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: Polls drop for Obama forpol; What happened to Iraqi army?; A “diplomatic memo” saves the day; A WH memo justifies Awlaki killing; Syrian chems out; and a bit more.

  After his stop in Baghdad, John Kerry arrived this morning in Erbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq – the first SecState to visit there since Condi Rice in 2006. Kerry is jetting around the country to help Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to come together, pushing it to recognize that it has little alternative but ...



After his stop in Baghdad, John Kerry arrived this morning in Erbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq – the first SecState to visit there since Condi Rice in 2006. Kerry is jetting around the country to help Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to come together, pushing it to recognize that it has little alternative but to do so as Sunni militants continue their aggressive march – and staged an attack of a police convoy not far from Baghdad last night. Kerry has already visited top Sunni leaders and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and today he’s in Erbil to talk with Kurdish leaders, where the president of the autonomous Kurdish region described Kerry’s challenge as building a multisectarian government and "a new Iraq." At the same time, Kerry indicated that U.S. military action against the Sunni militant group ISIS could come sooner than expected. The NYT’s Michael Gordon in Baghdad in the last 24 hours: "Winding up a day of crisis talks with Iraqi leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Sunni militants seizing territory in Iraq had become such a threat that the United States might not wait for Iraqi politicians to form a new government before taking military action.

Kerry on ISIS: "They do pose a threat… They cannot be given safe haven anywhere… That’s why, again, I reiterate the president will not be hampered if he deems it necessary if the formation is not complete."

"… American officials, drawn increasingly back into a struggle that President Obama had sought to end, do not want to be seen as taking sides in a sectarian conflict. They have stressed in recent days that the establishment of an cross-sectarian Iraqi government would make it easier for the United States to provide military support for Iraq, including airstrikes.

"Mr. Kerry flew in a C-17 military aircraft to Iraq on Monday from Amman, Jordan, to try to hasten that political process. He began his day with a meeting with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and some of his top security aides, which lasted 100 minutes. Mr. Kerry then met in rapid succession with Ammar al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political party that is a rival of Mr. Maliki’s State of Law political coalition, and with Osama al-Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of Iraq’s Parliament. Mr. Kerry also met with Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurd who serves as Iraq’s foreign minister." More here.

Where was the "diplomatic note" in 2011? In the meanwhile, the Pentagon is giving the green light to sending 300 troops to Iraq now that the administration yesterday got the assurances it needed that those troops would have legal immunity – a prerequisite for such a deployment – inside Iraq. But the very issue that drove American troops out of Iraq in 2011 – the lack of a security agreement that would protect them from prosecution under the Iraqi judicial system if they got in hot water – became an issue once again this past week as the U.S. scrambled to get the Iraqis to agree to legal protections for those U.S. troops headed there now. After first saying it wasn’t an issue, then saying it was, and that no American troops would go there until the proper assurances were granted, the White House yesterday said that it had the "diplomatic note" it needed. But the legalistic jockeying showed to critics that had the administration really wanted such an agreement three years ago, maybe it could have gotten one.

Meantime, what happened to Iraqi security forces? The U.S. thought the Iraqi security forces were GTG in 2011, or at least American officials convinced themselves they were. Of course, most in the military who had spent years training the ISF and fought alongside them, knew better. But the war was over, there was no security agreement that would allow even a small contingent of U.S. troops to stay and advise and three years later, he force that might have been able to mitigate the current crisis isn’t strong. Lubold’s story: "When the United States left Iraq in 2011, the Pentagon said the Iraqi security forces it had spent tens of billions of dollars training were more than up to the job of securing the country’s borders and preventing extremists from reigniting the kind of civil war that devastated the country during the long U.S. occupation. Top American commanders conceded that the Iraqi forces didn’t have a strong air force and that there were legitimate concerns about how the army would maintain its equipment or handle a sectarian crisis, for example, or plan and execute missions based on its own intelligence capabilities. Still, U.S. officials confidently proclaimed that the Iraqi security forces were on the right track as they bid the Iraqis adieu.

"…Those optimistic assessments were catastrophically wrong. Iraqi troops have literally melted away rather than fight militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, abandoning their uniforms and enormous amounts of American-supplied vehicles, weaponry, and ammunition as they fled south.

"…In late 2011, James Dubik, the retired three-star American general who led training of Iraqi forces until 2008, noted that the country’s military still needed to hone its counterinsurgency training, wasn’t capable of deterring external threats, and didn’t have the capabilities required to sustain itself in a long-term fight. Indeed, today some believe the Iraqi army has become a "checkpoint military" — good at static security, but flawed when it comes to actually fighting militants on the battlefield.

"…To Dubik, the best analogy to describe the condition in which the United States left Iraqi forces in 2011 is in the form of a spear: American forces had successfully created the ‘tippy end’ for Iraq, but the rest of the spear — the maintenance of equipment, the logistics skills required to conduct operations, medical capabilities, and the like — were still on the "to do" list.

