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: Did Maliki get the memo?; U.S. troops begin their mission in Iraq; Thomas to JSOC, Votel to SOCOM, Campbell to Kabul; The gunshot wound at Arlington was self-inflicted; Fantasy, pills and sex in al Qaeda country; and a bit more.

  Did Maliki get the memo? In a speech in Iraq today, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for political unity just days after Secretary of State John Kerry told him Iraq needed a multisectarian government – one way or another. The WaPo’s Loveday Morris, this morning: "Striking a conciliatory but desperate tone in a ...



Did Maliki get the memo? In a speech in Iraq today, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for political unity just days after Secretary of State John Kerry told him Iraq needed a multisectarian government – one way or another. The WaPo’s Loveday Morris, this morning: "Striking a conciliatory but desperate tone in a televised address to the nation, Maliki urged political parties to lay aside their differences before the first session of Iraq’s newly elected parliament, expected to take place next week. ‘We desperately need a united national stance to defy terrorism,’ said Maliki, who is under pressure from the United States to reach out to those who oppose him.

"His speech, delivered two days after he met with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, contrasted sharply with his public declarations earlier in the crisis, which have appealed to religious motivations and called for citizens to protect the country’s Shiite Muslim shrines. It comes amid a period of intense political maneuvering in Baghdad that could result in Maliki’s loss of the premiership as the conflict convulsing his country intensifies." More here.

In the meantime, Syria’s Assad regime sent warplanes to strike Sunni militants inside Iraq – the very ones the U.S. will begin helping Iraq to hunt down – and underscoring the increasing blur of the border between Syria and Iraq. It’s also forcing the U.S. to confront more head on, not only the bloodshed in Iraq but, potentially, in Syria. But for now, the focus for the Pentagon is the troops heading into the new but uncertain mission in Iraq. FP’s Gordon Lubold: "American military advisors have started their ‘assessment’ mission in Iraq, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, the first step in what could be a sustained U.S. effort to help the battered Iraqi military beat back an onslaught by Islamist fighters. About 130 U.S. military personnel, including approximately 40 special operations troops already in Iraq, will work with Iraqi forces to establish a ‘Joint Operations Center’ in Baghdad. Together, they will assess Iraq’s current security capabilities and the situation on the ground now that Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham fighters have taken over large swaths of the country. Another four teams, for a total of 50 more troops, will soon arrive in Iraq. The White House has authorized as many as 300 troops for the Iraq mission but Pentagon officials said it’s not yet clear if that many will be needed there.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby yesterday: "These teams will assess the cohesiveness and readiness of Iraqi security forces, higher headquarters in Baghdad, and examine the most effective and efficient way to introduce follow-on advisors."

"…Although the troops will be armed, the White House stresses that they will not serve in a combat role. Airstrikes against ISIS have also not been ruled out. Eager to avoid stepping into the conflict inside Iraq that is fed by violence across the border in Syria, though, the troops’ assessment will at least partially determine whether airstrikes would be effective enough to justify the risk of a broader armed intervention into the region." More here.

Former commandos call Iraq a mission impossible for the American troops. The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel, here.

Losses to ISIS in Iraq spur the U.S. to rethink its Syria policy. After years of appearing to ignore Syria, and reluctant to enter into that conflict in any substantive way, the administration is now being forced to confront it. But the situation there is now far worse than it was and whatever the White House does it’s likely to draw more I-told-you-sos from critics of the administration’s non-intervention. The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum and Julian Barnes: "The Sunni militant advance in Iraq has reignited a debate in the Obama administration over its policy toward Syria, increasing pressure on the president to act more aggressively against a growing regional threat, according to current and former government officials. Some argue that any U.S. military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, in Iraq will fall short if it doesn’t hit the group’s major strongholds in neighboring Syria. ISIS now occupies territory on both sides of the border. Several compared the ability of militants to easily cross from their Syrian sanctuaries into Iraq to that of extremists based in Pakistan who stage attacks on U.S. interests in neighboring Afghanistan.

