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: Dunford, Austin kept in dark on Bergdahl; Mosul falls and Sunni extremists push toward Baghdad; Robert Ford: Arm Syria now; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel Even the U.S.’s Afghanistan war commander didn’t know about the Bergdahl deal. FP’s Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris: "Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban in the border region of eastern Afghanistan was so rushed that not even the Afghanistan war commander or the top commander in the region ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

Even the U.S.’s Afghanistan war commander didn’t know about the Bergdahl deal. FP’s Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris: "Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban in the border region of eastern Afghanistan was so rushed that not even the Afghanistan war commander or the top commander in the region knew a deal had been struck until just before or after it had been finalized, according to multiple administration officials.  The fact that Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of all American and international forces in Afghanistan, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, knew about the ongoing negotiations about Bergdahl but weren’t fully read into the specifics of the actual deal hasn’t been previously reported. It is certain to fuel the growing controversy over whether the Obama administration rushed into a potentially ill-advised deal without fully consulting Congress or even some of the most important members of its national security team.

"…Some high-level officials were privy to the details of the prisoner swap. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and the Vice Chairman, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, were "completely read into the deal," one official said. But the Special Operations forces that flew Bergdahl out of Afghanistan didn’t fall under Dunford or Austin’s chain of command and therefore operated independently. Although both Dunford and Austin were aware of the ongoing efforts to secure Bergdahl’s release — as were approximately 100 administration officials — it was not clear exactly when either commander was informed of Bergdahl’s rescue from his Taliban captors. On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il.), said the Obama administration only finalized the particulars of the exchange a day before it occurred, and that the military only knew the location where Bergdahl was to be picked up an hour earlier.

"… Hagel will appear before a House panel this morning to try to quell the criticism and further explain why the White House acted when it did. It will be an uphill climb for the defense secretary, whose relationship with Capitol Hill has been rocky since his confirmation hearings."

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday: "It was a very small, fleeting window of opportunity in order to secure — safely secure Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and it’s safe to say that the entire interagency, the entire national security team agreed that we needed to take advantage of this fleeting opportunity, and that operational security was critical to securing it safely and efficiently." More here. 

Chuck Hagel made the call to do the deal. ABC’s John Parkinson and Jake Lefferman: "Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – not President Obama – executed the administration’s final call to proceed with the prisoner exchange of five ranking Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, administration officials told Congress today in a classified briefing today."

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, Republican from California: "They indicated [it was] Secretary Hagel [who made the final call]… It was the president of the United States that came out [in the Rose Garden] with the Bergdahls and took all the credit and now that there’s been a little pushback he’s moving away from it and it’s Secretary Hagel?"

"Officials also told Congress that 80 to 90 people within the administration knew of its plans to go forward with the controversial swap, exacerbating tensions between the White House and members of Congress." More on the ABC report here.

Here’s the best defense of Obama’s prisoner swap that you’ve never heard. The rationale for doing the swap has shifted, or at least unfolded over days, each adding to a richer view of what the White House confronted, but also adding fuel to critics who think the administration has shifted its public stance. But behind closed-door briefings, the administration has discussed another reason why it did what it did. FP’s John Hudson: "…It goes like this: Under the laws of war, the legal authority to detain unarmed forces ends when the conflict ends. Last month, President Obama announced that the United States will cease all combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. At that time, Washington will theoretically lose the legal standing to continue to detain Taliban officials who have not been convicted of a crime. Therefore, the administration argues, it makes sense to give up five Taliban prisoners now in exchange for an American POW rather than releasing those same militants in December without getting anything in return." More here.

Meantime, after another Bergdahl briefing, senators remain unconvinced that the trade was worth the costs.  The NYT’s Jonathan Weisman: "Senators emerged from a classified, closed-door briefing on the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on Tuesday seemingly less convinced than ever about the wisdom of swapping five high-level Taliban prisoners for the Army soldier after he spent years in captivity.
"At the session, senior Defense Department and military officials briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, again presenting a united front in their support of the prisoner exchange, said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee’s chairman.
"But they appeared to make little headway in defusing the festering political controversy that has again pitted the administration against Republicans – and some Democrats – who question President Obama’s judgment on national security.

