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: U.S. assistance to Syrian rebels to expand; 9,800 troops for Afg, out by 2016; Missile defense for Seoul?; What Washington’s sturm and drang is doing to veterans; George Wright departs; and a bit more.

This morning, Obama will use his West Point commencement address to launch a new foreign policy offensive. FP’s John Hudson: "Under fire from the left and the right for its handling of foreign policy, the Obama administration is about to go on the attack with a high-profile speech at West Point designed to show that ...

This morning, Obama will use his West Point commencement address to launch a new foreign policy offensive. FP’s John Hudson: "Under fire from the left and the right for its handling of foreign policy, the Obama administration is about to go on the attack with a high-profile speech at West Point designed to show that it has plans in place to deal with Islamist militants in Afghanistan, Syria, and Africa.
"The speech Wednesday is unlikely to satisfy hawks in Congress who have pressed the White House to send more weaponry to Syria’s beleaguered rebels, provide more military assistance to Ukraine during its standoff with Russia, and leave a larger troop presence in Afghanistan to help prevent an al Qaeda resurgence there. But the new initiatives, which rely heavily on training forces in partner nations, may serve to combat the critique that the White House is doing nothing as the world smolders.
"One of the most significant announcements, expected to be delivered on Wednesday, is a new military program to train and equip moderate elements of the Syrian opposition…

"…But that’s not the only initiative the administration is rolling out for reporters ahead of the speech. In North and West Africa, the U.S. is sending Special Forces troops to train elite counterterrorism units in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. The hope is to establish in-country units that can deal with terror threats, such as the one posed by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped almost 300 Nigerian girls last month. The African fighters will be trained by members of the Army’s Green Berets and Delta Force and financed by a classified Pentagon account, according to The New York Times.  Overall, the initiative is in line with the president’s goal of avoiding costly land wars in favor of training allies to develop their own counterterrorism capabilities." More here.

"The devil’s in the details": The White House is close to authorizing a military training program for Syrian rebels. The WSJ’s Adam Entous: "…A new military training program, if implemented, would supplement a small train-and-equip program led by the Central Intelligence Agency that Mr. Obama authorized a year ago. U.S. officials don’t discuss the CIA’s limited training program because it is covert. In a commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday, officials said Mr. Obama will signal backing for the new training effort by saying he intends to increase support to the armed opposition to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including by providing them with training. Mr. Obama isn’t expected to provide details about how, or where, that training would be done.

"… Defense officials said it was unclear when training, which would be undertaken by U.S. special-operations forces, would start. They cited obstacles that include how the Pentagon will vet prospective rebels for the program. Syrian opposition leaders say the program would be a step in the right direction but voiced skepticism that training alone could turn the tide in the civil war. Opposition leaders have been lobbying the U.S. to give moderate fighters access to more powerful weapons, including antiaircraft missile launchers, so they can take out Mr. Assad’s helicopters and attack planes.

"Defense officials said it also remains unclear which countries in the region would agree to host such a mission and what criteria would be used to screen rebels to prevent radical Islamists aligned with al Qaeda from taking part.

A senior U.S. military official: "The devil’s in the details… a lot of conditions have to be met." Read the whole story here.

More on Syria below.

The president’s biggest foreign-policy speech in a year will be showy and ambitious but can’t paper over his administration’s lack of focus says Stephen Walt. Harvard’s Walt for FP: "President Obama will give the commencement address at West Point tomorrow morning. I don’t know what he is going to say, of course, but I’m sure he’ll say it well.
"…No doubt the speech will offer up the usual list of ‘achievements’ (Osama bin Laden is dead, we’re out of Iraq, etc.), and rumor has it that he’s going to announce a new program of assistance for the Syrian opposition. Given the setting, it is bound to strike a patriotic tone and contain some typically soaring Obamian rhetoric. But what the president really needs to do is provide the strategic coherence that has been lacking ever since he took office in 2009. Although he seems to have recognized from the start that the United States had to reduce its global burdens in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Obama nor his advisors ever managed to articulate and stick to a set of core strategic principles. The result has been an overly ambitious foreign-policy agenda that kept top officials busy but failed to produce significant positive results." More here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s laden 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.

Who’s Where When today ­- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is wheels up today for a 12-day, ’round the world trip (details tomorrow)… Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey is on his way to Singapore with a stop in the UAE today… Gen. Ray Odierno attends the commencement at West Point… Marine Commandant Jim Amos speaks at the Army War College… Commander, U.S. Cyber Command, Director, National Security Agency, Chief, Central Security Adm. Michael S. Rogers delivers remarks at the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association’s (AFCEA) 5th Annual Cross-Agency Cybersecurity Summit at the Capitol Hilton at 1:00 p.m.

