The Cable

Situation Report: Confusion in Iraq; the bin Laden data dump; losing the information war in the Mideast; and more

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson Remember earlier this week when the New York Times and the Washington Post — going on information provided by unnamed U.S. officials — told us that the Islamic State used the cover of a sandstorm to avoid coalition airstrikes while taking Ramadi? It was a unique and fascinating narrative. ...

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson

Remember earlier this week when the New York Times and the Washington Post — going on information provided by unnamed U.S. officials — told us that the Islamic State used the cover of a sandstorm to avoid coalition airstrikes while taking Ramadi?

It was a unique and fascinating narrative. Literally the fog of war. But now another official tells us it didn’t happen.

Briefing reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder abruptly changed course on that story, saying that there was only “minor dust and haze,” over the weekend in Ramadi that had “zero impact,” on coalition air operations.

In fact, stats released by the U.S. military show that the coalition launched 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in and around Ramadi on May 16 and 17 during the heaviest of the fighting, with no mention of sandstorms curtailing those operations.

Sandstorm or no, exhausted Iraqi troops who had been holding the city for more than a year finally broke when an estimated 30 car bombs ripped apart their leadership structure, and a wave of determined fighters surged at them.

War is complicated. It’s a chaotic, multilayered rush of events that despite our best efforts rarely follows a linear path. But the story being offered by American officials on what’s happening in Iraq has been changing so often, and so quickly, that it’s bordering on incredulity.

Earlier this month, for example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey and Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren offered diametrically opposed views of how critical the oil refinery at Baiji was to Iraqi security. That came after Dempsey downplayed the significance of Ramadi, only to have it now emerge as the major line of effort.

And just two days before Ramadi fell on May 17, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley gave an optimistic briefing to the press insisting that the Islamic State is “on the defensive” across Iraq, and that he expected Iraqi forces to soon push them out of Anbar capital.

But the fall of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra this week undercuts that, as does a far more dire assessment from a State Department official who told reporters Wednesday that “nobody is kidding themselves about what ISIL was able to pull off” in Ramadi. The official added that the Islamic State is “better in every respect” than the al Qaeda enemy that U.S. forces battled in Iraq over the last decade.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said relatively little publicly about Iraq, and has fielded even fewer questions. Three months into the job he has yet to appoint a spokesperson for his office to help coordinate the message. Would that smoothe over the competing narratives about the fluid fight in Iraq? Hard to say. And more voices on the ground are always a good thing. If the stories hold up.

Oh, and in Moscow: And while all this is happening, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is in Moscow for meetings with President Vladimir Putin to discuss security cooperation and potential arms deals. The U.S. announced Wednesday it will send one thousand anti-tank weapons to Iraq as soon as possible to help combat the captured military vehicles that Islamic State is turning into suicide bombs on wheels.

More than bathroom reading. Among other highbrow reads, Foreign Policy magazine was on Osama bin Laden’s bookshelf. On Wednesday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a trove of documents grabbed by the Navy SEALS who raided his Abbottabad compound in May 2011, and FP dove right in. Some highlights:

David Francis on Al Qaeda’s Blueprint For How To Start a Homegrown Terror Franchise

Benjamin Soloway on bin Laden’s Odd Religious Library

Siobhan O’Grady on Osama bin Laden Was a Francophile

David Francis again on Have What it Takes to be in Al Qaeda? Apply here

Francis just couldn’t get enough. Here he is on Osama bin Laden’s Letter to the American People

Welcome to a very special edition of the Situation Report where we celebrate the fact that it’s Thursday. A day out from a long weekend is all the reason we need, friends. Whatcha got? Let us know at paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary

The White House pushed back on a claim by North Korea on Wednesday that the hermit kingdom has developed the tech to miniaturize nuclear weapons, an important step in developing a nuclear missile. “Our assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities has not changed,” White House spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in an e-mail to FPs John Hudson. “We do not think that they have that capacity.”

FP’s Sean Naylor is down in Tampa at the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, which for SitRep’s money is hands down the most enjoyable defense conference of the year. (Think nightly booze cruises, Special Ops combat assault demonstrations in the canal next to the Tampa Convention Center, and dinners in Ybor City.) But there’s also business being conducted.

Naylor tells us that Army Brig. Gen. Kurt Crytzer, the deputy commanding general in charge of U.S. special operations forces in the Middle East, said the United States’ information campaign in the region is so weak that many Iraqi troops believe American forces are secretly supplying the Islamic State. “Our adversaries are constantly one step ahead of us in the IO realm,” said, using the acronym for information operations.

Who’s Where When

10:00 a.m. Cédric Schweizer, head of delegation in Yemen for the International Committee of the Red Cross, will speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

11:00 a.m Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily (@FailyLukman) is taking part in a Twitter Q&A hosted by Michael Hanna (@mwhanna1) – Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation.

Mali

French special forces have killed two key jihadi leaders, the Lebanon Daily Star reports. Four militants were killed, one of whom is “believed to have masterminded the kidnapping of two French journalists who were murdered in Mali in 2013.”

Asia

The U.S. and about 20 of its Asian allies are hashing out how to better integrate their amphibious forces on tactical deployments in the Pacific, Tim Kelly reports for Reuters. The meeting is the “first of its kind,” according to a senior U.S. official, who added that China was not invited to the party.

France

They may have Airbus, but they still want American planes. At least, that’s what Pierre Tran from Defense News reports. President Francois Hollande has announced a $4.2 billion increase in military spending between 2016 and 2019, which includes an extra $1.7 billion to acquire additional equipment, including the C-130 Hercules.

Middle East

Since early November, three Marine Corps tilt-rotor Ospreys and about two dozen Marines have been on constant standby in Kuwait in case a coalition warplane went down in Iraq or Afghanistan. And on 29 different occasions between November and April, the birds and grunts went airborne to loiter nearby in case something went wrong, for a total of 145 air missions. The team is part of a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response Central Command, Richard Whittle reports for Breaking Defense.

The Islamic State has gained control of Palmyra, witnesses told the BBC. The UNESCO heritage site has already been subject to heavy shelling from both Islamic State terrorists and pro-Assad militia.

Think Tanked

The Wilson Center’s Marina Ottaway has a new paper out: “Stark Choice in Iraq,” which argues that U.S. officials have been “deluding themselves that they can fight ISIS in Iraq without cooperating with the Shiite militias and Iran. The defeat in Ramadi proves them wrong. The goal of the new intervention in Iraq is to defeat ISIS. The United States needs to focus on that goal and work with the militias, or get out.”

Making Moves
Stephen C. Hedger has been nominated by the White House to be the next Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs. He has been serving as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs at the Department since April.

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