"…Mr. Levin offered perhaps the strongest defense yet of the prisoner exchange before congressional testimony on Wednesday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. ‘When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs tell me as chairman of the Armed Services Committee – and try to tell the public – that they very much supported this deal despite the fact that they knew Bergdahl had left his unit and despite the fact that they knew these five Taliban were bad guys, that has a big impact on me,’ he said." More here.

Welcome to Wednesday’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.

Who’s Where When today – Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Counsel of the Department of Defense Stephen W. Preston testify before the House Armed Services Committee on the Bergdahl swap and the transfer of the "Gitmo Five" at 10 a.m. in Rayburn room 2118… Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno continues his trip in Europe… Commandant Gen. Jim Amos returns to DC today… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus continues his multi-nation trip and is in Bucharest, Romania for meetings with Romani
an Naval Forces Staff at the Navy Headquarters and other military and defense leaders…Acting Department of Defense Chief Information Officer Terry A. Halvorsen delivers the opening keynote address for the 13th Annual Naval Information Technology Day at 8:15 a.m.

Also today, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in the hot seat for Bergdahl, delivers the keynote at the Center for a New American Security’s 8th Annual Conference at the Willard Hotel at 2:15 PM. From the WH Yesterday: "As we said at the time of the President’s remarks at West Point, the senior members of his national security team will follow up with speeches and engagements of their own, in a coordinated effort to lay out the Administration’s foreign policy priorities and broader approach. This is the first of those engagements, but we can expect throughout the summer to also see Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Power, and Assistant to the President Monaco take on pieces of the agenda and engage the debate over foreign policy with an affirmative U.S. case." Watch it here.

Sunni militants drive Iraqi army from Mosul and this morning are pushing toward Baghdad. Despite it receiving the most military support the U.S. provides to any country – at $14 billion – Iraq still can’t fight extremists who are today driving an exhausted Iraqi army out and expanding their reach as the region runs the higher risk of all-out war. The NYT’s Suadad Al-Salhy and Alan Cowell: "In a lightning advance, Sunni militants who overran the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to deal a stunning strategic blow against the government have pressed south toward Baghdad and occupied facilities in the key oil refining town of Baiji, spreading alarm in the Iraqi capital itself, according to security officials and residents on Wednesday. Citizens in the refining center of Baiji, 110 miles south of Mosul, awoke Wednesday to find government checkpoints abandoned after insurgents, in a column of 60 vehicles, took control of the city of 200,000 people without firing a shot, the security officials said.

"Peter Bouckaert, the emergency services director for Human Rights Watch, said in a post on Twitter that the militants had seized the Baiji power station, which supplies electricity to Baghdad, Kirkuk and Salahuddin Province. Baghdad itself, 130 miles further south, seemed calm, but residents said they were shocked by the militant advance and feared the insurgents from the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria could push toward the capital." More here.

What Mosul’s fall says about America’s legacy in Iraq. CS Monitor’s Dan Murphy: "… Events in the city today are a stark reminder of how ephemeral US efforts in Iraq have proven to be. In early 2004, Gen. David Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the province, and his efforts there, focusing on hearts and minds, were marketed as the ‘Mosul model.’ Early in the war, Mosul was Iraq’s most peaceful large city, new businesses were opening, and fuel shortages that bedeviled most of the country then weren’t apparent." More here.

On FP, the unraveling of Iraq in eight fascinating charts, here.

The brazen attacks in Mosul and Karachi are just the latest signs that the bad guys are gaining momentum. FP’s David Rothkopf: "The ground truth about the spread of terrorism will be a hard one for many Americans to swallow after 13 costly years of war. Terrorism is spreading worldwide. Our enemies have sustained our blows, adapted, and grown. Two questions loom large as a consequence: Where did we go wrong and what do we do now?" More here.