A senior defense official: "Syria and Iraq are largely a single problem… If we really get into this, you will have to look in to Syria to solve some of these problems."

Julie Smith, a former Biden national security advisor: "There’s no question that developments in Iraq are changing the nature of the debate… We’re in essence dealing with significant destabilization and the rise of a terrorist group that seems intent not only on taking on the leadership in Baghdad, but also playing a pretty terrifying terrorism role world-wide."

Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria: "I don’t see how you confront the Islamic State in Iraq and then stop at the border, especially when the border, de facto doesn’t really exist." More here.

Here’s some intel: ISIS is amassing weapons and cash. The WaPo’s Greg Miller: "The al-Qaeda-inspired insurgent group that has seized a string of cities in Iraq is rapidly gaining strength as it accumulates new weapons, fighters and cash, according to U.S. intelligence assessments disclosed Tuesday by a senior U.S. official. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ‘is the strongest it has been in several years’ because of recent gains in both those countries, the senior U.S. intelligence official said, an assessment that suggests the former al-Qaeda affiliate has rebuilt much of the capability it had at the height of the war in Iraq… The U.S. official said that American intelligence agencies had for months provided "strategic warning" that ISIS was growing in strength while the government in Baghdad appeared to be losing its grip on key cities but declined to provide further details." More here.

The Pentagon is sending a message to Iraq by dragging its boots. TIME’s Mark Thompson with that interesting angle, here.

The questions rebels use to tell the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. Alissa Rubin for the NYT, here.

Emma Sky in Foreign Affairs on who lost Iraq – and how to get it back: "Republicans and Democrats each share some of the blame for the situation in Iraq — the former for the way in which the United States enter
ed the country and the latter for the way in which it left. It was only between 2007 and 2009 that the United States had a coherent strategy in Iraq, matched with the right leadership and the necessary resources. The current turmoil dates back to just after that period, to 2010, after Iraq’s second post-Saddam national election."

"… The United States has a key role to play in helping broker a new deal among the elites that creates a better balance among Iraq’s communities. A new broad-based Iraqi government will need to win back the support of Sunnis against ISIS — and the Obama administration should be prepared to respond positively to requests for assistance to do so." 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.

Whycome is no one celebrating the fact that Syria’s declared nerve agent is gone? FP’s Colum Lynch this morning: "The world’s chemical weapons watchdog this week announced a landmark in the fight against weapons of mass destruction: Syria became the first country to voluntarily surrender its entire stockpile of declared chemical weapons agents in the midst of a civil war. So why, then, is the world so reluctant to call it a victory and move on? Even as they applauded the chemical weapons milestone, U.S. and European officials made it clear they would continue to closely monitor Syria’s chemical weapons program. ‘It should not be lost on anyone that our work is not finished,’ Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday." More here.

At long last, the Pentagon’s chemical weapons-eating ship jumps into action. The WaPo’s Dan Lamothe, here.

Who’s Where When today – Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is back from Afghanistan… Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet delivers remarks at the Atlantic Council Conference on "The U.S. Role in European Security" at 11:30 a.m… then Chollet testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee on "Libya at a Crossroads: A Faltering Transition" at 2 p.m… Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III hosts the Twilight Tattoo, "Salute to the Non-Commissioned Officer: Backbone of the Army" at 7 p.m., Summerall Field, Fort Myer, Va.

A new program to help an estimated 26,000 veterans access employment opportunities and free benefits services will kick off with the first of 65 upcoming events at the DAV RecruitMilitary All Veteran Career Fair at the Redskins’ FedEx Field June 26 at 11 a.m. Deets here.

