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: The Pentagon gets the first hint of Iraq assessment; Holder: a potential “global crisis;” Bergdahl to return to service; A deal in Kabul; The “viability” of SESes.; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel For the Pentagon, a big week when it comes to Iraq. The final version of a classified assessment of the Iraqi security forces by U.S. military personnel lands on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s desk this week. It will spell out in painful detail just how ineffective the Iraqi security ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

For the Pentagon, a big week when it comes to Iraq. The final version of a classified assessment of the Iraqi security forces by U.S. military personnel lands on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s desk this week. It will spell out in painful detail just how ineffective the Iraqi security forces will be in combatting determined Sunni militants even if Baghdad won’t likely fall. And although the U.S. military assessment is on the Iraqi forces, it will help provide some clarity in Washington about just how dire the situation in Iraq has become  – and how parlous sending U.S. advisers on the ground could be – as it triggers what will be a passionate debate on what to do now. The NYT’s Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon on Page One: "A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.

"The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month. Shiite militias fought American troops after the United States invaded Iraq and might again present a danger to American advisers. But without an American-led effort to rebuild Iraq’s security forces, there may be no hope of reducing the Iraqi government’s dependence on… Iranian-backed militias, officials caution."

One senior Obama administration official who has been briefed on the draft assessment: "It’s a mess." More here.

And Obama’s top lawyer reminded everybody over the weekend that the problems ‘over there’ in places like Syria could as easily be a problem right back here. Indeed, what is quietly animating administration anxiety is the long-held but now front-and-center fear that foreign fighters with American passports could bleed back into the U.S. with their violent, radical agendas. Then the problems that President Obama had sought to keep at arm’s length overseas become issues of security in the homeland. The WSJ’s Andrew Grossman: "Attorney General Eric Holder urged U.S. allies to toughen their strategy against the risk of Westerners traveling to fight in Syria’s civil war and returning home radicalized and ready to commit domestic terrorist attacks. That prospect amounts to ‘a global crisis,’ Mr. Holder said in Oslo on Tuesday…

"Many would-be fighters traveling to Syria now join groups focused on conflicts within Islam and the Middle East. But Western officials are concerned the anti-Western ideology of some militant organizations will ultimately inspire attacks against Europe and the U.S. In Milan on Tuesday, eight European nations agreed to enhance their surveillance of Europeans who have gone or could go to Syria to fight alongside extremist Islamic groups in the country’s bloody civil war." More here.

Can the Kurds prevent Maliki from sabotaging the country’s oil infrastructure? FP’s Keith Johnson: "Iraqi Kurds capped a week of steadily increasing tension with Baghdad by sending troops to seize oil fields near Kirkuk before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could take the extraordinary step of destroying some of his own country’s oil installations. The move raises the specter of armed conflict between the restive northern region and the central government and seemingly accelerates the very disintegration of Iraq that the United States seeks to avoid." More here.

Arab Sunnis must confront ISIS. Tariq Alhomayed for al-Awsat: "… Whoever wins this war, will win the region. What is happening today in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, with terrorist acts being carried out in these countries by Al-Qaeda, the Houthis, the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and Hezbollah, demonstrates that the region as a whole is facing a new battle in this prolonged conflict. This new phase of the conflict is completely different from the initial phase that immediately followed 9/11." More here.

At the White House, there’s a bandwidth issue as worlds collide. The WSJ’s Jay Solomon and Carol Lee: "A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous. The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s…" More here.

Is it time for Obama to return to a "team of rivals?" Below.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of Situation Report. If you’d like to be one of our subscribers, we’d love to have you. Sign up for Situation Report by sending 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, you, send it to us early for maximum tease. And the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

In Vienna, Kerry to hold talks with Iran’s top diplomat in a bid to reverse the crumbling nuclear talks. AP this morning: "…The scheduled talks come a day after Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany failed to reach a breakthrough on uranium enrichment and other issues standing in the way of a deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the end of nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran." More here.

