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: Pentagon to arm the Kurds; Are the pesh up to it?; Mayville: not trying to give anyone the wrong idea; AI accuses Obama Pentagon of war crimes in Afg.; Operation No Name; New DBB members; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold The Pentagon is going to arm the Kurdish peshmerga directly. The Obama administration on Monday made clear that U.S. airstrikes against the Islamist militants sweeping toward the capital of Iraq’s quasi-independent Kurdistan were meant to blunt their advance while giving the Kurds’ vaunted Peshmerga fighters, who have not easily dispatched with the ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

The Pentagon is going to arm the Kurdish peshmerga directly. The Obama administration on Monday made clear that U.S. airstrikes against the Islamist militants sweeping toward the capital of Iraq’s quasi-independent Kurdistan were meant to blunt their advance while giving the Kurds’ vaunted Peshmerga fighters, who have not easily dispatched with the Sunni guerillas, time to regroup. But as the Islamic State gains ground, the question is whether these storied Kurdish fighters are up to the task.

"…Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon would arm the Kurds directly — assistance they’ve been requesting since the Islamic State turned its sights on Kurdistan — with AK-47s, mortars, and ammunition. Before, all assistance flowed through Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. When the Sunni fighters overran the Iraqi security forces earlier this summer, the government troops abandoned much of their equipment, including U.S.-provided tanks. The Islamic State then seized it. A Pentagon official wouldn’t rule out providing anti-tank weapons and other materiel to the pesh. "The U.S. government is coordinating with the government of Iraq to help fill these [weapons] requests as quickly as possible," a State Department official told Situation Report in an email.

But at the same time, the Pentagon took pains yesterday to point out that the current airstrike operation over northern Iraq is only having a "very temporary" effect on ISIS. The airstrikes in and around Erbil and Sinjar Mountain have given ISIS pause – but hasn’t deterred them in any way, a senior defense official said yesterday. It’s hard to read between the lines of what the Pentagon is saying other than it’s calling a spade a spade. So arming the peshmerga at the same time sends a strong signal to Iraq that squares with what the administration has been saying: it’s on you.

Here’s the key quote from Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the Pentagon’s director of operations for the Joint Staff, who we don’t think has ever briefed before but who wasn’t so cautious that he wasn’t candid: "In no way do I want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by" the Islamic State, Mayville told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday. More here.

Is there a Kurdish comeback? For years the Kurdish peshmerga were seen as a premier fighting force, but pesh fighters seemed to fold over recent weeks when they were confronted by ISIS. That might be because they enjoyed a great reputation for years, but actually hadn’t fought hard in a decade, only to confront a "battle hardened" enemy in ISIS, which had been fighting next door in Syria, Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told Situation Report. "The conventional wisdom was outdated," Aliriza said of the Peshmerga’s reputation as unbeatable. "We were all looking at the Peshmerga as the brave fighters of the mountain, and now we have more evidence that they’ve folded."

Mohammad Salih for FP on the fight ahead for the pesh: "…Abdullah and other Kurdish commanders say that despite recent defeats, they can stop the Islamic State. The successful campaign to take back Makhmour and Gwer may signal that Kurds are able to push the militants back. The Peshmerga are especially counting on U.S. assistance these days. Their morale got a boost after U.S. F/A-18 aircraft bombed Islamic State positions on Friday, Aug. 8. Repeated U.S. airstrikes since have targeted Islamic State positions and convoys around Erbil and in western Nineveh. In parallel, Kurds have been strengthening their positions, and Kurdish reinforcements are coming in from across the region to help." More here.

The U.S. is almost flying 100 sorties over Iraq each day, Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio reports: "…The flights have averaged 90 a day since Aug. 9, including as many as 30 by Air Force refueling tankers, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing the data. The sorties are mostly, but not exclusively, over northern Iraq. Since Aug. 8, U.S. aircraft have been attacking mortar positions, mobile artillery, convoy vehicles and armored personnel carriers under President Barack Obama’s authorization for airstrikes against the militant Islamic State to protect religious minorities and American personnel in Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government." More here.