How to pull Iraq back from the abyss. Brookings’ Ken Pollack on the WSJ’s op-Ed page: "…Americans seem to think that the vast increase in domestic oil production from shale deposits has immunized the U.S. economy from Middle East instability. Not by a long shot. The International Energy Agency has warned as clearly as it can that projected low prices of oil in the future depend more on increased Iraqi oil production than on North American shale. And every postwar American recession has been preceded by an increase in oil prices, often the result of Middle East instability.

"Then there is the intelligence community’s warning that Sunni terrorists waging the Syrian-Iraqi civil war have begun to contemplate striking American targets from the groups’ secure base areas in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

"Unfortunately, since the height of Iraq’s political-military fortunes in 2009-10, the U.S. has squandered and surrendered most of its influence. But we have to hope that there is still time to deal with the mess of Iraq, because the alternative is almost certain disaster.

"The key fact to keep in mind is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is getting desperate for American military aid to regain control of the country. That could give the U.S. the leverage it needs to put Iraqi politics on a firmer footing." More here.

Former Blackwater guards are going on trial for the 2007 shooting in Iraq. The WSJ’s Andrew Grossman: "After nearly seven years of legal wrangling, prosecutor missteps and false starts, a federal court is finally set to begin sorting out whether four American security contractors are criminally responsible for the deaths of 14 Iraqis killed in a 2007 Baghdad shooting incident. The trial of the four former employees of Blackwater Worldwide, slated to begin here Wednesday with jury selection, will revisit a painful episode that sparked international outrage and contributed to the Iraqi government’s decision to force the company out of the country." More here.

An American bomber reportedly killed five U.S. troops in Afghanistan. TIME’s Mark Thompson: "The war in Afghanistan began with friendly fire. Now it seems to be ending the same way. On Dec. 5, 2001, two months after the U.S. invasion, a massive 2,000-pound bomb killed three U.S. Special Forces north of Kandahar. The GPS-guided weapon struck the Americans because the controller on the ground who called in the airstrike changed the battery on his GPS device in the middle of the bombing run. But he didn’t realize that once the unit rebooted, the aim point it began transmitting to the B-52 bomber far above wasn’t the enemy’s location. It was his.

"On Monday, at about 9 p.m. local time, it happened again, this time in restive Zabul province in the southern part of the country. ‘Five American troops were killed yesterday in an incident in southern Afghanistan,’ Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, told reporters Tuesday. ‘We do have reason to suspect that friendly fire was the cause here, specifically friendly fire from the air.’ Reports from Afghanistan indicated a B-1 bomber mistakenly dropped its weapon on the commandos for unknown reasons. The blast also killed
an Afghan soldier." More here.

For FP, Harvard’s Malik Siraj Akbar reviews ‘The Taliban Revival’ by NDU professor Dr. Hassan Abbas, here.

And also for FP, Dr. Patrick W. Quirk on the June 14 run-off election in Afghanistan, here.

The House Approps Committee votes to scrap the A-10 Warthog. Stripes’ Travis Tritten: "The House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to retire the popular A-10 Warthog, defying earlier votes in the House and Senate and pleas from infantry troops to save the close-support aircraft. The committee, which holds the federal purse strings, overwhelmingly rejected a measure in the House’s proposed defense budget for 2015 that would have preserved the A-10 from Air Force spending cuts. The Air Force is under pressure to cut spending due to mandatory budget cuts and had proposed to save about $7 billion by retiring 283 Warthogs. But the aircraft has supporters in the Army and Marines, where it has saved lives during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Armed services committees in both chambers of Congress voted to keep the Warthog last month." More here.

IBM and Epic Systems Corp. will team up to compete for an $11 billion project to manage U.S. troops’ electronic health records by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Salant, 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.

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.