Also today, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan Garcia,  Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Michael Barrett, and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory will kick off the Navy’s 4th Annual Wounded Warrior and Veteran Hiring Conference in Raleigh in what is the first year the Navy has staged such an event outside a "Fleet Concentration Center." But in Raleigh, the three will leverage the proximity of the Marine Wounded Warrior Transition Unit at Camp Lejeune, with the industry opportunity of the famed "Research Triangle" in Raleigh-Durham. So far, more than 60 local companies and firms have registered to participate in the two-day employment workshop. In fiscal 2012, the Navy hired 11,000 veterans – 59 percent of all the service’s new hires – with 10 percent of those wounded warriors, according to the Navy. More deets here.  

And also today, get your missile-defense fix today at the Atlantic Council’s daylong conference.  James A. Winnefeld, Jr., Vice Chairman, US
Joint Chiefs of Staff delivers the keynote at 9:15 a.m. Watch online

And by the way, Washington is considering the deployment of a missile-defense system in South Korea. The WSJ’s Julian Barnes: "The U.S. is weighing a plan to deploy an advanced missile-defense system in South Korea, as the Pentagon begins a new push this week to expand cooperation in Asia to counter the threat of North Korean missiles, defense officials said. The U.S. has conducted a site survey in South Korea for possible locations for a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery, or Thaad, but no final decisions have been made to deploy the system, the officials said. The system is designed to intercept short, medium and intermediate missiles. Last year, in the face of provocations from North Korea, the U.S. deployed one such system to Guam to protect U.S. bases there.
"Deploying a Thaad system to South Korea could represent an important incentive to encourage Seoul to cooperate more fully with the U.S. and Japan in a planned regional missile defense system. South Korean officials have long indicated they don’t want to participate in a U.S.-Japanese missile defense system, preferring instead to develop their own defenses. South Korean official reiterated that position on Tuesday. The U.S. could deploy its own Thaad system to South Korea temporarily, and then, in time, replace it with a system purchased by Seoul, a defense official said. Or it could allow South Korea to purchase its own, and jump ahead in the queue for the system, the official said." More here.

Obama plays it down the middle on Afghanistan – giving the military most of what it wants in force size, but announces that almost all of those troops will come out by 2016. FP’s Lubold: President Obama announced Tuesday that he will keep 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014 for "two narrow missions" – training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda – but will draw all of them down by the time he prepares to leave office at the end of 2016. The announcement ends months of speculation about what the commander-in-chief would do in Afghanistan, where about 32,000 American troops remain in the 13th year of what has become a deeply unpopular war. On Wednesday, Obama – who just returned from his first trip to Afghanistan in two years — will give what aides describe as a major speech at West Point outlining his broader foreign policy views as well as his specific policies on Syria, Afghanistan, and other nations.

But Obama’s decision to announce a timeline for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan that squares with his own last two years in office led several critics to charge that a political agenda was driving a major policy decision.

"To arbitrarily end this with a date that is set by a domestic American political timetable ignores the realities on the ground and ignores the sacrifices our men and women have made in Afghanistan," said Marc Chretien, who most recently served as the chief political adviser to Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan until early last year.

Michele Flournoy thinks the announcement is a positive development because it "stops the narrative that we’re going to zero," but hopes that the U.S. manages the drawdown based on conditions on the ground: "The truth is that nobody knows if this plan is just right, too fast, or too slow."

Lindsey Graham tweets: "Doing the same thing he did in Iraq and expecting different results is the definition of insanity."

Former ISAF commander John Allen: "I am very attentive to a deadline for the training mission at the end of 2016, and will be very interested in understanding this aspect of the announcement."

CNAS’ Fontaine says that the Afghanistan announcement is one step forward, two steps back. From Fontaine’s statement: "… his announcement of a rigid deadline for withdrawal of those troops may well mark two steps back. It is clear today that the Afghan national security forces are not yet fully capable of handling the array of security challenges facing their country, and an enduring component of nearly 10,000 American troops – supplemented by diplomats, intelligence personnel and contractors – can go a long way toward helping those forces succeed.  And yet the President’s withdrawal timeline appears based on the administration’s clock, rather than conditions on the ground." More here.

Dempsey tells Reuters’ Phil Stewart that a 2016 U.S. pullout gives time to build Afghan force. Stewart: "…General Martin Dempsey… said Afghan army Chief of Staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi said the decision would allow his country to ‘feel as though we can get about the business of governing ourselves’ secure in the knowledge of continued U.S. support. ‘My Pakistani counterpart, the first words out his mouth was that he was deeply relieved. He too felt that the certainty was important, not only for Afghanistan but for the region,’ Dempsey said, referring to Pakistan’s General Rashad Mahmood." More here.