Remember when every little military mission had a name? This one ain’t got one. In the early days of the Iraq was in 2003, there was Operation This and Operation That, always kinda crazy names like Operation Iron Bullet or Desert Scorpion or Desert Spartan Scorpion or even Sidewinder, White House or Tapeworm. But despite days of airstrikes over northern Iraq, the U.S. military has not named this mission, we’re told. But when you name a problem, you begin to understand it, or so the thinking goes. Wiki-list of U.S. military operations since 2002 in Iraq, here.

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of Situation Report where the passing of Robin Williams makes the world a great bit sadder place today. Williams, unlike many other celebrities, was more than willing to entertain troops and to bring his great kind of crazy to warzones, and we’re just sorry for the loss and for the depth of his own sorrow that apparently brought him to this.

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.

The U.K. – America’s wingman when it comes to military affairs – faces pressure to enter the fray. The WaPo’s Griff Witte and Karla Adam: "British Prime Minister David Cameron was under growing domestic pressure Monday to join the U.S. military intervention in Iraq as his government said it would continue to limit its involvement to humanitarian aid. Cameron has been adamant that the British armed forces stay out of the fight in Iraq and allow the U.S. military to go it alone more than a decade after the United States and Britain jointly led the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

"But with reports of atrocities by Islamic State extremists continuing to emerge from northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the prime minister faced demands from both his political right and left Monday to recall Parliament from its summer recess and consider a military response to protect Iraqi minorities." More here.

So Washington wants Maliki totally out, but if he refuses to go, what now? FP’s Yochi Dreazen and John Hudson: "The Obama administration is welcoming the nomination of a new Iraqi prime minister while doing all it can to ease the current one out the door. With Nouri al-Maliki showing no signs of leaving, however, the White House will soon need to decide how hard it’s willing to push.

"On a day of high drama and deep uncertainty for both Baghdad and Washington, Iraqi President Fouad Massoum tapped Haider al-Abadi, a prominent Shiite politician who serves as the deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament, as the country’s prime minister-designate. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called Abadi to congratulate him and urge him to quickly form a new government of national unity. Obama said the United States was prepared to ramp up its military support for the battered Iraqi military if Abadi struck power-sharing deals with the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities." More here.

With a new prime minister-designate named, the political path is unclear for Maliki. Al Jazeera’s Tom Kutsch, here.

Is Maliki opening the gates of hell? National Iraqi News Agency: "The head of the Civic Democratic Alliance, Mithal al- Alusi described Maliki’s word last night as implementation for his threats to open the gates of hell. ??Alusi said in a statement to the National Iraqi News Agency / NINA / that ‘Maliki’s attack against the president of the republic and raise a formal complaint against him in the Federal Supreme Court is clear evidence that al-Maliki is carrying out his threat to open the gates of hell if he is not assigned for a third term.’ More here.

Iraq needs a new prime minister, by the NYT’s editorial board, here.

The Slippery Slope of military intervention, by Micah Zenko for FP: "…The expansion of humanitarian interventions — beyond what presidents initially claim will be the intended scope and time of military and diplomatic missions — is completely normal. What is remarkable is how congressional members, media commentators, and citizens are newly surprised each time that this happens. In the near term, humanitarian interventions often save more lives than they cost: The University of Pittsburgh’s Taylor Seybolt’s 2008 review of 17 U.S.-led interventions found that nine had succeeded in saving lives. But they also potentially contain tremendous downsides — as recent history demonstrates." More here.

HRC bluntly criticizes Obama’s forpol: Hillary is totally going there. Hillary Clinton did that interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic the other day in which she made clear she thought Obama’s failure overseas had contributed to the current forpol mess. Today the WaPo put on Page One a story that puts even more focus on the growing rift between the two Dems. The WaPo’s Juliet Eilperin: "… n the spring, President Obama articulated a philosophy for avoiding dangerous entaglements overseas that was modest in its ambitions and focused on avoiding mistakes. Don’t do stupid things, he said. Now Clinton is offering a blunt retort to that approach, telling an interviewer, ‘Great nations need organizing principles – and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.’" Clinton called that more political messaging than Obama’s worldview. More here.

Talks in Cairo continue as the truce in Gaza holds for a second day. For now. AP this hour: "…A similar, three-day truce collapsed on Friday when militants resumed rocket fire on Israel after the sides were unable to make any headway in the Egypt-hosted talks. Hamas is seeking an end to an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade of the Gaza Strip while Israel wants Hamas to disarm. The Israeli military said no incidents between the two sides were registered overnight – neither Hamas rocket fire at Israel nor Israeli strikes in Gaza." More here.