‘We left before we were done,’ he said. More of our story here.

This is how a Sunni taxi driver from Mosul sees the world with ISIS – and Maliki’s government. SPIEGEL Staff: "Masoud Ali, a tall, friendly man with a beard and green eyes, was a taxi driver in Mosul until a few days ago. He likes the desert, and he loves his wife and his yellow Nissan. He never paid much attention to politics until now… But then fighters with the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,’ or ISIS, overran the city of two million. An evening curfew has been in force in Mosul since last Monday, says Ali. He and his family heard gunshots near their apartment on Tuesday, and when Ali looked outside, he saw a dead body lying on the street.

"…A day later, Masoud Ali loaded his family into his car and stepped on the gas. As they drove away, they could see police uniforms and abandoned military vehicles in the ditch. Government troops, most of them Sunnis, had surrendered to the Sunni ISIS fighters. Ali, like most residents of Mosul, is also a Sunni. He had heard the mayor calling for the citizens of Mosul to defend themselves against ISIS.

Masoud Ali: "But why should I have defended myself?… For the Shiite government? For Prime Minister Maliki, who oppresses the Sunnis?…The conflict has escalated because people in Iraq don’t like the government anymore." More here.

Iraq’s Kurds sold their first tanker full of oil to Israel last week, moving closer to independence by Forbes’ Christopher Helman, here.

Survey says: A new poll shows deep dissatisfaction with Obama’s foreign policy among the GOP and Dems. There may be some irony in the fact that President Obama has been accused of conducting foreign policy based on poll numbers, ending unpopular wars and trying to stay out of world conflicts. But now those decisions seem to be coming back to haunt him. The NYT’s Michael Shear and Dalia Sussman on the new NYT/CBS News poll: "…The survey suggests that most Americans back some of Mr. Obama’s approaches to the crisis in Iraq, including majority support for the possibility of drone strikes. But the poll documents an increasing lack of faith in the president and his leadership, and shows deep concern that further intervention by the United States in Iraq could lead to another long and costly involvement there.  The poll found that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling foreign policy, a jump of 10 points in the last month to the highest level since Mr. Obama took office in 2009. The spike in disapproval is especially striking among Democrats, nearly a third of whom said they did not approve of his handling of foreign policy." More here.

The first thing you do to right the ship? Admit you were steering it in the wrong direction in the first place. FP’s David Rothkopf: "If there was a turning point in the presidency of George W. Bush, it came when he and his team finally accepted that their strategy in Iraq was not working and embraced the idea of the ‘surge.’ It prompted them to admit they were wrong and to adapt.

"…We are at a moment ripe for such a realization and a manifestation of flexibility for President Barack Obama…The events are not unrelated, of course. Reasonable analysts are pointing out that the roots of the instability that wracks Iraq today can be traced not only to the Bush-era invasion of Iraq but also to the only-temporary benefits won by the surge and the failure of both Bush and Obama to address the deep political flaws in the Iraqi system earlier. But the current events in Iraq are not just a flashback. They are much more dangerous than the insurgency the Bush team eventually, and reluctantly, admitted had been gaining ground through 2005 and 2006." More here.

Dexter Filkins for the New Yorker on unfinished business in Iraq, 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.

Remember the VA? The Office of Special Council offers a sharp criticism of it. The NYT’s Richard Oppel: "In a blistering letter sent to President Obama on Monday, the head of the agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints in the federal government criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for not digging deeper into widespread allegations made by its own employees of poor or severely delayed patient care for veterans. In the letter, Carolyn N. Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, asserted that Veterans Affairs officials consistently have used a ‘harmless error’ defense to dismiss as trivial numerous claims of shoddy patient care or long waiting times made by department employees in recent years. Ms. Lerner criticized the department, along with its Office of the Medical Inspector, for a longstanding pattern of refusing to use whistle-blower complaints to fix serious medical problems." More here.

A federal court released the memo justifying the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen killed in Yemen in 2011.

The NYT’s Charlie Savage: "…Mr. Obama’s decision to authorize the military and the C.I.A. to hunt down and kill Mr. Awlaki was an extraordinary step that created an important precedent for executive power, civil liberties and the rule of law. Intelligence officials had concluded that Mr. Awlaki was an operational terrorist leader who had gone overseas, become part of Al Qaeda or an associated force, and was "engaged in continual planning and direction of attacks" on Americans. His capture was not feasible, the memo said." More here.

Read the actual memo with FP’s Elias Groll, here.

Part III of the WaPo’s jinormous package on drones, "Hazard Above," with @craigmwhitlock at the joystick, here.

