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: Dempsey says what other GOs are thinking; Ground forces already operate in Iraq; A Rochester man is indicted for supporting Islamic State; Ban Ki-moon: Fix this!; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel With apologies that technical difficulties beyond our control significantly delayed SitRep again today…  Marty Dempsey acknowledged publicly what senior military officers already thought but were afraid to say: it’s very possible ground troops will be necessary to fight the Islamic State. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

With apologies that technical difficulties beyond our control significantly delayed SitRep again today… 

Marty Dempsey acknowledged publicly what senior military officers already thought but were afraid to say: it’s very possible ground troops will be necessary to fight the Islamic State. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey raised the possibility that U.S. strategy against the IS might need to include traditional ground forces despite what President Obama has said flatly would not be the case. What Dempsey said is not a new idea, but it’s the first time anyone in uniform has said it publicly. Dempsey isn’t talking about tens of thousands of troops. But he was referring to the idea that in order to conduct effective airstrikes, it’s possible the U.S. would have to put its own advisers on the ground alongside Iraqis to "call in" those strikes to make sure they are effective. Dempsey said he supports the current strategy but in effect wants to give himself the flexibility to recommend using U.S. ground forces in a more operational role if the current strategy in which only Iraqi and other forces would be used – isn’t working.

The Pentagon’s Col. Ed Thomas, the spokesman for Dempsey, issued a clarifying statement later yesterday. Thomas: "[Dempsey] believes the current strategy to counter ISIL is appropriate.  Furthermore, he stressed that it must be the Iraqi’s fight.  While we have advisors on the ground in Iraq today, the Chairman doesn’t believe there is a military requirement for our advisors to accompany Iraqi forces into combat.  As he said in testimony, ‘If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the President.’  An example the Chairman gave was Joint Terminal Air Controllers calling in airstrikes for Iraqi forces. The context of this discussion was focused on how our forces advise the Iraqis and was not a discussion of employing US ground combat units in Iraq."

Meantime, the White House said not to expect boots on the ground anytime soon.  From the WSJ’s Julian Barnes: "…Following Gen. Dempsey’s comments, the White House reiterated its opposition to ground forces. WH press secretary Josh Earnest to reporters yesterday: "The president does not believe that it would be in the best interest of our national security to deploy American ground troops in a combat role in Iraq and Syria… He will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria."

"[Earnest] said Gen. Dempsey was supportive of Mr. Obama’s policy, which clearly rules out ground forces. Mr. Earnest added that Gen. Dempsey was responding to a question about a hypothetical situation." More from the WSJ here.

The reality is that there already are U.S. ground troops in Iraq. While they are being called "advisers" or "assessors," the roughly 1,600 U.S. forces in Iraq now have to be considered "ground forces." While they’re not conducting direct action operations against the Islamic State, they are armed, receiving danger pay and indeed operating in an extremely dangerous environment. What’s more, despite the enormous protections in place, if anything were to happen to any of those forces at the hands of the enemy, the President’s claim that he hasn’t committed ground forces to the effort in Iraq falls apart instantly in the eyes of the American public.

The Pentagon’s senior officers aren’t eager to enter a ground war. And as then Defense Secretary Bob Gates once said, the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms: contrary to popular belief among many Americans, the military doesn’t necessarily like fighting wars. But that military doesn’t like being hamstrung, either, in its execution of the mission it is given. Many inside the national security establishment, to include some inside the Pentagon, see a disconnect between the way the White House has framed its strategy and the reality of what it is up against. President Obama and his national security staff can use words and take actions that seem not to reflect whatever "best military advice" he may or may not be receiving.

When National Security Adviser Susan Rice spoke of captive soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s service, it seemed to show no one at the White House had bothered to check with the Pentagon before she spoke. Likewise, Obama’s use of the terms "destroy" in the context of beating the Islamic State, and his repeated "no boots on the ground" pledge seems to show a White House that is operating in a vacuum and potentially without the advice from the Pentagon. Indeed, ever since the "surge" debate for Afghanistan, the White House has  postured itself as pointedly independent from the Pentagon it oversees.

The "no boots on the ground" mantra is utter foolishness, writes Rick Russell of the Center for the National Interest. Russell’s BLUF in a new piece on War on the Rocks: "…In strategic reality, the "no boots on the ground" mantra will likely increase the odds for eventually dispatching a larger American ground force, at greater costs and risks, and into what is now one Syria-Iraq theatre. Without the threat and use of significant ground forces on both sides of the former Syria-Iraq border-especially in Kurdish territory and in Jordan-the Islamic State will press its advantages, push into more power vacuums, and spread its rule by Sharia, fear, and terror into more territory." Read the whole piece here.

