Situation Report: What comes after Mullah Omar; billions in missiles to Saudi Arabia; new Russian hacking outfit; top general doesn’t love nuke deal with Iran; and lots more
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
By Paul McLeary and Adam Rawnsley
Ship without a rudder. It’s unclear exactly how much influence Mullah Omar exercised over the Taliban’s daily operations in recent years, but his role as a unifying figure for the often fractious group is undeniable. And with news of his death coming just days before critical peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban are set to begin, there are real questions over who speaks for the insurgent group and if the Taliban as we know it will survive.
Several names have been batted around as possible successors. His longtime confidant Akhtar Mohammed Mansour holds the top position, while another top aide Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and Omar’s son Yacub, are also reportedly in the running.
But what the announcement of Omar’s death means for the various restive factions within the Afghan Taliban is unclear. The insurgent group has always been a patchwork of small outfits held together in part by Omar’s will and personality. But in recent years we’ve also seen sharp disagreements between those who want to talk with Kabul, those who want to fight, and even those inclined to defect to the Islamic State.
Old school. Omar, in some ways, was a throwback to an earlier time in the insurgency game. While the Taliban have never had a problem relying on extreme violence and cruelty to get their point across, when compared to the daily atrocities Tweeted out by the Islamic State and Boko Haram, Omar and his cadres almost seem like they belong to another era.
FP’s Dan De Luce and Sean Naylor make the point that the Taliban chief — unlike the Islamic State’s leadership — has been willing to enter into negotiations with Western governments in order to achieve his political ends, unlike the new generation of militants who have no interest in peace talks or recognizing national boundaries.
But Omar’s apparent death comes just two days before a second round of face-to-face peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, making it unclear how his absence could affect the discussions. Some analysts have portrayed the Taliban chief as a hard-liner instinctively opposed to bargaining, and the Afghan president’s office expressed optimism that it would provide fresh momentum. We’ll see.
View from the top. During a long, and at times contentious, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey admitted some deep disagreements with the White House over Iran policy. One big argument the chief lost was over lifting sanctions on weapons and ballistic missile shipments to Iran as part of the nuclear deal reached earlier this month. He opposed it, but the provisions made it into the final agreement anyway. He also rejected President Barack Obama’s July 15 statement that, “Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East.” Dempsey flatly told Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) that “at no time did that come up in our conversation, nor did I make that comment.”
Jobs! On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Marine Gen. Joe Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Earlier this week, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva was also confirmed as Dunford’s vice chairman, and Gen. Darren McDew given the approval to take over from Selva as head of U.S. Transportation Command.
Good cop, bad cop. Turning to Russia — which Dunford and a host of other top U.S. military leaders have identified as the one “existential threat” facing the United States today — things remain difficult. President Obama recently praised President Vladimir Putin, thanking the Russian leader for his role in securing the Iran nuclear deal while voicing hope that cooperation could be replicated in other contentious areas like the conflict in Syria. But over at the U.N., that brief hint of goodwill appears to be disappearing fast.
On Wednesday, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, vetoed a Security Council resolution to establish a war crimes tribunal to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of last year’s July 17 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. FP’s Colum Lynch reports the veto was one of seven dropped by Russia since February 2011, including one earlier this month that would have condemned the 1995 mass killing of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs as a “crime of genocide.” So it goes.
Good morning again from the team here at the Situation Report. We’re always on the lookout for anything noteworthy or interesting to flag, so please pass any items along to email@example.com or send a shout or DM on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Publicly-released photos of Nigeria’s Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar’s tour of the 75 Strike Group at the country’s Yola military base confirm the country’s possession of an armed Chinese drone. The photos show Nigerian officers inspecting a Chinese CH-3 UCAV. The pictures buttress other photographs of crashed CH-3’s which have surfaced from areas where the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram is active.
Beware the Twitter eggs, those one-tweet accounts you come across on Twitter might not just be bots for hawking spam. According to a new report by cybersecurity firm FireEye, Russian hackers have been using them to command and control infected computers in government and the defense industry. According to FireEye, the Russian malware was programmed to check seemingly anonymous Twitter accounts, waiting for the account’s controllers to tweet out URLs containing images with hidden instructions.
“This tool is not widely deployed, so we believe that it’s used when other tactics won’t work,” Jen Weedon, manager of threat intelligence at FireEye, told FP’s Reid Standish. “But we’ve found it in areas of critical intelligence value.”
The business of defense
While U.S. Defense Department officials make promises to partner with Middle East allies nervous about the Iranian missile threat in their backyard, U.S. defense contractors are rushing in to ink multiple billion dollar deals to fill the gap. On Wednesday, the State Department announced a pending $5.4 billion deal with Saudi Arabia for a 600 new PAC-3 Patriot missile interceptors, which will bring the Saudi missiles up to date with the latest version of the Patriot.
The massive deal follows an April agreement with Riyadh for $2 billion worth of Patriots, and another $1.5 billion sale, announced this month, for Patriot interceptors in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon will produce the missiles.
It might not be the most exciting work, but it pays well. The Defense Department on Wednesday awarded a team led by Leidos Holdings Inc. a contract worth up to $4.3 billion to build a new electronic health record system for 9.6 million active duty troops, their families, and retirees.
The U.S. has spent nearly $500 million to train just 60 rebels from the Free Syrian Army to take on Islamic State. Now, just two weeks after they hit the ground in Turkey, the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra has kidnapped one of their leaders. Reuters reports that Nusra fighters captured Nadim al-Hassan, a leader from the “Division 30” group, north of Aleppo.
Israel reportedly carried out two separate strikes in Syria on Wednesday, according to local media. Assad-friendly outlets reported that the drone strike near Quneitra killed two Hezbollah commanders, along with three Syrian troops. In a second airstrike in that area, the Israeli Air Force reportedly targeted members of the Palestinian terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Following an explosion on board a ship off the coast of Virginia, the Navy is restricting the Raytheon’s Standard Missile-2 Block IIIA to “Wartime Use Only status” pending the outcome of an investigation of the incident which took place on board the USS The Sullivans.
Who’s where when
9:30 a.m. The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing to consider the nomination of Admiral John M. Richardson to be Chief of Naval Operations.
Benghazi in the lights
While the tragic 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi continues to rile Capitol Hill and dog the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, the story is about to take an odd new twist. Apparently, the director of such movies as Transformers, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Armageddon is getting ready to make a movie about the attacks. For some reason, Michael Bay will direct a movie about the Benghazi attacks based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book about the attacks 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi.
While this monster looks like the cousin of one of those incredibly awkward WWI-era tanks, it’s actually an armored personnel carrier used by Kurdish fighters in Kobani recently. It may be ugly, but it’s probably also pretty effective. At long as you don’t try and drive it off road.