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: Iranian drones over Iraq; Obama WH needs more accountability over their own drones; Hagel to meet with leaders; No RIMPAC for Thailand; There’s a new Baghdad Bob; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel  Drones from Iran have been secretly flying over Iraq. Iraq is bringing together strange bedfellows. Earlier this week, Syria’s Assad regime sent jet fighters to strike at Sunni militants wreaking havoc inside Iraq. Now, Iranian drones are flying overhead in Iraq alongside American drones, providing reconnaissance to counter the ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel 

Drones from Iran have been secretly flying over Iraq. Iraq is bringing together strange bedfellows. Earlier this week, Syria’s Assad regime sent jet fighters to strike at Sunni militants wreaking havoc inside Iraq. Now, Iranian drones are flying overhead in Iraq alongside American drones, providing reconnaissance to counter the threat from the Sunni group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, everybody’s new common enemy in what signals a clear widening of the conflict in Iraq. But it doesn’t yet mean anyone is standing closer together. The NYT’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt: " Iran is directing surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is supplying Iraqi forces with tons of military equipment and other supplies, according to American officials.

"The secret Iranian programs are a rare instance in which Iran and the United States share a near-term goal: countering the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Sunni militants who have seized towns and cities in a blitzkrieg across western and northern Iraq. But even as the two nations provide military support to the embattled government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, they are watching each other’s actions warily as they jostle for influence in the region. Senior American officials emphasized that the parallel efforts were not coordinated, and in an appearance at NATO headquarters here on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted some of the potential risks.

Meanwhile, who knew Iran even really had drones? FP’s Elias Groll: Iran’s first drone, the Mohajer, was developed by the country’s armed forces during the Iran-Iraq war to provide surveillance and intelligence. With Iranian forces sustaining heavy losses against their Iraqi opponents, the drone was developed to reduce casualties and prevent Iranian troops from walking into ambushes. The drone was at one point reportedly equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, which would make it one of the first weaponized drones. A variation of the early model reportedly is still in use. This 2012 video shows what is believed to be a Mohajer-variant operating in the skies over Syria. More on that here.

It feels like 2007. The tide of the Iraq war turned between 2006 and 2007 starting in western Iraq’s Anbar province when moderate Sunnis rose up against their militant brothers in al-Qaida. Now there’s talk of how to make that magic happen again and for a White House that likes diplomacy over kinetics, this is likely to set a tone over the next days and weeks. AP’s Lara Jakes and Sameer Yacoub, from Baghdad: "They were known as the Sahwa, or the Awakening Councils – Sunni militiamen who took extraordinary risks to side with U.S. troops in the fight against al-Qaida during the Iraq War…Now, the Obama administration is looking at the Sahwa, which still exist in smaller form, as a model for how to unite Sunni fighters against the rampant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that has swept across most of the nation’s north. Also known as the Sons of Iraq – "sahwa" is Arabic for "awakening" – U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency." More here.

There’s more on this theme from a new report for New America from Derek Harvey and Michael Pregent: "As the United States considers its options against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), we should start by reviewing our earlier war against ISIS’s previous incarnation, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and remember what worked and what did not. The air power and special operations that many in Washington are now discussing can be an important component of a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism campaign, but our history with AQI/ISIS shows that by themselves they are not sufficient to put an end to the threat." More here.

Shiite violence traps Sunnis in Baghdad. The NYT’s Alissa Rubin and Rod Nordland on Page One, here.

Tara Sonenshine, State’s former undersec for public diplomacy and public affairs, argues it’s time that Obama lowered the bar for success in Iraq. Sonenshine in Defense One, here.

The Iraqi ex-mayor who is trying to keep the peace in Iraq – from Virginia. The WaPo’s Greg Jaffe, here.

An industry insider tells the international Arabic paper Asharq Al-Awsat that Iraq’s oil infrastructure was subjected to repeated sabotage and theft in the months before the fall of Mosul. Read it here.

ISIS tries to grab its own Air Force. The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin: "The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is threatening to take control of Balad Airbase, Iraq’s largest airfield and one of America’s most important military outposts during its occupation of the country." More here.

Who’s rooting for Iran in Tel Aviv? The WSJ’s Joshua Mitnick, here.