The NYT Ed Board: the slippery slope begins: "There is no way to read this other than as a reversal from the firm commitment Mr. Obama made not to immerse the country in another endless ground war in the Middle East…

"It’s impossible to believe that General Dempsey was speaking just for himself, though administration officials said his remarks were not cleared by the White House. His initial comments were contained in written testimony, so they would have gone through a review process, at least by Pentagon officials, and scrubbed in advance for errors and misstatements." More here.

Tom Friedman: Everyone take a deep breath, please. The NYT’s Tom Friedman: "…An existential struggle is taking place in the Arab world today. But is it ours or is it theirs? Before we step up military action in Iraq and Syria, that’s the question that needs answering." More here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Situation Report. If you’d like to become 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, send it to us early for maximum tease. And the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4. 

To commemorate Sept. 11 the other day, there was this huge workout in the Pentagon courtyard. Folks got their CrossFit on and the "workout of the day" was featured on The video if you want to see it, here. Some Army stories on the event, here.

We know something of this – we belong to a gym at which we did a "Murph" on Sept. 11, named in honor of Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2005 who received a Medal of Honor posthumously. The Murph is a nutty cocktail of 300 air squats, 200 pushups and 100 pull-ups, bookended with two, one-mile runs. We did it with a partner in an unimpressive 50 minutes. More on Murphy here.

Who’s where when today – Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivers the keynote address at Air Force Association’s 2014 Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is in Newport, RI for the International Seapower Symposium, then he travels to Groton, CT for an Electric Boat visit… Naval War College President Rear Adm. P. Gardner Howe III delivers opening remarks and media availability following opening remarks for the International Seapower Symposium… Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall delivers the keynote address at the Air Force Association event at 10:30 a.m. at the Gaylord Hotel…

Fix this! UN’s Ban Ki-moon tells UN member states that the world is a mess and to do something about it. FP’s Colum Lynch, here. 

Afghanistan needs a bailout to the tune of $537 million. The WaPo’s Tim Craig: "Afghanistan’s central government is nearly broke and needs a $537 million bailout from the United States and other international donors within "five or six days" to continue paying its bills, a senior Afghan finance official said Tuesday. Crippled by a growing budget shortfall, the Afghan government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of easily accessible reserve funds this year, said Alhaj M. Aqa, the director general of the treasury at the Finance Ministry." More here.

Killed yesterday in Kabul were two Americans and a Polish citizen. Fox News here.

More on Iraq and Syria –

A Rochester, New York man – Mufid A. Elfgeeh – is accused of trying to support the Islamic State. NBC News: "Federal prosecutors Tuesday charged a Rochester, New York man with trying to recruit people to join the ISIS terror group overseas and to shoot people in the United States, including Shia Muslims and American military personnel returning from the Middle East. However, the man was under close investigation for the past several months, with undercover informants talking to him regularly. It appears he would not have been able to carry out his plans." More here. 

At least one U.S. citizen has traveled between the U.S. and Iraq Syria before committing a suicide bomb attack. The Washington Examiner’s Susan Crabtree, here.

The U.S. is getting ready to OK arms for Syrian rebels. AP early this morning, here.

President Obama met with John Allen, the retired four-star general who is now the "Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL." At the same meeting was Amb. Brett McGurk, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy at the White House yesterday. The WH’s readout, here.

Hagel’s opening statement before the SASC yesterday, here.

Air mobility crews have logged more than 1,000 sorties to support airstrikes in Iraq. Military Times’ Kristin Davis: "Air Mobility Command tankers have flown more than 1,000 missions in support of airstrikes against the Islamic State, AMC commander Gen. Darren McDew said Tuesday. That quiet support of a far more visible military campaign against the terrorist group that has swallowed up swaths of Iraq and Syria reminded McDew of an old acronym: NKAWTG. ‘Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas,’ McDew said at the annual Air Force Association conference outside Washington, D.C." More here.

Five things to know about the Islamic State’s military capabilities. Military Times’ Gina Harkins, here.

For the New York Review of Books, David Cole on Obama’s unauthorized war, here.

The Islamic State eyes Syria’s leftover chemical weapons. US News & World Report’s Paul Shinkman: "U.S. officials are concerned that secret stockpiles of chemical weapons remain within Bashar Assad’s arsenal despite international efforts to destroy them, and that they may have fallen into the hands of the Islamic State.

Laura Holgate, the National Security Council’s top officer for reducing mass destruction terrorism and threats: "We continue to have concerns about the discrepancies between our knowledge of the Syrian chemical weapons program and the declarations submitted by the Syrian government." Full story, here.

Al- Qaeda calls for its own coalition against Obama’s coalition. AFP’s story from Qatar: "Powerful Al-Qaeda branches in Yemen and North Africa called Tuesday for jihadists in Iraq and Syria to unite against the common threat from a US-led coalition." More here.