Army Vice Chief of Staff J.C. Campbell is headed to Afghanistan and JSOC’s Votel to SOCOM and Tony Thomas is headed to JSOC. Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday three nominations of senior officers in moves that were widely anticipated but nonetheless now official. Campbell has been nom’ed to succeed Gen. Joe Dunford in Kabul, which means that despite the Afghanistan war winding down by the end of the year, the Pentagon will replace one four-star with another four-star. Although that move was expected, some star-watchers are surprised to see that the ISAF command needs a four star, but the ISAF billet likely requires it for now.  Campbell, widely respected and who has reasonably recent Afghanistan command experience, in the dangerous Regional Command-East, would probably get the nod from Congress.
Meantime, Lt. Gen. Joe Votel, now the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, has been nom’ed to become the new commander of Special Operations Command, replacing Adm. Bill McRaven, who himself had been commander of JSOC and has the Bin Laden raid under his belt. We’ve been told that McRaven was asked not to submit his retirement papers just yet, which means the White House might have further plans for one of the most famous Navy SEALs.

Hagel also announced that Adm. Bill Gortney, now the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, had been nominated to become head of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, replacing Gen. Charles Jacoby.

Also, Situation Report is told that Lt. Gen. Tony Thomas, who last year was the top special operations bubba in Afghanistan, will head to Joint Special Operations Command to replace Votel. We’re told it’s expected but also not a done deal – as things that have yet to be officially announced tend to be. Stay tuned.

This sad thing has apparently never happened before at Arlington. Army Times’ Jeff Schogol and Stephen Losey: "A man found dead of a gunshot wound Friday at Arlington National Cemetery has been identified as retired Air Force Col. Robert Stanton Terrill, 92, of Falls Church, Va. … Terrill’s neighbors confirmed that his late wife, Helen, who died in 2009, is buried at Arlington. The cemetery’s online grave finder lists Helen Terrill as being buried in Section 64, where Terrill was found dead." More here.

The Pentagon’s war budget to be submitted tomorrow, Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio and Holly Rosenkrantz report. "The White House will submit on Thursday its war-funding request for 2015, according to two officials." More here. 

Gee-Whiz: FP’s new Fragile States Index (it’s interactive!) Iran is up, America is down and North Korea ain’t as bad as you might think. A look at what the number of a country’s stability rating really means, here.

Lockheed wins a $1.9 billion deal for U.S. missile-warning satellites. Reuters with the scoop, here.

The bizarre tale of a former Green Beret known as "Lawrence of Afghanistan," a former Pentagon reporter for the WaPo, and pills, sex and the Taliban. An ABC news bit out yesterday tells the story of how Green Beret Jim Gant was relieved of command two years ago. ABC’s James Gordon Meek, Rhonda Schwartz and Brian Ross: "A legendary Special Forces commander was quietly forced to leave the U.S. Army after he admitted to a love affair with a Washington Post war correspondent, who quit her job to secretly live with him for almost a year in one of the most dangerous combat outposts in Afghanistan. U.S. Army Special Operations Command never publicly disclosed that highly-decorated Green Beret Major Jim Gant was relieved of command at the end of a harrowing 22 months in combat in March 2012.

"His commanders charged in confidential files that he had "indulged in a self-created fantasy world" of booze, pain pills
and sex in a tribal village deep in Taliban and al Qaeda country with his "wife," journalist Ann Scott Tyson."

"…But it was a long, hard fall for a visionary still called "Lawrence of Afghanistan" by two of the war’s now retired top commanders, Army Gen. David Petraeus and Navy SEAL Adm. Eric Olson, in honor of the British officer T.E. Lawrence who led the Arab Revolt a century ago. Gant, who idolizes Lawrence, said he’s honored by the comparison. Ann Scott Tyson and Jim Gant, who married last year, have come forward to tell their tale in her new book, ‘American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission And The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant.’ Read the rest here.

