "I’m running against somebody who has never managed anybody, never run anything, his ads are about how he’s a lawyer in Iraq, and that’s all fine and good but this is a real job." More here.

Syria may meet its next chemical weapons deadline, but new evidence shows that Assad is still using chemical weapons. FP’s John Hudson: "Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gotten rid of 80 percent of his chemical weapons, and is increasingly likely to hit a key deadline for the elimination of his entire arsenal by the end of the month. That good news is being partially overshadowed, however, by growing signs that Assad is still waging chemical attacks on communities in rebel-held areas of the country.
"In a briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States has indications that a chemical attack, most likely chlorine, occurred in Syria earlier this month. ‘We have indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical’ in the rebel-held town of Kfar Zeita, she said. ‘We are examining allegations that the government was responsible.’
"The official statement, while withholding final judgment, gives a veneer of credibility to long-running allegations by Syrian opposition activists that regime helicopters mounted a chlorine gas attack on the town of Kfar Zeita on April 11 and 12. Online videos posted by rebel activists at the time showed ghost-white adults and children struggling to breath in a field hospital. Syrian rebels say the incident injured dozens and is Assad’s fourth such chemical attack in the past month alone." More here.

Biden, in Ukraine, will pledge U.S. support. Reuters’ Jeff Mason: "U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will announce a package of technical assistance focused on energy and economic aid distribution during a two-day visit to Ukraine that began on Monday, a senior administration official said. Biden is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the country since the crisis with Russia erupted months ago. His trip is largely symbolic. But during talks with Ukrainian leaders on Tuesday he will announce U.S. assistance, primarily of technical know-how to boost energy efficiency as well as production in Ukrainian natural gas fields and extraction of "unconventional" gas resources, a senior administration official told reporters traveling on board the vice president’s plane." More here.

The WSJ’s Jerry Seib: with oil and gas in hand, Putin holds all the cards. Seib: "Of all the lessons one might draw from Russia’s bullying of Ukraine, this may be the most coldblooded of all: If you want to behave badly, it helps to have a lot of oil and gas. Much will be forgiven, or at least ignored. European nations, international energy companies and China are all, in their own ways, driving home the point. The Europeans are afraid of pushing economic sanctions against Moscow too far lest they be cut off from the Russian natural gas that provides a significant share of their energy." Read the rest here.

Under Russia, life in Crimea grows chaotic. The NYT’s Neil MacFarquhar on Page One: "After Russia annexed Crimea practically overnight, the Russian bureaucrats handling passports and residence permits inhabited the building of their Ukrainian predecessors, where Roman Nikolayev now waits daily with a seemingly mundane question.
"His daughter and granddaughter were newly arrived from Ukraine when they suddenly found themselves in a different country, so he wonders if they can become legal residents. But he cannot get inside to ask because he is No. 4,475 on the waiting list for passports. At most, 200 people are admitted each day from the crowd churning around the tall, rusty iron gate. ‘They set up hotlines, but nobody ever answers,’ said Mr. Nikolayev, 54, a trim, retired transportation manager with a short salt-and-pepper beard. ‘Before we had a pretty well-organized country – life was smooth,’ he said, sighing. ‘Then, within the space of two weeks, one country became another.’ He added, ‘Eto bardak,’ using the Russian for bordello and meaning ‘This is a mess.’
"One month after the lightning annexation, residents of this Black Sea peninsula find themselves living not so much in a different state, Russia, as in a state of perpetual confusion. Declaring the change, they are finding, was far easier than actually carrying it out." More here.

Reading Pincus: In questioning Russia’s Putin about surveillance, Snowden misses the point. The WaPo’s Walter Pincus. "The question Edward Snowden should have asked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday was: ‘Would you please describe how the three versions of SORM operate and what is done with the intercepted phone, ?e-mail and other electronic media those systems collect?’
"The former National Security Agency contractor who in May leaked tens of thousands of highly classified NSA documents that described hundreds of U.S. electronic interception programs, must know about SORM (System of Operative-Investigative Measures), the decades-old but continually upgraded Russian electronic surveillance system." More here.

