FP’s Situation Report: Bergdahl charged with desertion; U.S. bombs try to turn the tide in Tikrit; Saudis hammer the Houthis in Yemen; and much more from around the world.
By David Francis with Sabine Muscat
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is charged with desertion. The decision, months in the making, comes after Bergdahl disappeared from his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He faces a loss of future pay and benefits and, more severely, up to a lifetime behind bars. President Barack Obama is exposed to renewed criticism for making the deal that freed him, swapping Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners. FP’s Kate Brannen: “Some of his fellow soldiers believe … his disappearance led to the deaths of troops who were killed in Afghanistan looking for him. The Defense Department has not confirmed those accusations.”
More on Bergdahl below.
U.S. bombs rain down on Tikrit. With the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shiite militias unable to take the city, U.S. planes began bombing Tikrit in an effort to wrest it back from the Islamic State. FP’s Elias Groll: “With the offensive stalled, the introduction of American airpower may tip the balance in favor of local forces on the ground.”
More on the Islamic State below.
Saudi Arabia hammers the Houthis in Yemen. As the country sank further into chaos Wednesday, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled by boat, and Foreign Minister Riad Yassin begged fellow Arab nations to strike to stop the Iranian-backed militia. Saudi Arabia did as asked. FP’s Yochi Dreazen and John Hudson: “Riyadh now has to decide whether the strikes should be designed to prevent the Houthi forces that have conquered most of Yemen from attempting to mount attacks inside the kingdom or to be part of a more expansive military campaign designed to dislodge or significantly degrade the Houthis.”
More on Yemen below.
Breaking late Wednesday, one pilot on the doomed Germanwings flight was locked out of the cockpit before the aircraft crashed into the French Alps. The New York Times’ Nicola Clark and Dan Bilefsky: “Speaking on the French radio station RTL, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Wednesday morning that terrorism was not a likely ‘hypothesis at the moment,’ but that no theories had been definitively excluded.”
PRESS PACK: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses Congress.
The New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg: “On Wednesday, Mr. Ghani’s final full day in Washington, it was congressional critics of the war, who have been put off by wasteful spending and Mr. Karzai’s tone, that the Afghan president sought to win over.”
FP’s Lara Jakes: “In a 53-minute address to the U.S. Congress on March 25 that was punctuated with repeated thanks to Americans and even a few laugh lines, Ghani described his poor and fragile country as at the heart of a new dawn of prosperity reaching through Central Asia.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge: “Afghan President Ashraf Ghani thanked the U.S. military for its sacrifices and U.S. taxpayers for their support.”
The Guardian’s Dan Roberts and Sune Engel Rasmussen: “The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has promised U.S. lawmakers his country will be able to pay for its own security forces within a decade.”
Welcome to Thursday’s edition of the Situation Report, we’re a little suspect about Sen. Ted Cruz’s country music conversion story.
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WHO’S WHERE WHEN TODAY
8:30 a.m. General John Allen, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 9:00 a.m. The Bipartisan Policy Center hosts a panel on “Fragility and Extremism in Yemen, Again.” 11:00 a.m. Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive officer of Afghanistan, speaks at the Heritage Foundation. 12:00 p.m. Ghani addresses the Council on Foreign Relations. 2:00 p.m. Abdullah speaks at the Brookings Institution.
WHAT’S MOVING MARKETS
Der Spiegel’s Christoph Pauly: “The European Central Bank is predicting that Spain will be one of the economic drivers of Europe in 2015. Powered by a cheap euro and low interest, economic growth is predicted to rise by 2.3 percent this year.”
Reuters’s Jan Strupczewski and George Georgiopoulos: “Greece failed in a bid on Wednesday to secure a quick cash payment from the euro zone rescue fund to help stave off potential bankruptcy next month, raising pressure on Athens to deliver a convincing reform program within days.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Tommy Stubbington: “The euro climbed against the dollar Wednesday, but it was unclear whether the rally will hold, given the currency markets’ recent run of unpredictable moves.”
The New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman on the Trans-Pacific Partnership: “ An ambitious 12-nation trade accord pushed by President Obama would allow foreign corporations to sue the United States government for actions that undermine their investment ‘expectations’ and hurts their business.”
BOWE BERGDAHL: The White House narrative falls apart. Bergdahl has yet to reunite with his parents, who attended a Rose Garden event with Obama.
The Daily Beast’s Nancy A. Youssef: “In the space of nine months, he went from being heralded at the White House to facing prison for life.”
The Christian Science Monitor’s Brad Knickerbocker: “Those following the story have found it odd that while Bergdahl has been in touch with his parents, he reportedly has yet to meet with them.”
AFGHANISTAN/PAKISTAN: While its leaders are in Washington, Afghanistan’s capital Kabul is struck by the second suicide attack in a week. Meanwhile, there’s fierce fighting for control of a Taliban stronghold.
The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan: “A suicide bomber killed seven people and wounded 36 during rush hour in the Afghan capital Wednesday, striking near the presidential palace and the Finance Ministry, officials said.”