Lawmakers in House and Senate are proposing an overhaul of aid to Egypt following convictions of two Al Jazeera English journalists. FP’s John Hudson: "In an embarrassing setback for the Obama administration, the Egyptian government stepped up its crackdown on freedom of the press and political dissent just one day after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo, raising new questions about the White House’s support for an increasingly repressive regime.

"During the Sunday visit, Kerry vowed to resume hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Cairo and clear the way for the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters — assistance that is now coming under withering criticism following the conviction of three journalists on charges of spreading false news and conspiring with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, members of Congress, including some Democrats, condemned the convictions and called for an overhaul of U.S. funding to Egypt, exposing a disconnect between the president, members of his own party, and Egyptian activists.

"…The statements of outrage aren’t just talk. Schiff, a California Democrat, will propose an amendment on Tuesday that would cut and restructure American aid to Egypt, chopping off almost a third of security assistance funding to Cairo and putting the savings into economic assistance programs related to education, democracy and civil society. Egypt, Schiff said, ‘is too important to the region and to the world for the United States to stand idly by.’" More here.

Funny thing: when the U.S. military helps foreign leaders, their nations seem to shrink. TIME’s Mark Thompson: "For years, despite the massive investment of U.S. lives and treasure in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has been derided as the ‘major of Kabul,’ given his central government’s impotence elsewhere in the country. For days, despite an even greater of U.S. blood and treasure in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now being referred to in some quarters as the ‘mayor of Baghdad.’ (And, according to military author Tom Ricks, even that overstates the real estate he rules.) This is a not a good outcome for Washington, which provided the security and built the infrastructure that enabled elections to put both men in charge. It’s the realpolitik that is keeping U.S. firepower largely sidelined in Iraq: if great swaths of such countries don’t care if their purported leader is relegated to a bürgermeister in his own land, why should the U.S. do even more to let him retain his hold on the government’s reins?" More here.

Who’s Where When today – Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosts an honor cordon to welcome Norway’s Minister of Defense Ine Eriksen Soreide to the Pentagon at 2:30 p.m… Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is in Afghanistan, where he’ll visit today Bagram Airfield as part of a series of meetings with troops and senior leadership… Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos delivers remarks at the American Enterprise Institute at 10:30 a.m. Watch it here. … Deputy Under Secretary of Defense of Intelligence for Joint and Coalition Warfighter Support, Lt. Gen Raymond P. Palumbo delivers remarks at the Future of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Symposium in Arlington…Commander, U.S. Cyber Command, Director, National Security Agency, Chief, Central Security Adm. Mike Rogers delivers the keynote address at the Armed Forces Communication and Electronic Association Cyber Symposium.

Tomorrow, the Center for National Policy is hosting a panel of Egyptian business leaders for a public discussion of US-Egypt trade and the economic situation in the country post-election. Deets here.

The International Crisis Group’s latest report looks at the state of education in Pakistan and calls on the government to reverse decades of neglect, poor standards, and under-funding in order to reduce the risk of sectarianism and religious extremism. Download it here.

Deadline met?: The removal of chemical weapons from Syria is completed. The WSJ’s Naftali Bendavid: "All the dangerous substances from Syria’s chemical weapons program, including sulfur mustard and precursors of sarin, have now been removed from the country after a monthslong process, a Hague-based watchdog agency said Monday. The announcement marks a diplomatic and logistical milestone. Never before has a country’s entire chemical arsenal been removed from its borders, and now the most lethal chemicals are set to be destroyed aboard a U.S. ship at sea. Still, some clouds hang over the announcement. Under a U.S.-Russian agreement reached last year, all 1,290 metric tons of chemicals were to be destroyed by June 30. With the final batch removed only Monday, that final destruction could take four additional months. Potentially more challenging for the international community are reports of recent chlorine attacks within Syria, which opposition forces blame on the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad government denies responsibility." More here.

China and the U.S. dance around the containment question.  Joseph Bosco for the National Interest: "…At each phase of the evolving rebalancing, Washington has strived to mollify Chinese concerns that it is pursuing a China containment policy rather than serving some broader purpose peaceful purpose-unwisely conceding the rhetorical point that the former is separate from, and inconsistent with, the latter. As the president said in Manila, ‘Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes.’ For years, US officials danced around the dragon in the room, avoiding mention of the powerful state that is violating those rules and norms and posing the second-most serious threat to Asian peace and security after North Korea, China’s dependent ally.  That has finally begun to change." More here.

A US Air Force F-35 Joint Strike Fighter caught fire when attempting to take off from a Florida Air Force base Monday morning. Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber and Aaron Mehta: "…The plane, which is assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, the unit that trains F-35 pilots for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and international militaries, experienced a fire in the aft end of the aircraft, according to an Air Force statement. The pilot successfully shut down the plane and escaped unharmed, an F-35 program spokeswoman said. The fire was extinguished with foam by a ground crew. Officials were assessing the damage and looking for the cause of the fire, the spokeswoman said." More 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

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.