Post-2014 Afghanistan could have fewer than 10,000 troops. Reuters’ Missy Ryan and Arshad Mohammed: "The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan may drop well below 10,000 – the minimum demanded by the U.S. military to train Afghan forces – as the longest war in American history winds down, Obama administration officials briefed on the matter say. Since Afghanistan’s general election on April 5, White House, State Department and Pentagon officials have resumed discussions on how many American troops should remain after the current U.S.-led coalition ends its mission this year. The decision to consider a small force, possibly less than 5,000 U.S. troops, reflects a belief among White House officials that Afghan security forces have evolved into a robust enough force to contain a still-potent Taliban-led insurgency. The small U.S. force that would remain could focus on counter-terrorism or training operations." Read the rest here.

Listen up, POTUS: some advice ahead of Obama’s big Asia trip, which starts today. Jim Steinberg and Mike O’Hanlon for FP: "As President Barack Obama prepares for his trip to Asia this week, he will face questions not just about the administration’s signature rebalance, or ‘pivot’ toward that region, but also about the crisis in Ukraine. The leaders Obama will meet in South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines will be preoccupied with what appears to them as a potential Asian parallel to the challenge Europe faces: How can the United States and its friends and allies deal with an increasingly assertive regional power? Put more bluntly — as the leaders will surely do in their private talks with Obama — how would the United States respond if China should resort to unilateral territorial intervention in their own backyard?
"The administration’s strategic shift to East Asia in 2011 was built on two pillars. First, the United States would pursue its long-term interest in peace and stability in East Asia through sustained commitment to its traditional allies; second, it would build a cooperative, constructive relationship with a rising China, while also managing differences. 
"In theory, this strategy is intended to take account of the inevitable growth of China’s influence while reducing the danger that the relationship will lead to instability or even conflict. But in recent months, as China has pressed its territorial claims in the East and South China seas, the viability of this strategy has been increasingly put to the test." More here.

U.S. approves $680 million sale of Black Hawk helicopters to Mexico. Reuters’ Andrea Shalal: "The U.S. government on Monday said it had approved the potential sale of 18 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp to Mexico, a deal valued at $680 million. The State Department approved the possible sale and Congress was notified last Thursday by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees foreign arms sales. U.S. lawmakers have 30 days to block the sale, although such action is rare. The deal was announced ahead of an upcoming trip to Mexico by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel." More here.

As the Army shrinks, many young officers are being shown the door. The AP’s Lita Baldor: "After the 9/11 attacks, tens of thousands of young men and women joined the military, heading for the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and dusty deserts of Iraq. Many of them now are officers in the Army with multiple combat deployments under their belts. But as the wars wind down and Pentagon budgets shrink, a lot of them are being told they have to leave. It’s painful and frustrating. In quiet conversations at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Eustis in Virginia, captains talk about their new worries after 15-month deployments in which they battled insurgents and saw roadside bombs kill and maim their comrades. They nervously wait as their fates rest in the hands of evaluation boards that may spend only a few minutes reading through service records before making decisions that could end careers… While a lot of the reduction can come from voluntary retirements, resignations and decreased enlistments, Army commanders will have to force as many as 3,000 officers – nearly 10 percent of the planned decrease – to leave by the end of October 2015. Of those, nearly 1,500 are captains, 550 are majors."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to Baldor: "The captains are a problem… Because when we increased the size of the Army we recruited heavily in certain year groups. So as we draw the Army down, those are over strength." Read the rest here.

Duncan Hunter Sr. calls out the WaPo for editorializing in its obit of Gen. Carl Mundy.  Hunter, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, for FP on Tom Ricks’ Best Defense blog: "Using an obituary to editorialize against a man is the worst of bad taste. Matt Schudel’s obituary for the Washington Post on former Marine Corps Commandant General Carl Mundy appeared to be more of an editorial espousing liberal views on gays in the military and women in combat. The column served neither the truth nor the legacy of a great Marine general.  Schudel excoriates Mundy for his stand against allowing homosexuals into the ranks and resisting the movement to place women in combat positions. Further, he takes Mundy to task for refusing to cut the Marine Corps below their traditional level of 170,000. The Army unfortunately was more acquiescent during the same period, allowing its forces to be cut almost in half with only 10 out of 18 divisions remaining when President Clinton exited the White House. Ten years later, during the Iraq war, thousands of Army families were punished by multiple 15-month tours in the combat zone. Through his previous resistance to cuts, Mundy spared his Marine Corps the same fate." More here.