Jihadists are using rape as a weapon in Iraq and Syria – and Washington needs to pay attention. Aki Peritz and Tara Maller for FP: "…The Islamic State’s (IS) fighters are committing horrific sexual violence on a seemingly-industrial scale: For example, the United Nations last month estimated IS forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls, and boys into sexual slavery. Amnesty International released a blistering document noting that IS abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault and worse." Full article, here.

Opponents of arming the moderate rebels in Syria are homing in on a report that the Free Syrian Army agreed to a truce with the Islamic State, but opposition leaders say that’s just false. The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin with a story Sen. John McCain’s office touted yesterday: "Critics of President Obama’s latest pledge to arm the moderate Syrian rebels are trumpeting a report of a supposed deal between the opposition forces and ISIS, but Syrian opposition leaders are fighting back with what they say is overwhelming evidence that no truce exists." More here.

The Islamic State has extended into Southeast Asia, demonstrating its global capacity to inspire Islamist jihadists. Writing for UPI, Muir Analytics’ Jeff Moore: "IS isn’t just targeting the Middle East and the US. It’s aiming at Southeast Asia, too. Malaysian authorities recently stopped a major IS-influenced attack, and Indonesian and Philippine officials are scrambling to prevent their own growing flocks of IS-inspired terrorists from going on the rampage. IS is a global threat.
"…Not countering IS
‘out there’ before they ‘get here’ has been a colossal strategic miscalculation by the Obama administration… Instead, it was British PM David Cameron who, on August 29th, gave a rousing, leadership-drenched speech declaring that it was IS’s Islamist jihadi ideology that was the main threat to the UK. He then listed decisive steps to thwart it. In stark contrast, President Obama, even in his September 10th speech announcing strikes against IS in Iraq, continued to dance around this subject, pretending Islamist jihadi ideology is not an issue. It is a continuation of the Ostrich doctrine, which serves to protect no one." More here.

How a former Neo-Nazi party became Sweden’s third largest. FP’s Elias Groll, here.

Why can’t Turkey explain its foreign policy? Al-Monitor’s Tulin Daloglu, here.

The NYT’s Juliet Lapidos reports about M-16s on college campuses, here.

Meantime, what a White House visit means for Ukraine’s new president. The NYT’s Neil MacFarquhar in Ukraine: "Seeking elusive military and economic aid from the United States, President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine headed to North America on Tuesday, while also facing increasingly skeptical questions both here and abroad about the slow pace of change. A White House meeting with President Obama and an address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday are likely to generate fresh moral support, if little else, for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia." More here.

Ukraine’s moves reflect Moscow’s long shadow. The WSJ’s James Marson and Paul Sonne: "Ukraine sought to draw a line under its confrontation with Moscow by ratifying a landmark trade-and-political deal with the European Union and approving limited autonomy for territories now controlled by Russia-backed separatists. But with full implementation of the EU deal postponed under Russian pressure, and the rebels insisting on independence, the developments illustrated Kiev’s weakened position-almost a year after Moscow began flexing its muscle to keep the ex-Soviet republic in its orbit." More here.      

Click worthy: A video of Ukrainians throwing a former member of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions into a dumpster, on FP, here.

In a speech in Atlanta yesterday, Obama urged world powers to step up their response to Ebola. The NYT’s Helene Cooper in Atlanta: "Administration officials said they urgently needed strong responses from Britain and France, two countries that have colonial ties to the three hardest-hit African countries. Liberia was colonized by freed American slaves beginning in 1822; the British colonized Sierra Leone, and the French have longtime ties to Guinea." More here.

Can the U.S. Army degrade and destroy Ebola? Laurie Garrett for FP: "…On Sept. 10, I participated in a briefing on Ebola for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the request of Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. It was clear to me that Dempsey embraced the challenge of tackling Ebola, and recognized that the virus’s spread signaled the need for a swift response. But many issues now require rapid U.S. military reactions, not the least of which is the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East. Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs were struck by the unprecedented appeal for U.S. military engagement delivered by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French acronym, MSF)." The full piece, here.

Then in Central African Republic, AU peacekeepers are joining up with the UN. FP’s Siobhán O’Grady: "Twenty-one months and 5,000 deaths into a raging sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic, African Union peacekeepers turned in their green berets for blue helmets on Monday, marking the official takeover by the United Nations of the operation. Increased military and police support from the U.N. coincided with the United States’ decision to provide an additional $28 million in relief to the former French colony and reopen its embassy in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui. The embassy closed in December 2012 when then-President Francois Bozizé was ousted by the Muslim rebel group Séléka, which seized control of Bangui in March 2013." 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

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.