We’re told the Taliban carried out a big attack against government forces in Sangin province in Helmand, Afghanistan last night. From "SitRep reporters" Dan Seckman and Matt Trevithick, on the ground in Afghanistan, who wrote us this morning: "Hundreds of Taliban fighters swarmed government posts in the district capital, overrunning checkpoints, killing 24 Afghan Army soldiers and Afghan police officers, and causing more than 3,000 residents to flee, according to a statement from Abdul Qader Chopan, the provincial police spokesman. Government forces responded quickly, retaking all lost territory and killing just over 100 Taliban fighters within 24 hours.  Quick to allay fears, Chopan indicated this was local politics at work, not the return of the Taliban… Familiar territory to US Marines stationed in Helmand, the last of whom left the district just last month, Sangin was one of the bloodiest areas in the struggle to clear terrain from the Taliban in the south. More than 50 Marines were killed after taking over from the British in 2010.

Provincial police spokesman Chopan on the Taliban’s interest in overrunning checkpoints for weapons and equipment to Seckman: "This was about drugs and also their need for weapons." We’ll keep our eye out for more on this.

What the ISIS takeover in Iraq says about American policy in Afghanistan. Ryan Evans for War on the Rocks: "…As Obama and his national security team watch Iraq crumble, they would do well to reconsider their unconditional 2016 deadline. It would not be unreasonable for the United States to leave behind a small footprint of less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future to focus on counter-terrorism, security force assistance, and the continued provision of air support to the Afghan National Security Forces. Even after 2016, Washington needs to ensure that the Taliban does not give shelter and aid to terrorists with transnational ambitions. Indeed, this gets more urgent by the day as the group reclaims parts of Afghanistan’s rural south and east. For a number of reasons, a small but capable troop presence is the best means of doing this. It provides political leverage, deterrence, and a hammer. And as my friend Tom Lynch explains, there might be other benefits to having troops in the region." More here.

Hamid Karzai "hobbled the warlords, protected personal freedom and helped heal a shattered country," writes Mujib Masahal in a profile of Karzai for the Atlantic: "…He also winked at corruption and ruled like a tribal chief. His successor will inherit a country that’s in better shape than you might think-and a government with little power to keep it that way." More here.

"Literally bad English"We got an email from a SitRep reader who took issue with a modifier we should never have used yesterday in our story about Iraqi security forces: "Iraqi troops have literally melted away rather than fight…" The reader wrote: "I really like your writing, and your synopses of the issues, but no one actually ("literally") melted away, a la the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Overused/misused/abused word." We couldn’t agree more – not sure what we were thinking. Thanks for the smack.

National Journal’s Sara Sorcher is headed to the Christian Science Monitor.  Sorcher is going to the Christian Science Monitor (one of our former stomping grounds) to be the deputy editor of a new cybersecurity and technology section launching this fall. Sorcher: "I’ll be covering cyber from Washington and helping to shape this exciting new feature, which intersects with national security, business, economic and privacy issues…It’s been great working with you these past four years covering national security at National Journal. Thanks for all the news tips and feedback. I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me in August when I start my new beat." Congrats to Sara.

A federal judge rules that the no-fly list doesn’t fly. Reuters’ Dan Whitcomb: "The U.S. government’s no-fly list banning people accused of links to terrorism from commercial flights violates their constitutional rights because it gives them no meaningful way to contest that decision, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Anna Brown, ruling on a lawsuit filed in federal court in Oregon by 13 Muslim Americans who were branded with the no-fly status, ordered the government to come up with new procedures that allow people on the no-fly list to challenge that designation. ‘The court concludes international travel is not a mere convenience or luxury in this modern world. Indeed, for many international travel is a necessary aspect of liberties sacred to members of a free society,’ Brown wrote in her 65-page ruling." More here.

Check out the Texas air base where NATO fighter pilots are made. From Popular Mechanics: "With tensions rising in the Middle East and Russia, a global cadre of NATO pilots is once again poised on the edge of geopolitical hotspots. So, where do these fighter pilots come from? One answer: an internationally run training center in North Texas." Popular Mechanics’ Joe Pappalardo, 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.