Hagel vows to keep fighting sexual assault. USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook: "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his visit Monday to the military’s sexual assault hotline sends this message: No single issue has a higher priority at the Pentagon. Solving the crisis, he said, will require sustained attention and changes ‘wide and deep’ within the military. Hagel noted that he meets weekly for an hour with top civilian and military leaders of the services to discuss the problem and how to combat it. ‘It is important for people to know that the secretary of Defense is very focused on stopping sexual assault in the military,’ Hagel said. Hagel spent more than an hour with the staff of the Safe Helpline, the Pentagon’s confidential portal for troops who have been sexually assaulted. Its counselors chat by phone or Web with victims, referring them to military or civilian authorities to make complaints and to medical and mental health professionals." More here.

If that’s what it takes: Military Times’ Jeff Schogol interviews a Vietnam vet who treats his PTSD with nudity. Schogol: "Vietnam War veteran Max Sanchez struggles with controlling issues stemming from post-traumatic stress. As an Army second lieutenant, he volunteered to go to Vietnam, where he served from 1968 to 1969, first with 1st Infantry Division and later with Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Now Sanchez doesn’t go out much because if he gets into a confrontation, he fears he might become violent. His relationship with family members has suffered because he can get combative during arguments. So in addition to seeing a psychologist, he is pursuing an unconventional technique to treat post-traumatic stress: nudity.
Sanchez: "We live in a nude resort, and they have a back pool. It’s very quiet, and I forget about the world back there. I really enjoy it in the hot weather, and I can go there and forget about the world. Unfortunately, I don’t like staying there during what I consider cold weather. To me, anything under 100 [degrees] is cold. It’s not something that completely takes away my problem. When I can be in a tranquil situation … I forget about all of my problems. I don’t find it’s a cure-all because I can’t be back there all the time, but I do find it helpful." More here.

Long Read: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is seeking a third term but many Iraqis fear another civil war, and think that Maliki is to blame. ‘What We Left Behind’ by Dexter Filkins in this week’s New Yorker: "On Christmas Day last year, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appeared on Iraqi television to wish his country’s Christian minority-which has been fleeing by the thousand since the American invasion, in 2003-a happy holiday. Maliki, who is sixty-three, wore a dark-blue suit and a purple tie, and stood almost perfectly still at a lectern flanked by Iraqi flags. His long face conveyed, as it almost always does, a look of utter joylessness. Having spent much of his life hunted by assassins, Maliki gives the impression of a man who learned long ago to ruthlessly suppress his feelings. ‘He never smiles, he never says thank you, and I’ve never seen him say, ‘I’m sorry,” a longtime associate of Maliki’s told me. For Maliki, the holiday greetings were a pretext. What he really wanted to talk about was protests unfolding in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad. ‘Thank God, the truth has been revealed,’ he said.
"When the last American soldiers left Iraq, at the end of 2011, the bloody civil war between the country’s Sunni and Shiite sects had been stifled but not resolved. Now the sectarian violence had returned, with terrifying intensity. For more than a year, thousands of Iraqis, nearly all of them members of the Sunni Arab minority, had been gathering to rail against Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Although the protests were mostly peaceful, security forces responded harshly, detaining thousands of Sunni men without charges and, in one encampment, touching off a spasm of violence that left hundreds of civilians dead. Across the Sunni heartland, north and west of Baghdad, the town squares filled with angry crowds, and the rhetoric grew more extreme. In Ramadi, protesters raised black jihadi flags, representing the extremist Al Qaeda offshoot that had dominated the city during the American occupation. ‘We are a group called Al Qaeda!’ a man shouted from a stage in the protesters’ camp. ‘We will cut off heads and bring justice
!’ The crowd cheered.

"…I saw Maliki in his office in February, and he appeared as stiff and colorless as he did during his televised speech-an apparatchik become the boss. Wearing the same navy-blue suit and purple tie, he spoke in a monotone, his face blank, his body seemingly fixed to his chair. The office, a sterile room without a trace of warmth, had no windows, presumably because windows could be shattered by bombs." Full profile here.


Gordon Lubold is a senior writer at FP and author of Situation Report  with help by Nathaniel Sobel, director of research at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Follow him @glubold and him @njsobe4.

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