The two Afghan candidates agree to a deal, brokered by Kerry, to hold a recount of millions of ballots. The WaPo’s Erin Cunningham: "Secretary of State John F. Kerry helped ease a major political crisis in Afghanistan on Saturday, persuading rival presidential candidates to agree to a full recount of votes cast in a runoff election marred by widespread fraud. Emerging from at least 20 hours of talks over two days, Kerry said that United Nations and international observers, along with observers from each campaign, will preside over the inspection of all 8 million ballots, which international troops will transfer to Kabul from Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The winner of the recount, which Kerry said could take ‘many weeks,’ will then form a national consensus government.

"…As the news conference concluded, Abdullah and Ghani raised their hands, then grabbed Kerry’s and raised his, too." More here.

 Despite the offensive, Gaza rockets continue to hit Israel. AP's Aaron Heller: "Israel says its punishing air assault on Hamas militants, their property and their weaponry has delivered a devastating blow to the Islamic militant group. Yet rocket fire at Israel has continued almost unabated. The military says that due to years of generous Iranian shipments, thousands of rockets remain in Gaza, and there is no quick way to eliminate the threat. It says its goal is to inflict so much pain on Hamas that it will be deterred from attacking Israel again - just like Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon have largely remained on the sidelines for the past eight years. 
 A senior military official involved in the fighting: "There is no knockout, it is more complicated... if there is a map of pain that the enemy sees, it will have to think about things." More here. 
 Thousands of Palestinians flee northern Gaza. AP's Karin Laub and Josef Federman from Gaza City: "Thousands of Palestinian residents of the northern Gaza Strip fled their homes on Sunday and sought safety in U.N. shelters, heeding warnings from the Israeli military about impending plans to bomb the area in the sixth day of an offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 160 people..." More here. 

What Hamas wants and what Israel needs by Brookings’ Natan Sachs for FP: "…But if we are interested in preventing the suffering rather than using it for political purposes, the real question is not whether Israel is stronger than Hamas (it is, and feels no need to apologize for that fact), nor whether Hamas spends its energy stoking terror (it does, and does not even claim otherwise) rather than on governing and developing Gaza. Faced with the terrible consequences of war, the real questions we face now are: How can this round of violence end? And what are the sides really after? More here.

The Houthis in Yemen: the new Hezbollah of the Arabian Peninsula? Yemen Post, here.

Yemen’s president fires two senior commanders, AP: "…The report late Saturday gave no reason for their removal. However, it comes after Shiite Hawthi rebels took the northeastern city of Amran last week. They had been fighting against conservative Sunnis from one of the country’s largest tribes backed by a local army unit." More here.

France wraps it up in Mali, redeploys its troops to the Sahel, AFP, here.

Really briefly noted: There was a time not long ago when, if North Korea launched two missiles, it would have made the front page. It just launched two short-range missiles in a test but barely justified full-length pieces. USA Today, here.

 Who's Where When - Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosts an honor cordon to welcome the Minister of State for Defense Affairs of Qatar Hamad bin Ali al Attiyah to the Pentagon at 11 a.m... Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno is at Fort Stewart with 3rd Infantry Division. 

Situation Report corrects – On Friday we noted that Hagel, a frequent swimmer, had given his Japanese counterpart underwater headphones. Of course it was the other way around, duh. Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera had given Hagel the headphones on his first trip to Japan. Apologies for the idiocy.

Bergdahl could return to active duty today. CNN’s Barbara Starr: "Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has finished undergoing therapy and counseling at an Army hospital in San Antonio and could return to active duty as early as Monday, a defense official tells CNN… An Army fact-finding investigation conducted in the months after his disappearance concluded he left his outpost deliberately and of his own free will, according to an official who was briefed on the report.

But there was no definitive conclusion Bergdahl was a deserter because that would require knowing his intent, something officials couldn’t learn without talking to him, a U.S. military official has said." More here.