So where is the Palestinian Ghandi? Jeff Stein for Newsweek: "Amid every cycle of violence and revenge in Israel over the past 60 years came the cry: "Where’s the Palestinian Gandhi?" Not so much today. The answer has been blown away in the smoke and rubble of Gaza, where the idea of nonviolent protest seems as quaint as Peter, Paul and Mary. The Palestinians who preached nonviolence and led peaceful marches, boycotts, mass sit-downs and the like are mostly dead, in jail, marginalized or in exile." More here.

A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid moved out for eastern Ukraine, but Kiev said it would not allow the vehicles to pass. Reuters this hour: "…Kiev and Western governments warned Moscow against any attempt to turn the operation into a military intervention by stealth in a region facing a humanitarian crisis after four months of warfare.

…Russian media said the column of 280 trucks had left from near Moscow and it would take a couple of days for it to make the 1,000 km (620 mile) journey to Ukraine’s eastern regions where rebel fighters seek union with Russia. Western countries believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has whipped up nationalist fervor in Russia through the state-controlled media since annexing Crimea in March, might be spurred to fresh action since separatists in their main redoubt of Donetsk are now encircled by Kiev government forces." Read the rest here. 

The casualty report on the insider attack in Afghanistan that killed Maj. Gen. Harold Greene includes some details on the shooting. The WaPo’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff: "… One of Greene’s aides, a 31-year-old captain who volunteered for the deployment, was shot multiple times and is paralyzed below the waist. An Army major who has performed 11 years of service and was serving as a public affairs officer was also wounded. Married with two daughters, the major had completed four combat tours, three of them with an infantry unit. An Army captain and a Navy senior master chief were also injured." More here.

Killings rise in Pakistan as militants target police. The NYT’s Zia ur-Rehman and Declan Walsh: Karachi’s embattled police force recently passed a grim milestone – the killing of its 100th police officer this year, putting the force on track to exceed the 2013 toll of 166 police deaths, which was itself a record. Some killings stemmed from the factors that have roiled Karachi… for decades: ethnic politics, sectarian militancy and old-fashioned criminal gangs. But much of the toll came from the city’s newest force for violent chaos, the Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban have been steadily expanding in Karachi for two years, running extortion rackets, killing political rivals and carrying out audacious attacks on prominent targets, including the city airport in June. More here.

A retired Pakistani police officer says elected leaders in Pakistan have gone too far to accommodate the needs of security agencies battling militants. Read Tariq Khosa’s bit in Dawn, here.

Amnesty International accuses U.S. and NATO of abuses in Afghanistan. The Daily Beast’s Nico Hines under the headline, "Obama’s Pentagon Covered Up War Crimes in Afghanistan, [AI] Says." Read that bit here.

Philip Reiner started this week in his new gig. Reiner, who was a senior adviser at the National Security Council for Afghanistan and Pakistan, got a promotion and this week began in a new job as senior director for South Asia at the NSC. Reiner, to friends and colleagues: "First and foremost, I must thank my immediate teammates here at the NSC who continue to selflessly commit an inordinate amount of their lives to these complex and critical national security challenges… Thank you also to all of those who continue to slog away at this grueling problem set across departments and agencies, most particularly those out in the field every day, who together in the end are doing all we can to keep the homeland safe."

The Pentagon announced yesterday the appointment of eight new members to the Defense Business Board led by the board chair, Bobby Stein. The new members include: Taylor Glover, president and CEO, Turner Enterprises, Inc.; Nancy Killefer, former senior partner, McKinsey & Company, Inc.; Kenneth Klepper, former president and CEO, Medco Health Solutions; Shelly Lazarus, chairman emeritus, Ogilvy & Mather; Emil Michael, senior vice president of business, Uber Technologies, Inc.; Hon. Thomas Nides, managing director and vice chairman, Morgan Stanley; Nicholas Pinchuk, chairman and CEO, Snap-on Inc.; Daniel Werfel, director of public sector practice, The Boston Consulting Group. The DBB, the Pentagon said, is conducting a new study to provide recommendations on issues of science and technology, and will next meet Oct. 23. For current members, FYI, click 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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