The New York Times’ Ismail Khan: “Dozens of militants and Pakistani soldiers have died in fierce fighting as part of a new effort by the military to gain control of the Tirah Valley, a notorious militant sanctuary on the border with Afghanistan.”
YEMEN: Countries in the Middle East join the fight against the Houthis as U.S. secrets are exposed.
The Wall Street Journal’s Hakim Almasmari and Asa Fitch: “Five Persian Gulf states and Egypt have lined up to coordinate military action in Yemen against the country’s ruling Houthi militants after Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes there Thursday morning, escalating a conflict that threatens to draw in regional Shiite Muslim powerhouse Iran.”
The Associated Press’s Ken Dilanian: “Loud, house-shaking explosions could be heard in the Yemen capital of Sanaa and fire and smoke could be seen in the night sky.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Brian Bennett and Zaid al-Alayaa: “Secret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders.”
ISLAMIC STATE: The United States is in talks to free an American journalist as a new report shows the FBI lags behind post-9/11 anti-terrorism goals.
FP’s Elias Groll: “Many observers had speculated that Tice was being held by the Assad regime, and the news that the U.S. government may be able to formally negotiate to win his release could be a rare bit of good news involving American journalists captured in Syria.”
The Washington Post’s Adam Goldman: “The FBI has lagged behind in other key programs, such as analysis and the development of a deep roster of informants, the report said. The review looked at the FBI’s response to five high-profile terrorist plots since 2008 and said informants didn’t play any meaningful role.”
CUBA: The EU and Cuba aim to normalize relations by year-end.
Euronews’s Alasdair Sandford: “Also passing through Havana was Russia’s foreign minister, keen to show that Cuba’s reconciliation with the US does not affect Moscow’s relations with the ex-Soviet Union’s former Cold War ally.”
DRONES: The downside of unmanned planes? They expose U.S. operations.
The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock: “U.S. officials believe the drone was shot down [in Syria], but they haven’t ruled out mechanical failure. Regardless, the wreckage offered the first hard evidence of a U.S. confrontation with Assad’s forces.”
IRAN: Negotiations hit a snag as Washington hints at flexibility on the nuclear deadline and the consequences of failure begin to emerge. Meanwhile, Snowden documents support the claim Jerusalem spies on Washington.
The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon and Laurence Norman: “Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past.”
Reuters’s Louis Charbonneau: “The United States wants major powers to reach a detailed political understanding with Iran by March 31 to clear the path for a long-term nuclear accord, a senior U.S. official said, while hinting that Washington could be flexible on its format.”
The Washington Post’s Carol Morello: “The Iran nuclear talks resumed Thursday morning, the final round in a make-or-break moment with negotiators poised to either strike a historic deal or head home empty-handed.”
POLITICO’s Michael Crowley on U.S. worries “that a collapse of the nuclear talks could escalate tensions between Iran and the U.S., emboldening Iranian hardliners and potentially leading to attacks on Americans in Iraq.”
The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman: “Israel’s claim is not only incredible on its face. It is also squarely contradicted by top secret NSA documents, which state that Israel targets the U.S. government for invasive electronic surveillance, and does so more aggressively and threateningly than almost any other country in the world.”
AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST: Human rights group slams Hamas. Boko Haram continues to terrorize Nigeria, where the borders will be closed during upcoming elections. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is told to mend ties with Washington.
The Independent’s Ben Lynfield: “Amnesty International has published a damning report on Hamas’s conduct during last summer’s Gaza war, accusing it and other Palestinian armed groups of committing ‘war crimes’ by firing rockets and mortars into Israel.”
The Associated Press: “Boko Haram is using an unknown number of civilians as human shields as its fighters flee an offensive by multinational forces, a top Nigerian official said Wednesday.”
Al Jazeera: “Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has ordered the closure of the country’s land and sea borders ahead of this weekend’s general election, the interior ministry said Wednesday.”
The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren on Netanyahu: “As he accepted the mandate for a fourth term, the prime minister did not revisit the uproar over those remarks or directly address his pre-election disavowal of support for a Palestinian state, which together have drawn unrelenting criticism from President Obama and his aides.”
ASIA: North Korea’s scary arsenal of chemical weapons is often forgotten while the world talks about its nuclear activities. China is getting more serious about non-proliferation but not about enforcement.
The National Interest’s Kyle Mizokami: “For both practical and doctrinal reasons, North Korea will almost certainly use chemical weapons in wartime, from riot control to lethal nerve gases.”
Writing for the Diplomat, Ian J. Stewart: “While China’s commitments to non-proliferation measures have moved forward substantially in recent decades, its implementation of non-proliferation controls has been much slower.”
CHEMICAL WEAPONS: The Pentagon apologizes to troops exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq.
The New York Times’ C. J. Chivers: “Under Secretary Brad R. Carson acknowledged that the military had not followed its own policies for caring for troops exposed to old and abandoned chemical munitions that had been scattered around Iraq, and he vowed improvement.”
AND FINALLY, would you quit the richest boy band in history “to be a normal 22 year old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight”? This guy did (and this might be why your teenagers are in a mood this morning).