Iraq’s Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta is the new "Baghdad Bob." We all remember Baghdad Bob from the days of the Iraq invasion of 2003 – the spokesman for the Iraqi government who confidently asserted facts that were counter to reality. Now, apparently, Iraq has a new spinner. The WaPo’s Loveday Morris: "Each afternoon, the meticulously groomed Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta stands in front of a cluster of microphones in a palatial meeting room in Baghdad’s Green Zone to update the nation on the latest military developments… However, it is a spin on the day’s developments that often starkly conflicts with reports from the field… A few days earlier, the loss of three border towns to militants, strengthening their run from Syria into Iraq, was framed as a ‘tactical’ withdrawal, in order to reinforce troops elsewhere. ‘Everything is going very well, and the leadership has full command and control,’ he declared." More here.

Welcome to Thursday’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.

Diving into the debate over security and privacy, the Supreme Court shields cell phone data. FP’s Shane Harris: "The Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that police officers need to obtain warrants before searching through the cellphones of people that they arrest, a potentially far-reaching decision that comes at a moment when courts across the United States are considering how to adapt laws on privacy to an age where staggering amounts of personal information reside on ever-growing numbers of electronic devices. The Supreme Court’s ruling pertains to criminal law and doesn’t affect the laws governing warrantless surveillance and data collection that have been at the heart of the controversy over intelligence-gathering by the National Security Agency.

"That may change, however, with the high court recently signaling that it may be prepared to reconsider the rules around that kind of data-gathering as well. More specifically, the court would likely examine whether so-called metadata, such as the phone records that the NSA has been routinely collecting for years, should be afforded greater legal protection against government search and seizure." More here.

Who’s Where When today ­- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is meeting with all his combatant commanders, like Gen. Lloyd Austin from Central Command, Phil Breedlove from European Command and Gen. David Rodriguez from Africa Command and others, as well as his service secretaries and chiefs for what was described as a "previously scheduled" Senior Leadership Council meeting. Pentagon pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday that the agenda will, "of course, be current events around the world, but they are also expected to discuss our global force posture going forward, budget issues, innovation concepts, and better business practices."

Also today, the White House will ask Congress for $60 billion to fund military operations in Afghanistan and other global contingencies. Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber: "…The Pentagon would receive about $58.5 billion through the 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) request. A separate $1.5 billion budget amendment is being requested for State Department contingency funding, according to a source with knowledge of the spending plan… The Defense Department and the State Department will also request $5 billion, part of a new counterterrorism fund, which President Barack Obama said he would include in the OCO budget during his commencement address at West Point in May. Of that, $4 billion would go toward DoD and $1 billion toward State. The spending plan that will go to Capitol Hill Thursday will include very few details about how DoD and State would spend that money, the source said." More here.

Former national security folks take a stern look at U.S. drone policy and issue a new major report from Stimson that calls for more accountability. A major Stimson Center report provided early to Situation Report looks at the concerning future of U.S. drone policy and war. A task force co-chaired by General John P. Abizaid (US Army, Ret.), former Commander of US Central Command, and Rosa Brooks, former Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, offers a response to Obama’s 2103 NDU speech, in which he pledged to "review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress."

Unlike other reports on drone warfare from human rights groups and others, this report comes from a number of heavy-hitters from the nat-sec community and may mean the Obama administration takes it all the more seriously.

While the report acknowledges the advantages drones offer the military, it explores the strategic and legal risks they create.  Of the seven recommendations, #1 is: "Conduct a rigorous strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of the role of lethal UAVs in targeted counterterrorism strikes to evaluate the impact of past UAV strikes on terrorist organizations, affected communities, public opinion, litigation, defense policy and government cooperation with allies and partner nations."

Rosa Brooks, on the report: "The rapid evolution of UAV technologies has enabled the US to engage in what amounts to a thirteen-year-long covert war, fought far away from traditional territorial battlefields and largely in secret. The Stimson Task Force found that the current US policy of using drones for such targeted killings is both strategically questionable and hard to square with our national commitment to the rule of law.

"On several occasions, President Obama has expressed a commitment to making America’s use of such targeted strikes more transparent and accountable, and to making sure US targeted strikes don’t end up inadvertently undermining our longterm national security goals. This report outlines a number of concrete, detailed recommendations designed to do just that — and there’s no time like the present!" The report launches with a 9:30 a.m. event today at the National Press Club. Deets here. 

The Arms Control Association releases a report on the Iran nuclear negotiations at a 10 a.m. briefing. Deets here.

Meantime, the Enough Project and Satellite Sentinel Project issue a report this morning on Sudan’s new army of war criminals: "One decade after Darfur’s Janjaweed militiamen earned global infamy as "devils on horseback," Sudan is experiencing a wave of atrocities at the hands of their new incarnation as an official military entity, the "Rapid Support Forces" (RSF). " The report, here.