 Russia vows to respond after shelling from Ukraine. Bloomberg's Daryna Krasnolutska and Olga Tanas: "Russia and Germany called for a resumption of Ukraine crisis talks as President Vladimir Putin's government condemned the shelling of its territory that left one person dead. Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed during a meeting in Rio de Janeiro yesterday that international representatives should meet as soon as possible, probably via video link, said Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president's spokesman. The so-called contact group on Ukraine should work to secure a cease-fire and a resumption of monitoring, he said." More here. 

A portrait of a rebel wedding in Ukraine by the NYT’s Sabrina Tavernise and Noah Sneider, here.

 The F-35 combat jet fails to take to the skies at Farnborough. From the BBC: "The F-35 combat jet, due to be used on the UK's new aircraft carriers, will not make its UK debut on the opening day of the Farnborough Airshow. However, it may still appear later in the week, organisers have said. Last week, the entire fleet of F-35s was grounded in the US following an engine fire. Plans for the jet to appear at the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford, Gloucestershire, last Friday were also cancelled. ‘The aircraft is still awaiting US DoD (Department of Defense) clearance but we are hopeful that it will fly at the airshow by the end of the week,' Farnborough organisers said in a statement." More here. 
 US industry and military leaders have unveiled a plan to cut costs in the F-35 program through investments in research and development. Defense News' Aaron Mehta, here. 

Defense News’ Intercepts blog (Mehta) spots a hint that four F-35B jets could make it to Farnborough, here.

US "bounces back" at Farnborough, on Breaking Defense, here.

 Watch Kirk Spitzer's interview with Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of U.S. Air Forces Pacific.  Gen. Carlisle is in Japan this week to sign a new bi-lateral air defense plan with Japan and to visit with American pilots and servicemen and women at U.S. bases across the Japanese archipelago. The timing couldn't be better: Carlisle says tensions and the threat of miscalculation in the Asia-Pacific region have never been higher - and the timing of defense budget cuts couldn't be worse. Full interview here. 

Building a better bullet: The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of "one shot, one kill" even more likely. TIME’s Mark Thompson, here.

Congress is asking some questions about civilian workers, including SESes and GSes who work at DoD. The WaPo’s Joe Davidson: "Federal senior executives may not have realized there’s a question about the existence of their elite crew. Yet, that’s the implication from the title of last week’s House hearing on ‘The Viability of the Senior Executive Service.’ … With some members of Congress thinking that senior executives are overpaid and overprotected, there is a question about the viability of the SES in its current form. Congress now is poised to kill or badly cut certain SES civil-service protections in the Department of Veterans Affairs. That might just be the opening act." Note that it’s not just SESes who are under scrutiny; tomorrow, there will be a hearing on "General Schedule" employees, too. More here.

Is it time for Obama to re-build a team of rivals? The WaPo’s Fred

Hiatt on the op-ed pages: "Maybe it is time for a shake-up.

President Obama’s second-term staffing was always going to be a risk. He abandoned his first term’s team of rivals for a closer-knit team of loyalists. The bet was that he was assured enough in the job to no longer need the in-house challenge – and that smooth-running consensus would compensate for the loss. The bet isn’t paying off. Overseas and at home, the administration seems besieged and befuddled. Obama is in danger of cementing an image of haplessness that would be hard to undo.

"In his first term, Obama surrounded himself with people with the independence and self-confidence to debate him and each other: his primary opponent Hillary Clinton at State; his predecessor’s defense secretary, Bob Gates, staying on at the Pentagon; the formidable Richard Holbrooke coordinating Afghanistan-Pakistan policy; a former four-star general, James Jones, as national security adviser; Leon Panetta and David Petraeus at the CIA… Will Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Obama’s pal from Senate days, or Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, his aide from the same era, question the president’s world view or tell him that fundamental change is needed, as Gates or Emanuel might have?…" More here.


Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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