Some would say that Obama confronts foreign policy with the world he wants, not the one he has. The WaPo’s lead editorial, "The Retreat Continues," on Obama’s Afghanistan policy, which ends with this kicker: "Ending wars." "Nation-building at home." The "pivot to Asia." These are popular and attractive slogans, and they make a lot of sense in the abstract. But they don’t necessarily bring peace to a dangerous world, and a president can’t always safely choose which dangers he would rather confront." Read it here.

Meantime, a Pakistani woman was stoned to death by her family in broad daylight. The Guardian’s Jon Boone: "The ‘honor killing’ happened in front of a large crowd of witnesses outside Lahore’s grand high court building where Farzana Parveen, 25, had been due to appear in a case brought by her family. The attack began when one of Parveen’s brothers attempted to shoot her before he and other male family members attacked her with bricks and blunt instruments. Throughout the deadly assault her father simply looked on while no members of the public outside the busy court complex came forward to intervene despite her cries for help. Some reports said policemen watched the incident – and all of the attackers managed to escape, although her father was arrested. The affluent city of Lahore likes to think of itself as Pakistan’s ‘cultural capital’, far removed from the country’s rural hinterland where killings to protect family ‘honor’ are more common. More here.

But: an Afghan woman who set her husband on fire is receiving support from others who are tired of enduring lives of abuse. The NYT’s Alissa Rubin: "Zahra said a neighbor raped her in her home on Friday. It was the most humiliating event in her unremittingly painful life, a
nd the next day she begged her husband, Najibullah, to move their family so the man could not attack her again. He refused. On Sunday afternoon, she poured kerosene over Najibullah and lit him on fire. ‘I stepped back and watched him burn,’ Zahra said. ‘I thought, ‘Someone is going to die, and it is going to be him or it is going to be me.” More here.

The Israeli government has agreed to spend more than half the funds the Pentagon provides for its Iron Dome system in the U.S. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio: "… Funds going to U.S. contractors for components of the Israeli-built, Pentagon-funded system will jump to 30 percent this year and 55 percent next year from 3 percent previously, according to a U.S. Missile Defense Agency report to Congress obtained by Bloomberg News. That amounts to at least $97 million of $176 million requested by the Defense Department for the coming fiscal year… While that performance bolstered Iron Dome’s popularity in the U.S. as a way to aid the nation’s closest ally in the Mideast, lawmakers have been pushing for more of the Defense Department’s funds for the program to be spent on American contractors in a time of declining defense spending." More here.

An American solar panel company wondered why Chinese firms kept undercutting their prices – then the FBI knocked on their door. FP’s Shane Harris with an exclusive: "SolarWorld was fighting a losing battle. The U.S. subsidiary of the German solar panel manufacturer knew that its Chinese competitors, backed by generous government subsidies, were flooding the American market with steeply discounted solar panels and equipment, making it practically impossible for U.S. firms to compete. What SolarWorld didn’t know, however, was that at the same time it was pleading its case with U.S. trade officials, Chinese military hackers were breaking into the company’s computers and stealing private information that would give Chinese solar firms an even bigger unfair advantage, including the company’s pricing and marketing strategies." More here.

The White House’s top lawyer will look into how the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan leaked. USA Today’s David Jackson: "White House Counsel Neil Eggleston will develop a report ‘with recommendations on how the administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again,’ said Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Agency. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough asked Eggleston to conduct the review and report back to him, Hayden said." More here.

Al-Monitor’s Edward Dark reports from Aleppo on how war profiteers are plundering in Syria, here.

The NYT’s Anne Barnard documents a Syria’s fractured railroad, here.

U.S.-Saudi relations are still strained by Syria. The WaPo’s Liz Sly in Riyadh: "The worst rupture in 40 years in U.S.-Saudi relations has been eased – but not healed – by a series of measures aimed at restoring damaged trust. In a sign of the significance of the relationship, both governments have made strenuous efforts to repair the rift, which emerged after President Obama stepped back last summer from his ‘red line’ on any use of chemical weapons by Syria and declined to launch airstrikes against its government… ‘Obama has no political will at all, not only in Syria but everywhere,’ said Abdullah al-Askar, head of the foreign affairs committee in the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, reflecting the widespread perception that the United States has lost interest in the Middle East. ‘The disappointment with him is felt all over the Arab world.’ Obama’s visit with Abdullah in March, intended to reassure Saudis of the U.S. commitment to the relationship, has been followed by a flurry of U.S. delegations from various branches of government. Among the visitors was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who this month asserted the United States’ determination to remain engaged in a region that produces most of the world’s oil." More here.

Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko won the election – but can he win over the people? David Patrikarakos for FP: "…The truth is, Poroshenko takes office facing both military and political problems. He may have won by a comfortable margin, but the electorate also made its dissatisfaction with the main candidates clear. In an election characterized by predictability, the one surprise was the strength of support for Oleh Lyashko, a former journalist and leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party, who received almost 8 percent of the vote." More here.

The continuing political struggle over VA chief’s fate risks distorting the public’s view of those who fought. TIME’s Mark Thompson: "Washington relishes nothing more than dumping someone’s career into a centrifuge and punching ‘puree’-it separates the good from the bad, and leaves Americans, with plenty of help from the media, to focus on the bad. Regardless of what happens to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the sturm und drang surrounding his VA tenure is doing little to help the U.S. public understand the nation’s veterans at a time when such insight is desperately needed. The high-profile attention on ailing vets can only exacerbate, in the public’s mind, that most of them are coming home broken one way or another.
Mattis, a three-star Marine general who retired in 2013, warned yesterday: "We are telling these guys they are somehow damaged… Only about 15% have ever been in close combat, so when the biggest danger is getting their foot run over by a dessert cart at a [forward operating base] is somehow translated into us giving people money who said `I had to stand on a ramp when a dead guy was put on the airplane.’ Now don’t get me wrong-I respected every one of them-but hey man, this isn’t as bad as Iwo Jima, and those guys came home and raised healthy families, they ran universities, they developed corporations that made America competitive in the world.’" More here.

In the wake of the VA scandal, Chuck Hagel’s Pentagon announced a review of the military health system late yesterday. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby provided the following statement: "Today, Secretary Hagel ordered a comprehensive review of the military health system to begin immediately. Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs), will lead the review which will focus on access to care and an assessment of the safety and quality of health care, both in the military treatment facilities and healthcare that the department purchases from civilian healthcare providers. The review, which is expected to last for 90 d
ays, will examine whether current access to care meets the department’s standards. It will also examine the safety and quality of the care provided to all DoD beneficiaries." More here.

Meantime, the Army ousted the leader of Fort Bragg’s hospital. The NYT’s Sharon LaFraniere: "The Army ousted the commander of one of its busiest hospitals and suspended three top deputies on Tuesday after two patients in their 20s unexpectedly died in the past 10 days, shortly after they sought treatment at the hospital’s emergency room. The shake-up at the hospital, Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., came at a moment of heightened sensitivity about health care in the military community, stirred by the furor over treatment delays in the separate medical system serving the nation’s veterans. 
"…Pentagon data shows that Womack, which performs more than 14,000 inpatient and outpatient surgical procedures a year, had a higher-than-expected rate of surgical complications from January 2010 to July 2013, the latest data available. In March, the hospital suspended all elective surgery for two days after inspectors from the Joint Commission found fault with surgical infection control procedures. The hospital has remained fully accredited.
"Less than three weeks ago, the Army’s surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, met with hospital staff members to discuss concerns, including worries over the inspection results. Hospital workers have also privately complained that the patient population has grown while staff has shrunk. One worker said General Horoho had been asked: ‘Where do you draw the line between quality of care and your budget?’" More here.

For the Daily Beast, Jacob Siegel explores a dysfunctional VA hospital in Texas, here.

Once more with feeling: Want to understand the different factions in Libya? Check it out on War on the Rocks, here (broken link yesterday). 

An Army institution departs today. George Wright, famed Army public affairs officer, is heading home. He’s joining his wife who is in Louisville to take care of her mother. "While I’d planned to stay until January 2016, the separation and long winter took their toll, so I’m joining the ranks of those who ‘leave Washington to spend more time with their family.’ My last day is [today], and I’ll be home for supper on Friday. The good news is that I’ll still be part of the Army family, and I’ll start work on June 2 as Chief of Internal Information at ROTC Cadet Command at Fort Knox, a short 45-mile drive from my house in Louisville.  SHAMELESS PLUG: I’ll run the Press Center for ROTC Summer Camp from June 7 – August 12, so y’all come. In all sincerity, though, as I’m cleaning out my office today, I remember how proud I was to take this duty almost three years ago, and to have been able to return to serve on active duty as a PAO here for three years in 2006. Each of you has touched my life in some way, and I’m grateful for our good work together, and what I hope may be an enduring professional and personal relationship. Please accept my warmest, most sincere gratitude for your good work and friendship."

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.

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.