Two VA officials step down as the White House struggles to right the ship and fix veteran care. The NYT’s Richard Oppel, here.

ICYMI: By a voice vote, the Pentagon’s Jamie Morin and Jess Wright were confirmed, Morin as director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office and Wright as head of the Pentagon’s personnel shop.

Also, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Jim Dobbins is in Afghanistan to meet with Afghan and "international stakeholders" in support of the troubled electoral process. From State: "Ambassador Dobbins will reiterate our position that the future of Afghanistan is for Afghans to determine. He will also note that we look forward to a productive relationship with President Karzai’s successor. Ambassador Dobbins will hold meetings with Afghan election authorities, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and a variety of Afghan officials and political leaders.

But in addition to the issues around the election, there is also a concerning security issue in southern Afghanistan. As we reported yesterday with the help of American University in Afghanistan’s Matt Trevithick and Dan Seckman, the Taliban is making some noise.

From today’s WSJ by Nathan Hodge and Habib Khan Totakhil: "…Much of the fighting, Afghan and coalition officials said, was concentrated in Sangin district, on the eastern edge of the province. Last summer, the Taliban pushed to take control of Sangin, taking over several police checkpoints before Afghan security forces recaptured them. ‘Based on the intelligence information we have, there are more than 1,000 fighters,’ said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior. ‘Taking over Sangin has become a matter of honor for them, and that’s why they keep launching large-scale attacks there.’ More here.

Meantime, wanna crack open a book at the beach this summer? Check the War on the Rock fiction list here. 

There’s also news from Asia, where the big military exercise RIMPAC begins today. But Thailand’s coup means that Evite to the exercise was recalled. William Cole for the Honolulu Star Advertiser: "Thailand is being refused participation in the big U.S. Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise following a May 22 military coup, the suspension of more than $4.7 million in U.S. security-related assistance, and cancellation of a military exercise and visits with the Southeast Asian nation, U.S. defense officials said. ‘Thailand will not be here for RIMPAC, and that was a decision that was made by (the State Department),’ U.S. Pacific Command said Wednesday. On Tuesday, Scot Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the coup and "post-coup repression" have "made it impossible for our relationship with Thailand to go on with ‘business as usual.’" More here.

22 nations, including China, are set to begin RIMPAC.  The Navy Times’ Lance Bacon: "The world’s largest multination naval exercise kicks off Thursday, and this year includes an unusual player: for the first time, the Chinese navy. China is dispatching four ships to the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise held around Hawaii, joining 22 other nations in maritime training slated to involve 47 ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 sailors, 3rd Fleet said in a news release in the run-up to the event. The Chinese inclusion recognizes their growing naval might and comes amid territorial disputes with neighbors and some recent run-ins between warships, including those of the U.S. Navy.

"China is sending 1,100 officers and sailors aboard the destroyer Haikou, frigate Yueyang, supply ship Qiandaohu and hospital ship Peace Ark, along with two helicopters, a commando unit and a diving squad, according to the nation’s official Xinhua news service." More here.

The Wall Street Journal has selected 100 legacies from World War I that continue to shape our lives today, here.

Bergdahl hasn’t admitted to any wrongdoing, but he hasn’t been questioned about his disappearance, Army officials said Wednesday. The Army put two officials out yesterday to update the press on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s situation. He continues to recover from his five years of captivity, and an investigation is underway. Stripes’ Chris Carroll: "…[But] Because the priority is recovery, he has not been questioned about the circumstances of his 2009 disappearance from a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, officials said." More here. But an unanswered question is what will happen to Bergdahl. Regardless of whether he is found to have deserted his unit and gets into hot water with the Army or not, what becomes of him after? Will he need security once he is free to begin living apart from the Army? Who would provide it? 

In Nigeria, villagers frustrated with the lack of protection from militants are forming their own militias. The WSJ’s Drew Hinshaw in Nigeria: "Many people in northern Nigeria, frustrated by a five-year insurgency and what they call a lack of military protection, are ordering what passes for bulletproof clothing, buying homemade muskets and organizing ragtag militias. The move toward self protection-born of years of suicide attacks, shooting rampages and mass abductions of girls and boys-underscores what limited headway the military has made against Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist insurgency whose war against the government has left more than 14,000 people dead in the past three years, according to New York’s Council on Foreign Relations." 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.

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